Crucial Conversations QA

Can You Respect an Unrespectable Boss?

Dear Joseph,

You have previously written that, “Bosses will listen to anyone if they feel safe with them.” You’ve also said that one of the conditions for safety is that the boss feels respected. Here’s my problem: I DON’T respect my boss. Should I try to fake it?

Working for an Oaf

Dear Working for an Oaf,

You are asking a profound question and I will treat it with all the reverence it deserves. You are absolutely right that THE barrier to you creating safety with your boss is your own disrespect for him or her. What you may not realize is that your disrespect might be much more about you than it is about your boss.

Respect is a heck of a lot more fluid than we think. You made the statement, “I don’t respect my boss.” That makes it sounds as though your disrespect is a fixed fact—that it is the natural result of his or her attributes (he or she is dishonest) or behaviors (he or she picks his or her nose during meetings)—and is, therefore, out of your control. This is wrong.

Here is the principle: It is impossible to disrespect a whole person. The only way you can maintain disgust for another is to hold only his or her flaws in your mind—assiduously avoiding acknowledgement of his or her redeeming qualities. It is easy to despise the caricature of a person we concoct. But please notice it is you that concocts it. You do so by excising another’s back story, their good days, and their virtues, while fixating on their vices, bad choices, and weaknesses.

I saw profound evidence of this six months ago. I witnessed a remarkable shift in two people’s view of each other. One I will call Cathy—a prosecutor in a county attorney’s office. One day, a new case appeared on Cathy’s desk that made her smile. It was for a thirty-five-year-old repeat felon named Jason. During her years as a prosecutor, Cathy had had the “pleasure” of locking him up a number of times. She particularly enjoyed doing it because the first time she met Jason—seventeen years earlier—he had assaulted her. She was a policewoman at the time. When she encountered Jason, he was high on meth and became violent toward her. She told me, “I was horrified that day when I put my hand on my service revolver to withdraw it from the holster. The thought occurred to me, ‘I may have to kill him.’” She never forgot Jason. After becoming a prosecutor, she took every chance she got to lock him up for as long as she could. And she did a good job. Between ages eighteen and thirty-five, he spent thirteen years in prisons and jails. Cathy had decided Jason was a “dirt bag”—a hopeless career criminal.

For his part, Jason developed a clear impression of Cathy. If you’ll allow me to sanitize this a bit—he referred to her as “that witch.” When he would look across the courtroom and see her, he felt pure loathing. In his mind, she was a power-hungry jerk who took advantage of those with poor representation.

All of this changed in July 2014, when Jason and Cathy had an unexpected conversation. Different from previous occasions—when their conversation was constrained by legal posturing—it was just the two of them telling their stories. This time, Cathy listened. This time, Jason listened. Jason described life with a prostitute mother. Being molested by her customers. Joining a gang for refuge. Using drugs to anesthetize his aching mind. Learning violence as a survival skill. He confessed to his self-loathing and the deep shame he felt for the person he had become. Cathy was moved. For her part she described the trauma of his attack seventeen years earlier. She detailed the testimonies of his victims from over the years—and the feeling of obligation she had to defend their rights.

When Jason left that jail interview room, Cathy looked different. As Cathy drove from the jail, she had a sobering new view of Jason—a more complete view. While neither will join a bridge club together anytime soon, both had a new found respect for one another that came from demolishing the simplistic view that had sustained their mutual resentment.

Can you respect someone you don’t respect? Oh yes! But that cannot happen until you own the fact that your disrespect is just that—yours. You are sustaining it by maintaining a distorted story of the other person.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that you should put up with your boss’s dishonesty, incompetence, rudeness—or whatever the presenting problems are in your case. My only point is that you are in no position to take healthy action until you own your side of the problem. Once you can see your boss as a human being, worthy of civility and respect, you will be able to choose rather than react. Then you can decide how to take responsibility for your own needs. You have two options:

Set boundaries. You can have a crucial conversation with your boss in order to find a way to navigate his or her obvious flaws. Decide how to set boundaries that will allow you to work positively—and perhaps even influence your boss to become better.

Fire your boss. You may decide that setting boundaries to make things workable would require more energy than you are willing to invest. That could be a perfectly healthy decision. But if you have “mastered your story,” you will not blame your boss for your decision to leave. You will not waste energy after you leave trashing your boss to others. You will leave taking responsibility for your choice and seeing the boss as someone kind of like you—a human being with both beauty and flaws. You will know you have graduated from telling a Villain Story to telling a healthy one when, like Jason and Cathy, your moral certainty is replaced with curiosity, and your disgust gives way to compassion.

I find I am most understanding of others’ weaknesses when I am most aware of my own. I am most triggered by weaknesses in others that, at some fundamental level, reflect shame I feel toward myself. Disrespect is not inevitable. It is a fragile fiction we sustain with a story we tell.


P.S. For simplicity, I did not qualify my response to include figures of pure evil. I believe they exist. I do not respect them. But I think they are very few in number.

Kerrying On

Pablo, Where Are You?

Two weeks into my sophomore year of high school, I overheard a student speaking Spanish in the hallway. I was taking a Spanish class at the time and was aware of no student who actually spoke the language, so the sound of a trilled r caught my attention.

“I am here on exchange,” the stranger explained as I introduced myself. “I am called Pablo and I come from Mexico.”

And thus began a rather odd alliance. After making small talk for a few minutes, Pablo and I decided he would help me with Spanish and I would help him with English. We completed this feat by tutoring each other as we walked through the halls en route to several classes we shared.

One morning, as the school year drew to an end, Pablo said he had been talking to his father on the phone and they had a surprise for me. I was shocked—not because Pablo had a surprise for me, but because he had talked to his father. On the phone. All the way to Mexico. At the Patterson household we used long-distance services solely to report a birth or death. Even then, Dad would pace back and forth as the phone conversation unfolded and shout out numbers as if counting down a rocket launch.

“Did someone die?” I asked. “No,” Pablo explained “it was just one of our weekly chats.”

“Holly gazillionaire!” I thought to myself. “Who has international long-distance chats?” It was at this moment I first suspected that Pablo’s parents back in Mexico weren’t driving a dented 55 Chevy like the one parked in our driveway.

“As soon as this school year is over,” Pablo explained, “Papá said it would be okay for you to spend the month of July with us at our family’s hacienda in the mountains. We could continue our language education, plus it would be fun.”

“What the heck is a hacienda?” I wondered.

“I think you’ll like it there,” Pablo continued. “It has stables, tennis courts, swimming pools, boats, a private lake, a landing strip, and more. So what do you think?”

“I’ll have to ask my parents,” I explained as I tried not to look too eager while jumping up and down and squealing like a six-year-old girl.

“Good,” Pablo replied, “and while you’re talking to your parents, mention that Papá thinks it’s best if you pay for your own flight.”

Really? Would a pig be soaring alongside that flight? Because that’s what it would take to get my dad to buy me an airline ticket. And thus ended any hopes I had of spending a glorious month cavorting at a Mexican hacienda.

In an effort to save embarrassment (and not hurt Pablo’s feelings), I fabricated a conflict. “That’s the month of our big family reunion,” I lied. “Maybe you should invite somebody else from school.”

“But you’re my best friend,” Pablo said. “It would be more fun at the hacienda with my best friend.” I was his best friend? I had never even invited Pablo over to our house. We didn’t play poker on Friday nights. We didn’t hang out. We had only talked in the hall—and then mostly about grammar. We were acquaintances, at best.

I don’t remember what I said to Pablo that day as I tried to gracefully decline his generous invitation. I do remember wondering if Pablo had been lonely and I hadn’t even noticed. More importantly, what kind of a friend is someone who doesn’t even know he is a friend? Decades passed until one day our ten-year-old granddaughter Rachel once again brought to my attention the fact that making friends can be tricky. After returning with her family from a stint overseas, Rachel had entered school mid-semester and was having trouble finding a playmate. At lunch she would approach each clutch of girls her age and politely ask if she could play with them. Each said no. Rachel continued with this tactic for two weeks until she finally gave up. When my daughter told me about this, I felt sick. The image of a sweet little girl being rejected over and over tore at my heart.

“Teachers need to watch for that,” I thought, “or a kid could be scarred for life.”

“Schools aren’t staffed for that kind of monitoring,” explained my neighbor who was teaching school at the time. “Besides, you can’t force kids into friendships. They have to form naturally.”

My thoughts turned to these two events after hearing several news stories—all reporting that feelings of loneliness, isolation, and social discomfort are on the rise (and not merely with exchange students and late arrivers). Apparently electronic devices are making it difficult for some individuals to make human connections and to enjoy them once they do. Young people are particularly vulnerable. Since many of today’s youth spend a good portion of their time silently playing side-by-side at game consoles and then when they do talk, doing so via text, many are entering the workforce with an aversion to face-to-face (and group) interactions. According to one report, many Millennials appear as if they’d rather be texting their responses during a job interview than talking in person. Others are having trouble empathizing. Still others are feeling lonely.

Having watched what happened to Rachel a few years back, my own offspring are doing their best to combat the effects of both machine and human-based isolation. To begin with, they ensure that their kids belong to sports, music, academic, and/or special-interest groups where participants are required to (1) meet face-to-face, (2) talk, and (3) cooperate. Nothing else will do.

“Think about participating in band,” my daughter explained. “Band members know who they’ll sit with at lunch before they even show up at high school. That’s a big deal.”

I mentioned this to my fifteen-year-old neighbor and he eagerly responded, “I went to band practice the summer before high school and when I nervously walked through the high school doors the first day of school, I realized that I knew dozens of my classmates and had lots of friends! All in the band.” His brother explained that he had experienced something similarly comforting, only with the robot club.

Clubs and teams can be a great help in providing social experiences, but not without work. Make sure that as youngsters gather to build robots or shoot baskets, they also learn how to interact effectively. Blend music, sports, and science skills with tutoring in social skills. Blend physical fitness with training in social fitness. Watch to see if participants know how to carry their part of a conversation, work through differences of opinion, graciously include a new or shy member, talk comfortably in a group, and encourage teammates who are struggling. When you observe problems, teach solutions. For years we’ve helped young people study math, biology, and literature. What a blessing it would be if we started teaching them how to bond with peers, strengthen groups, and make life-long friends.

And Pablo (wherever you may be), do you still own that hacienda? I was just wondering.


Holding Crucial Conversations in Law Enforcement

By Charles “Chip” Huth
Captain, Kansas City Police Department

Police officers are frequently faced with challenging decisions that have the potential to dramatically impact the safety of the public and their fellow officers. They are trained to deal with some of the most stress-inducing circumstances imaginable, and a great deal is typically riding on how well they perform under pressure.

Among the most critical skills an officer must possess is the ability to artfully engage in high stakes conversations, both with members of the public and their colleagues. Police officers are confronted with the opportunity to courageously address serious issues that impact safety and effectiveness on a daily—and oftentimes—hourly basis.

Lacking the Skills

Years ago, as a newly promoted supervisor, I was assigned to lead a high-risk tactical operation. While briefing the team, I noticed a veteran officer about to embark on a dangerous auxiliary assignment who was not wearing his body armor. I immediately recognized his decision was in violation of department policy, was ill advised, and could have a disastrous impact on his safety and the safety of his teammates. I felt I should pull him aside and address the issue on the spot, but I was at a loss for how to approach him. Worried that I would bumble the conversation, I chose instead to ignore the situation and hope for the best.

While I recognized how potentially damaging my inaction could be, I simply lacked the necessary skills to guide me through what I knew would be a touchy discussion. When faced with the option of taking on this very important issue and risk appearing foolish or overbearing, or staying silent at great cost to the safety of all concerned, I lacked the confidence to make the right choice.

Unfortunately, in our business it’s not unusual for a police officer to witness a colleague doing something that is potentially career-ending—whether it be taking miscalculated risks or behaving disdainfully toward a citizen—and fail to address it directly.

Moment of Decision

Even in a profession ripe with examples of valor and bravery, there is often a moment of decision between recognizing that something important needs to be said, and having the ability to engage with others in constructive dialogue in the face of competing interests.

The thoughtful team at VitalSmarts has developed a comprehensive program that bridges that gap.

Importance of Training

Training in Crucial Conversations provides a helpful set of tools to police officers and supervisors who are faced with issues that challenge their commitment to acting for what is right. Effective communication is a life blood issue for any police agency; failure to engage in critical dialogue can erode trust, and systematically damage accountability.

The Crucial Conversations curriculum does an excellent job of exposing the reasons behind our failure to hold ourselves accountable for directly challenging issues on principle. Participants in the course learn the physiological and psychological mechanisms that help drive us to “silence” or “violence” when faced with perplexing issues. These intricate concepts are broken down and explained in simplistic and easy to digest language.

Applicable to Law Enforcement

Last month I had the opportunity to attend Crucial Conversations training. Immediately I recognized its validity for law enforcement.

During the training, we were taught how to look for Mutual Purpose when engaged in vital discussions. This act is imperative in law enforcement—a police department must gain both employee and stakeholder engagement to instill safety and security in the community.

In order for a police department to promote engagement, everyone must believe their opinions and ideas are respected and valued as relevant. I found the methodology presented in the training particularly helpful when one is seeking to disentangle the person from the problem—and remain objective and open to influence from alternative perspectives.

Taking Responsibility

One very important aspect of the training was personal accountability. The facilitator promoted this idea by encouraging us to take responsibility for holding these conversations—rather than expecting our superiors to handle the issue.

This practice is essential for law enforcement professionals, especially considering the autonomy of the average officer. Conversations around critical topics need to be handled at the lowest level possible due to the span of control in typical police organizations. Employees must feel empowered to take responsibility for seeking resolutions at the first opportunity.

To Better Serve the Community

Police officers are all about serving others. They are expected to model respectful and honorable behavior. This responsibility requires that they not only act honorably toward others, but also recognize opportunities to engage in critical dialogue to help others solve their problems.

Beyond learning to recognize the need to act (motivation), police officers must be equipped with a skill set to guide them along the path to action (ability).

The way in which police officers interact with and communicate with members of the public significantly affects the community’s prevailing opinion about the police. And certain critical interactions with the police—in life and death circumstances—occur in which poorly communicated intentions can lead to tragic results.

Training in Crucial Conversations skills provides a template to help drive accountability and communicate intentions and expectations in a way that invites cooperation, increases officer and community safety, and improves neighborhoods and communities.

Further comments from Crucial Conversations course facilitator Paul Luster:

A significant amount of peace officer training is anchored in principles of officer safety and street survival. Unfortunately, you do not have to watch any news broadcast for a significant amount of time to determine this training is not without great merit. Research has revealed that the daily pressure associated with high stress professions, such as law enforcement, can quickly lead to hypervigilance—a heightened startle response and abnormal awareness of environmental stimuli. Observing the world in this paradigm can often lead to a host of emotional and physical problems. When this occurs, a downward communications spiral is often observed. This not only affects peace officers professionally, but in their personal lives as well.

I have recognized this “downward spiral” in numerous co-workers as I have progressed through my own career. I realized department members were damaging relationships with citizens, peers, and loved ones simply because they lacked the skills to hold high stakes conversations in an effective and respectful manner. To put it simply, silence or violence was present in numerous conversations. I searched for a solution and found Crucial Conversations to be a perfect fit.

The response to Crucial Conversations has been overwhelming. Participants are excited to leave the training with a skill set specifically designed to allow high stakes conversations to occur in a manner that produces genuine results. Numerous participants have contacted me after attending the course indicating how well the skills work. They no longer resort to silence or violence, but rather utilize the skills to effectively share thoughts and opinions while encouraging others to do the same.

Paul Luster is operations supervisor at the Kansas City Police Crime Laboratory and also facilitates Crucial Conversations courses at the Kansas City Regional Police Academy.