Crucial Accountability QA

Rethinking an Open-Door Policy

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a coworker who abuses my open-door communication policy. Our offices are side-by-side, and we both benefit from this arrangement by discussing dilemmas and sorting through issues to prioritize our group’s efforts.

However, my coworker has a very reactive way of coping with an e-mail she does not like or a phone call from someone who disagrees with her. She will come rushing into my office to rant about this e-mail or that coworker, or this phone call or that situation. This happens five to six times a day! This behavior is distracting because she expects me to put aside what I’m working on to pay attention to her. She’s also thin-skinned, very volatile, and I suspect less than receptive to a conversation that centers on her negative behavior. Any suggestions?

Open-Door Abuse

Dear Open-Door,

This is an interesting question because it’s hard to say which issue you should address.

The first skill of crucial conversations is picking the right conversation. Your two options are:

1. Reset expectations. This one is fairly straightforward. The key is to make it about you and not the other person. This is you realizing you need a different boundary in order to be productive in your work—not blaming your coworker for interrupting you. If you set it up that way, there is minimal chance of defensiveness.
2. Address your coworker’s volatile behavior. There are two reasons to address this issue first. One reason is if you think—no matter how careful you are—you’ll be unable to focus on resetting expectations. If this is true, then you have to address your coworker’s volatile behavior first. The second reason is if it is more important to address her behavior than it is to reset expectations. When you use words like “volatile,” it sounds as though you may have been putting up with abuse for some time and even enabling her misbehavior by not asking for things you want or need in your work relationship. If this is true, you have to hold an entirely different crucial conversation.

If you decide to reset expectations, as I said, make it about you and your needs—not a criticism of your colleague. This is both true and easier to express without creating defensiveness. Go in with a specific proposal—not just a vague criticism. For example, you might simply say, “I’ve noticed that I go home many times feeling disappointed in how much I get done. I’ve realized that one reason is that I don’t focus. I am going to start creating “islands of focus” in my day—when I do not respond to e-mail, talk with colleagues, or schedule meetings. This will put a cramp in the spontaneous conversations we sometimes have, but I want to try this. Can I ask that from 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. you not tempt me with interesting topics?”

You’ll then need to maintain this agreement and give reminders if there are encroachments. If you don’t, then you will be colluding in undermining your own request. So be firm and consistent—odds are it will only take a couple of reminders and you’ll have a bit of solitude.

Confronting her behavior will be more difficult. I might be reading more into this than I should—but I’m inferring not just to volatility (i.e., she gets animated when expressing frustrations) but to hostility (she is defensive and rude when you confront her about concerns). If I am correct, you may want to hold her accountable on this issue. You may also want to give some thought to how you may be rewarding this pattern by allowing it to cause you to tiptoe around other behaviors that don’t work for you (like constant interruptions). Over time, a weakness like this can turn into a technique when those around her reward it too consistently.

If you decide to address this issue, once again, start with safety. When confronting a longstanding pattern that you’ve colluded in, a good way to do this is to acknowledge your part. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern that I’ve put off addressing for a long time. I realize the pattern we’ve fallen into is as much my fault as yours—as I’ve been staying silent and blaming you for my silence. I’d like to discuss the problem—including how I might be contributing to it—and find a way to work together that is acceptable to both me and you.”

From here, you’ll need to describe two or three examples of the pattern. Be careful, because each time you describe an instance, she’s likely to offer excuses for that instance. For example, you might say, “Last week when I pointed out misspellings on your PowerPoint slide you called me a loser. Then laughed and walked away.” If she then says, “I was joking!” You need to return her to the pattern. Say something like, “I realize there might be special reasons you said things in each circumstance I raise. And yet, what I’m asking you to notice it that there is a pattern—one that is unacceptable to me. If it happened just once, I wouldn’t be discussing this. This is something that happens regularly. Can you see that?”

This will be tricky, but the key is to maintain safety while being fully honest. You need to begin exercising a firmness you have not in the past. If you do, there is a good chance you can get closer to the kind of relationship that will work for you.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Give Unsolicited Advice

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

In my day job, I am a consultant. However, in the evenings I train with a very knowledgeable and inspiring martial arts instructor. I have never learned as much or been as happy working with someone.

However, his business management habits do not set him up for success. He doesn’t maintain his website; his school has several names and logos that change from reference to reference; and he doesn’t record when or if people pay him. There is evidence he and his family sometimes run out of money before the end of the month.

While he is friendly and open, I feel like our life experiences and difference in age (he’s my senior by twenty years) mean that he would take my attempt to help as butting in. I am also certain his way of doing things made sense once upon a time. How can I help him while remaining respectful of his experience?

Worried Student

A Dear Student,

Many crucial conversations are complicated by differences in age or social status—direct report to boss, child to parent, student to teacher, and junior to senior. These differences are complicated by our expectations as to what is appropriate communication and what is not, and frequently those expectations are not clearly defined.

In your situation, it sounds like there is a clear teacher/student relationship, but for you to assume the role of teaching your teacher is awkward. Furthermore, it seems that to you, the twenty-year difference in age creates unclear expectations.

The essential condition to create in your crucial conversation is Mutual Respect. From your description of the relationship, I can see that a great deal of respect already exists. Build on that respect and create new expectations by using a few simple skills.

Begin by asking for his permission to discuss a personal situation. You might say, “Sensei, may I talk with you about an important issue that doesn’t have anything to do with my training?” Asking for permission alerts your teacher that the topic you wish to discuss is outside your normal interactions. If he agrees to talk or wants to know the subject, introduce the topic of your conversation. “I’ve been blessed by your gifts to me and I want you to continue to give them to others. I have some ideas I’d like to share with you that will help the business side of your enterprise. May I discuss that with you?”

If he declines, contrast to share your good intentions. “I don’t want to presume to tell you how to run your business. That isn’t my place. I do want to share some ideas that will reduce your worries and help your business succeed into the future.”

If he says “no,” do not continue, but look for opportunities to talk this over in the future, after he has thought about your words.

If he expresses interest in your invitation, begin by using your STATE skills.

Share your facts. Factually describe what you have seen. For example, “I’ve noticed you receive payment from your students, but do not record when you receive them or when the payments are due.”

Tell your story. Tell him what you are assuming as a result. “I’m wondering if the business side of your work gets less attention and that maybe better tracking would give you more income.”

Ask for his point-of-view. “Am I seeing this correctly? Do you see it differently?”

Talk tentatively. Be clear that your purpose is not to challenge your friend. You are not trying to hurt, humiliate, or judge. Your purpose is to create enough Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose to make it safe for your teacher to consider your ideas.

Encourage testing. Your questions, “Am I seeing this correctly?” and “Do you see it differently?” test your stories and your perceptions. Perhaps you are missing something. You want to create mutual understanding, not convince or compel. Be open. Listen well and entertain the possibility that your view is not the whole truth.

Using these simple skills with the intent to help, not hurt, increases the likelihood that your teacher will hear you out and won’t be offended. If not during this single conversation, then over time as you respectfully and consistently communicate that you are trying to help him.

All the best,

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Able Arguers are Ten Times Happier than Silent Spouses

According to our new study on communication in relationships, couples who argue effectively are ten times more likely to have a happy relationship than those who sweep difficult issues under the rug.

And what are the most difficult topics couples usually avoid or harmfully debate? The study found that the three most difficult topics for couples to discuss are sex, finances, and irritating habits. Other interesting statistics include:

  • Four out of five say poor communication played a role in their last failed relationship and half cite poor communication as a significant cause of the failed relationship.
  • Fewer than one in five believe they are usually to blame when a conversation goes poorly.
  • Those who blame their partner for poor communication are more likely to be dissatisfied with the relationship.

Many couples operate under the myth that when they avoid discussing sensitive issues, they avoid an argument. And most couples mistakenly assume that avoiding an argument is ultimately a win for the relationship. However, what we don’t talk out, we eventually act out. In reality, it’s not how much you argue, but the way in which you debate sensitive issues that ultimately determines the success of your relationship. The good news is that with the right set of skills, crucial conversations can strengthen your relationship.

Here are five tips for effectively holding crucial conversations with your significant other:

  1. Manage your thoughts. Soften your judgments by asking yourself why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would do what your significant other is doing.
  2. Affirm before you complain. Don’t start by diving into the issue. Establish emotional safety by letting your significant other know you respect and care about him or her.
  3. Start with the facts. When you begin discussing the issue, strip out accusatory, judgmental, and inflammatory language.
  4. Be tentative but honest. Having laid out the facts, tell your significant other why you’re concerned—but don’t do it as an accusation, share it as an opinion.
  5. Invite dialogue. After sharing your concerns, encourage your significant other to share his or hers—even if he or she disagrees with you. If you are open to hearing your significant other’s point of view, he or she will be more open to yours.