Crucial Conversations QA

The ABCs of Reaching Agreement

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m the team leader of an increasingly dysfunctional team. Our tasks require a high degree of coordination and we often have to figure out what to do as we go. But we’re stuck in a pattern of arguing and disagreeing, and it derails our ability to get anything done.

Lately, our aggressive debates and defensiveness are dragging us down. Members seem to think it’s more important to be right and prove others wrong than it is to get our work done. Can you help?


Dear Despairing,

Sometimes in our teams and relationships, we slip into bad habits. It’s hard to trace how these problems developed, but it’s easy to see the negative and sometimes hurtful outcomes these problems cause.

I consulted with an executive team that seems similar to the team you describe. In one of the first meetings I attended, a director shared his ideas about solving a problem. “I think we ought to do options ‘J,’ ‘K,’ ‘L,’ and ‘M'” he said.

Another director aggressively jumped in, “I disagree!” he said. “We’d be fools to do ‘M,’ we’ve got to do ‘P,’ not ‘M.'” A heated argument ensued.

Afterward, I spoke with the disagreeing director. He agreed with the other director about proceeding with options ‘J,’ ‘K,’ and ‘L.'” It was only option ‘M’ that he disagreed with. Imagine that. He agreed with three fourths of the other’s view, but the first words out of his mouth were, “I disagree!” This is the verbal and emotional equivalent of picking up a shield and drawing a sword. This response almost guarantees a fight. I’ve seen this same mistake made in personal relationships as well.

What’s needed to change your team’s behavior is a focus on purpose and the teammates’ agreement to use a few skills:

Share the facts first. You might say something like this: “I’ve noticed we seem to have more arguments and disagreements that lead to blockages rather than progress. For example . . .” Then share several specific examples that are obvious to everyone.

Propose a Mutual Purpose. “I strongly suggest we all operate toward this Mutual Purpose: We achieve our team results in a respectful, efficient way.”

Define “respectful” as listening to each other, not labeling each other or each others’ ideas, and not interrupting each other. Give specific examples from recent team arguments. Such examples might include words like “stupid,” “unworkable,” and “ridiculous.”

Define “efficient” as letting details pass that are unimportant and not getting “hooked” into arguments or debates that are unproductive. Say, “Each of our comments and responses should take us closer to solving a problem or building a productive option.”

Explain that you shouldn’t expect perfection, but that you should actively make an effort to accomplish your Mutual Purpose.

Share the ABCs of response. These skills help teams create more productive behavioral patterns. Here’s how they work. When someone makes a statement, do not ignore the comment or respond with disagreement. Rather, respond with A, B, or C, as explained below.

The ABCs of Response

A- If you agree, say so. You might simply say, “Mike, I agree with you that . . .” If you agree with some of what was said, respond by identifying what you agree with. Consider the example used earlier of the disagreeing director. Instead of saying “I disagree,” he should have said, “Mike, I agree that we should do ‘J,’ ‘K,’ and ‘L.'”

B- If you agree and want to add to it, build on their idea. “I agree we ought to do ‘J,’ ‘K,’ ‘L,’ and ‘M.’ I also think we should do ‘R.'”

C- If you disagree with what was said, don’t attack, criticize, or disagree. Rather, compare your opinion. This is often best done by first paraphrasing the other person’s idea, then sharing your own. By laying both ideas side-by-side, everyone can compare and contrast the two ideas. For example, “Mike, you think we should do ‘J,’ ‘K,’ ‘L,’ and ‘M.’ Is that right? I think we should do ‘R,’ ‘S,’ ‘T,’ and ‘V.'”

By responding to comments with the ABCs of Response, you acknowledge others’ comments and minimize defensiveness. With ideas out in the open and treated with respect, people can now compare, contrast, and build to get to the best solutions and the most effective decisions. We are now creating a dialogue and using it to get results and strengthen relationships.

Using the skills of creating a Mutual Purpose and the ABCs of Response, the executive team I worked with had what the CEO referred to as “an amazing metamorphosis.” Within three meetings, with the CEO giving gentle reminders, the team became more disciplined and productive. Each team member reported the change as an improvement and said he or she did not want to go back to the former way of doing business.

As your team focuses on results in a way that strengthens relationships, you improve your effectiveness in the dialogue of today and pave the way for improving the dialogue of tomorrow.

All the best,

Sucess Story

Success Story: How Patty Loeffler and Her Family Lost 300 Pounds

When she first met her husband, Patty Loeffler was thin, active, and the picture of good health. But nine years into her marriage, Patty found herself 100 pounds overweight and a perpetual yo-yo dieter. She had joined and left Weight Watchers so many times that she was embarrassed to even consider going back. And yet, she knew she needed to make a big change. That’s why in 2012, she made the resolution to simply “get healthy”—and the timing couldn’t have been better.

In March 2012, Patty enlisted in Influencer Training by VitalSmarts. Already a Crucial Conversations certified trainer, she was excited to learn the Six Sources of Influence model for changing behavior. When prompted to identify a change challenge to which she could apply the model and principles, she selected her “get healthy” initiative. Shortly after, she received the newest book from VitalSmarts, Change Anything, which helped her further apply the Six Sources of Influence to her personal goals.

Patty started her “get healthy” change plan by identifying two vital behaviors that proved to be instrumental to her success:

1. Make a plan. Patty found planning to be essential. She not only planned her healthy meals, but also where she would go if and when she ate out. She learned where all the healthy restaurants and meals were in the city so she would never have to make a last-minute unhealthy choice.

2. Weigh daily. By weighing herself daily, she found that she could stay on top of her weight loss and most importantly, quickly get back on track if she started slipping.

Patty used all six sources of influence to help keep her vital behaviors, but she attributes the majority of her success to social motivation and ability. She says the social influence that was missing from her past diet attempts meant the difference between her success and the years of failure.

Patty recruited her husband and son to join her in her goal to get healthy. Like Patty, her husband also had a history of failed weight loss, and as a result, was pretty reticent to participate. But after Patty begged him, he agreed and they made a very serious commitment to each other that they would see the plan through to the end.

When Patty’s son came home from college that summer, she also recruited him to participate, and together the three found success in applying the model from Influencer and Change Anything. The Six Sources of Influence Patty identified to help keep her behaviors included:

Personal Motivation – Patty hung her skinniest jeans on her closet door which served as a daily reminder of what she looked like and how good she felt when she first met her husband. The jeans also reminded her that at the age of 53, her window of opportunity to change was closing as she may only face more health issues in the future.

Personal Ability – A key part of Patty’s plan included a nutrition program called Ideal You sponsored by her employer. At first, Patty was skeptical this would be just another failed diet plan, but this program taught her skills to control her diet with higher protein and lower carbohydrates and fats—skills she never learned before. There was also a phased approach which began by limiting her diet in the beginning and slowly adding in healthy foods as she learned to get her intake under control. The program also taught her effective strategies to maintain her weight loss.

Social Motivation and Ability – Patty and her husband faced every part of their weight loss journey together. They started by publicly announcing their diet at her daughter-in-law’s birthday party. This public proclamation lead to support from her entire extended family. Her husband also did most of the shopping under their approved dietary guidelines and they began exercising together and spent less of their time together watching TV or eating out at unhealthy restaurants.

Patty also garnered support at work. She teamed up with a few coworkers who also had a goal to get healthy and they spearheaded a transformation of their entire team. For example, they stopped bringing in unhealthy food to celebrate events and when they ate out together, they went to healthy restaurants. Patty’s family and friends never made her feel bad for wanting to choose healthy meal options. On the contrary, many actually thanked Patty for her example and motivating them to make their own healthy choices.

Patty also attributes much of her success in beginning an exercise regimen to the help of personal trainers who reintroduced her to exercise and how to do it effectively.

Structural Motivation – Instead of falling into old habits of rewarding herself with her favorite foods, Patty started going to the spa and treating herself to massages, manicures, and pedicures when she hit her weight loss goals. She was also really motivated to change by shopping for cute clothes she couldn’t fit into previously and the money she saved from giving up expensive and fattening fast food meals helped to offset the expense of a new wardrobe. Patty was also motivated to stick to her new diet because it was a plan she paid to be part of and she didn’t want to see that money go to waste.

Structural Ability – Early on, Patty decided to chart her weight loss. This strategy helped her to see her long-term success—which was a tremendous motivator during the weeks of plateau. She also changed her surroundings. She brought exercise equipment out of storage and placed it in her family room. She also got rid of all the junk food in the house. She even made changes at work. For the first time in her career, she began to use the on-site personal trainer and fitness center provided by her employer.

By using the change plan found in Change Anything, Patty shattered a long history of failure to lose weight. In just nine months, she lost an impressive 102 pounds. And, as it turns out, her weight loss impacted her life in even more immediate ways. After discovering a life-threatening illness months into her get healthy initiative, doctors told her that losing the weight was the best thing she could have done and possibly even slowed the progression of the disease thus allowing it to be discovered and treated at an early stage.

Patty wasn’t the only one who experienced such dramatic success. The social influences she learned about in Change Anything really made a difference not only for her but also for her husband and son. In the end, Patty’s husband lost 80 pounds and her son lost 100 pounds, proving that with the right plan, you really can change for good.

Crucial Accountability QA

Speaking Up about an Employee’s Body Odor

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was recently promoted to supervisor within a highly stressful telecommunications center. My entire team has complained about another employee’s personal hygiene and said that the offensive odor and unsanitary conditions of the employee’s workspace are so bad that it contributes to a hostile work environment. In the past, this was handled ineffectively and has now become a disciplinary situation.

I know I need to hold this conversation, but because it is such a sensitive issue and the employee is otherwise a spectacular employee, I am at a loss as to how to begin the conversation. Please help!

Dreading B.O. Conversation

Dear Dreading,

What do we do when someone’s behavior negatively affects others and they don’t seem to know it or can’t seem to change? In addition to body odor and cleanliness, this behavior could include things like inappropriate dress or language, too much small talk, and smoking in incorrect places. All of these behaviors create gaps—the difference between what is agreed upon or expected and what is actually happening. We can endure small, infrequent gaps and hope they go away, but when the gap is serious and when it is a pattern—as it is in your situation—what do you do? Here are a few strategies.

Clarify two kinds of expectations. The first expectation is reviewing or discussing expected behaviors and the reason behind them. When you are first promoted, or when there is a new team member or a new quarter, take the opportunity to meet and talk about the few expectations that will help your team work together effectively. This might include talking about past gaps that have hindered the team or the work. For example, you might want to talk about proper dress and grooming standards. The reason for this is that customers have expectations, managers and employees have expectations, and these expectations make it easier to work in close quarters as a team. I suggest that you never work on more than three or four behavioral expectations as a team—these should be important issues your team struggles with most.

The second expectation is really important: when someone sees a gap, talk about it. Ask each team member to agree that when someone falls short of expectations, those who see it will privately, politely, and professionally talk to him or her. You won’t get angry or gossip; you’ll talk. The reason is that when we don’t talk about a gap, we lower the standards of the company and we increase the probability someone will get offended, gossip will run rampant, and team morale will go down. As a team, identify gaps and solve concerns before they become real problems.

Give the person the benefit of the doubt. We teach people who face a gap to ask themselves, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” By asking that question, you avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions that can move you to make wrong diagnoses. It also prevents you from beginning your conversation in a way that says in essence, “I have held court in my head and found you guilty. Can we talk?” Such a beginning is not helpful and makes you part of the problem.

You want to start the conversation by sending the message that you are observant, inquisitive, and caring. You want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You do this by helping yourself understand that until you talk about it, you don’t know—you are only guessing. In your case, maybe the person has started taking a new medicine, or maybe his or her house burned down and he or she is living out of a car. You don’t know. Give yourself the opportunity to do a real diagnosis and to maintain the relationship.

Discuss gaps early. Identify the gap when it first appears, then find a safe time and a private place to talk. Over the years, we’ve talked about the skills for beginning an accountability conversation or “the hazardous half minute.” And we know that if you begin correctly, you are much more likely to find a solution. In Crucial Confrontations, we teach that you should first describe the difference between what is expected and what has been observed then end with a question. For example, if an employee came in late you could say, “I just want to clarify that working hours start at 8:00 and I noticed you came in today at 8:25. What happened?” You should say this in a way that is nonjudgmental.

If the person is wearing too much perfume or cologne, you might begin with, “One of the expectations we have is that we will work together in ways that makes it pleasant for others. I have noticed that your cologne is very noticeable, and I’m hoping you can wear less of it. Can we discuss this?” Let’s assume the person says “yes” and we have caught it early. If they disagree, that is another problem.

If you don’t discuss it early, the problem lingers. Coworkers gossip and don’t invite this person to lunch. Another employee calls the person names behind his or her back and one person lets a sarcastic comment fly. Now trust and respect have diminished. Gossip and hurt feelings have increased. Why? Because nobody spoke up early about the gap.

Trust the process. If you begin your conversation in a way that says you are not judging, and that you are observant and caring—both about the standards and about your colleague—you are well on your way.

In a private place, at a good time, after you have your head and heart in the right place, and if you had previously clarified expectations as I described above, you might say, “A few weeks ago, we all agreed to a dress and grooming standard that would help us serve our customers and work well together. This is a bit awkward for me to say, but I’ve noticed that when you come to work you have a body odor that is noticeable. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’d like to talk about what’s going on and what could be done to meet the expectations.” Your purpose is clear in your words and in your behavior.

If you didn’t have a clear expectation, you would substitute the first sentence by saying something like, “I think it’s important that everyone come to work in alignment with certain dress and grooming standards.” Notice what should not be said at this point. For example, don’t say that others have complained to you. Share that information only if the person says it’s just your opinion. Don’t use inflammatory words like stink, stench, or reek. And certainly don’t use the indirect approach by anonymously leaving a bar of soap on the person’s desk.

Over the years, as I’ve discussed the idea of bringing up a tough subject in front of large groups, I’ve asked participants to raise their hands if they have ever had to talk to someone about a “body odor” issue. Hundreds of hands have been raised, most often accompanied by audible sighs and shaking heads as people reflect on many bad experiences. Then I asked how many should have spoken up but didn’t. Many more hands go up and I can see many more negative reflections. You are not alone.

I hope this advice will help you feel more motivated and able to step up to the conversation and help an otherwise spectacular employee.

I wish you the best,