Kerrying On

How to Nail a Difficult Social Script

The following article was first published on September 17, 2008.

The doorbell rang and Becca, my then seven-year-old daughter, skidded up to the door, opened it, and found her best friend Crystal standing there. “Can you come out and play?” Crystal asked.

“No!” Becca abruptly responded. And then our sweet, sensitive, and normally thoughtful daughter slammed the door in Crystal’s face. I was mortified. How could this have happened? When had Becca become so rude? I asked her what was going on.

“I’d like to play with Crystal,” Becca explained, “But Mom says I have to clean my room first.”

“Do you have any idea how Crystal felt when you slammed the door in her face?” I asked.

“No,” Becca said as she blinked her eyes in confusion. “Well, let’s go take a look.” I walked Becca upstairs and looked out the window where the two of us spotted Crystal walking back to her house with a gate and demeanor that said, “My best friend just rejected me.”

“It looks like she feels bad,” Becca commented.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“You just implied that you didn’t want to play with her and then you slammed the door in her face. That can hurt.”

“Oh,” Becca responded with a frown.

“What could you have done instead?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” Becca offered with a weak smile.

At first I thought Becca was trying to avoid a scolding by claiming ignorance, but I quickly realized that she wasn’t playing a game. She really didn’t have a clue. And why is that? Because as a member of the human species, Becca was born with a tabula rasa—or “blank slate.” Her brain didn’t come hard-wired with all sorts of knowledge. She certainly wasn’t born with the knowledge of how to handle a peer’s request to play with her when she already had conflicting orders from her mother.

Contrast my daughter’s blank slate with, say, your typical guppy. When baby guppies, or “fry,” are first born, they immediately swim to a piece of plant-life. Then they undulate next to the plant in perfect synchronization as the plant moves in the current. They disguise themselves in this manner because they are born to parents who don’t nurture and protect them, but rather hunt them down and eat them. The bad news: tough parenting. The good news: guppy parents imbue their offspring with knowledge before birth that serves them the rest of their lives. The second they are born, guppy fry know how to hide themselves, swim to perfection, feed themselves, etc.

Humans aren’t born with such instincts. This gives them the invaluable ability to make choices. However, this ability comes at a heavy cost. Humans’ tabula rasa makes them both ignorant and vulnerable. Humans aren’t born street-wise like the leery guppy.

In order to survive, human parents have to protect their young for a long time. In fact, humans are given what has been labeled an “extended” childhood. They are treated as tots for much longer than any other living creature. (And with the advent of the in-home theater, big-screen TV, and video games, human childhood now often extends into the 30s. But that’s another issue.)

I mention this whole tabula rasa deal because as a parent, I often expect my own children to know things that they have no way of knowing. Becca didn’t know the polite and effective way of saying “I can’t play right now.” She wasn’t born with this knowledge and she hadn’t learned that particular script from people she had observed. But for some reason, I expected her to know it. Fortunately, I caught myself before I chastised Becca and decided to teach her how to better handle the situation.

“Let’s role-play,” I suggested to Becca who looked back at me with suspicion. “I’ll go outside, ring the doorbell, and ask you to come out and play. What could you say to me that wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”

Once again Becca peered up and shyly admitted, “I don’t know.” I kept forgetting. Becca didn’t have this script in hand yet. I’d have to help her out a bit.

“How about this?” I suggest. “You say: ‘I’d like to play with you, but Mom says I have to clean my room first. Afterward I’ll come over and get you.’ This lets Crystal know that you’re excited to see her but have to do something first.”

I step outside and ring our doorbell. Becca opens the door and I cheerfully inquire, “Can you come out and play?”

Becca repeats back to me the exact words I told her. She’s on the right track. Unfortunately, she says the right words in a rather abrupt tone.

“Try it again,” I suggest. “This time, smile when you say it.” So she tries it again. “Now, this time, emphasize the word ‘like.’” She tries the interaction one more time and nails it.

I took a moment to teach my daughter a social-interaction script. I didn’t wait for her to pick it up from the street or awkwardly fashion one of her own. I didn’t talk about it in the abstract. Instead, I used what is known as deliberate practice. I suggested a specific set of actions and words. I live-modeled the actions. Becca then tried the actions on her own and I gave her immediate feedback. She tried again and I gave her more feedback. Only after she mastered the script—both words and delivery—did I stop.

Right now, tens of thousands of people are attending workshops and seminars that teach leadership, parenting, and other human-interaction skills. Participants frequently attend these courses with the expectation that they’ll learn how to better perform as a leader or parent. But most training participants will only be taught how to think like a leader or parent. There will be no scripts or practice. There will be no feedback. People attending traditional classes will learn theories, not master new behaviors.

Exclusively cognitive (as opposed to cognitive and behavioral) instructional methods continue to remain popular despite the fact that much of what should be taught is behavioral in nature. Leaders and parents do a lot of behaving, and just like my daughter who needed deliberate practice in order to master the door script, they require instructional methods to master the leadership and parental scripts they’ll need to survive.

Imagine if people took this attitude when learning how to figure skate. Suppose that you’re a gifted skater and a potential student asks you to coach her, but with the following request. “I want to learn how to be a master figure skater, but please don’t demonstrate what I need to do. If you do demonstrate, don’t ask me to watch. If you do ask me to watch you do something, don’t ask me to do it. If you do ask me to do it, don’t give me feedback. And finally, if you do give me feedback, wait a long time—and then make it vague.”

If you want to learn how to do something, you must observe prototypes, practice what you observed, receive detailed and clear feedback, practice again, and receive more feedback. Anything short of this and you’re tinkering, not learning.

So I got it right that morning with Becca. I recognized that she didn’t know how to handle the door script. She hadn’t been born with the idea firmly wired into her brain and after watching others in action, her tabula was still pretty rasa. I didn’t lecture Becca about what to do. Instead, we engaged in deliberate practice.

I wish I had done more of that—not that Becca didn’t grow into a sensitive and caring adult. She did. It’s just, I wonder what the world would be like if adults, parent, leaders, and training designers alike didn’t merely offer up heaps of generic advice or clever lectures on changing behaviors, but instead actually taught and coached effective behaviors? One can only imagine.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Approach a Suspected Thief

The following article was first published on January 23, 2008.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Someone stole money from me and I have a hunch it was a roommate. How would you approach this confrontation? Our relationship is neither strong nor bad, just fairly new.

I’m not sure how to ask her without making her feel unsafe. And I definitely can’t imagine her saying “yes” even if she really did take the money. What should I say?


Dear Baffled,

I sympathize with your situation. Something bad has happened. You can’t generate any plausible explanation other than theft. And yet, it’s hard to see this new roommate as a thief.

One of the hardest times to motivate yourself to speak up is when you aren’t whipped-up in righteous indignation. You doubt yourself and you don’t want to cause pain to a potentially innocent person. On the other hand, this is also the best time to speak up because you are in exactly the right frame of mind for real dialogue. You’re humble enough to be wrong and caring enough to worry about the impact of your approach.

Of course, what you do depends upon the strength of the story you’re currently telling yourself. So I’ll offer some advice for three scenarios. You choose which fits:

1. No evidence. The only reason you’re even thinking your roommate may have taken your money is by process of elimination. In other words, you don’t think she stole it but you can’t think of any other explanation.

In this circumstance you should bring up the missing money. Share the facts—not your story (that you wonder if your roommate stole it). If your roommate had nothing to do with it, this will help involve her in the search or alert her to problems that could continue to plague both of you. Simply say something like, “Last night, I had two $100 bills in my purse. I left it in the kitchen and this morning they were gone. Have you had anything come up missing recently?” If your roommate was involved, this conversation will either put her on notice that you’re aware of something fishy or lay the groundwork for a future, more direct, conversation. But, I don’t recommend this very vague approach if you have more reason to suspect your roommate.

2. A little more evidence but a lot of fear. You have a number of reasons to suspect her (e.g., she had two $100 bills when you went out to eat last night) but have reasons to believe a conversation would do more harm than good (she has a hot temper and carries a Taser).

In this situation, you’ve concluded that the potential upside of a conversation is not worth the downside risk of conflict. The big mistake people make in this situation is indecision. They waste time feeling resentful about reality rather than simply accepting their own assessment and making a hard choice to either a) adapt to the insecure environment by securing your valuables; or b) move. Get over it—if you’ve decided you aren’t going to speak up, accept responsibility for that choice and decide how you’ll deal with the future.

3. A little more evidence but nothing to lose. You have a number of reasons to suspect her and nothing to lose by trying the conversation. The worst that can happen is that she denies it, resents you, and you move out. The only difference from the second option is that you’ve opened up the possibility for her to acknowledge her actions and for you to come to some resolve. Here are some ideas for holding the conversation.

  • Don’t open your mouth until you’ve committed to Plan B. Decide what you’ll do if either she denies it and you’re still suspicious or she denies it and the relationship sours. If you’re prepared for this eventuality, you’ll feel a bit less stress in the conversation.
  • Begin with a sincere and emphatic apology. “I have a concern and I feel terrible about even bringing it up. But I know if I don’t, it will nag and bug me and get in the way of our relationship. May I talk with you about it?”
  • Take her carefully down your path to action. Carefully and non-judgmentally share your data. Take all the time you need and don’t skip any element of what feeds your concern. Then, very tentatively, share your conclusion. “The other night I had two $100 bills in my purse when I left it on the counter. I know I did because I opened my billfold to remove $5 for cab fare when I got home. The next morning it was gone. I racked my brains to think of what could have happened to it. Then when you and I went out to eat that night you had two $100 bills.”
  • Acknowledge your suspicion but be tentative. At this point she knows what you’re leading to. You must very quickly restore safety in two ways: 1) by letting her know you hate this conclusion—even though you worry about it; and 2) by letting her know if she made a mistake you can still respect her. “I know this sounds horrible for me to even ask. But can you see why I’d be wondering? Since I can’t come up with any other explanation about how it could be missing, I decided I needed to talk to you rather than leave it festering between us. And I want you to know if you did make a mistake, I’ve done so in my life too.”
  • Open the dialogue. Now it’s her turn. “Did you—for any reason—take the money from my purse?” Be prepared for her to be hurt and defensive. If she is, do not back down. Continue to ask her to help you reconcile the concerns while assuring her all you want to do is work it out.

This is tough, but the costs of not speaking up will be much higher than the risks of taking action now. Be humble and honest and you’ll have done all you can. Finally, if you decide to leave, do so quickly and graciously. When you refuse to let others paint you as a villain, you enable them to examine themselves rather than justify their transgressions using your vengeful response.

Best wishes,

Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting a Rude and Disrespectful Coworker

The following article was first published on December 18, 2012.

Dear Ron,

I am currently a medical director of emergency services at a small community hospital, and I have an ongoing problem physician who provides outstanding medical care but can’t keep his mouth shut. He offends nursing staff with his obnoxious, condescending, and judgmental comments, and his patient satisfaction scores are horrific, as you might imagine.

I have talked to him about this issue several times, as has the emergency department director at another hospital. I would rather help him improve than fire him and make him someone else’s problem. How can I confront this problem physician about his rude and disrespectful behavior?

Sympathetic Director

Dear Sympathetic,

I admire your concern for this “problem physician.” Too often we, as leaders, treat individuals as cogs in the machine—interchangeable parts to be hired and used. Sometimes we use them up, discard them, and hire some more. This is the danger of literally believing the label that people are only “human resources.” Your concern for the individual is an important starting point for solving this problem.

Another common mistake leaders make is to put our concern about individuals above all other people in the organization. We often hold on to problematic individuals or underperformers at the expense of fellow teammates. In your organization, these teammates might include the nursing staff, patients, and other doctors.

When we allow someone to stay in their position and it results in others being abused, team values being sacrificed, and work being inefficient, it’s not compassion, it’s negligence. The difficult challenge of leadership requires balancing our concern for all the stakeholders and working through their often conflicting needs.

At a minimum, direct reports deserve their leader’s honest evaluation of their work. They deserve targeted, behaviorally specific feedback, and improvement suggestions. Anything less shortchanges the individual and undercuts team and organizational effectiveness.

As leaders, we should also provide the resources and means to make the needed improvements. Many leaders assume the problem with poor performers is they lack motivation; therefore, the obvious way to fix the problem is to motivate their employees. However, motivation is only one of three possible causes of poor performance. It is also possible that the employee wants to perform but is unable to do so because of a lack of skills, knowledge, or resources. A third possible cause is a combination of motivation and ability—they are unable to do what’s required and don’t want to do it even if they could. To try and skill up the unmotivated is a waste of time and resources. To motivate the unable only creates depression, not progress.

You describe the physician’s behavior as “offensive, obnoxious, condescending, and judgmental.” You mention that you and others have talked to him several times with no discernible improvement. Has he expressed a willingness to change, then failed to improve? It might be an ability problem. Has he shrugged off your feedback and shown no interest in trying to change? If this is the case, he probably lacks motivation.

Going forward, here’s my recommendation. Have a crucial conversation with the physician. Don’t try to solve the most recent occurrence; rather, use it as an example of the pattern of behavior you want changed. Be specific. Be factual. Compare what you expected with what occurred. Note that you and others have had several talks with him about this subject, with no discernible improvement. Explain that it’s time to take action, then give him two choices. If he is willing to make a heartfelt effort to stop his hurtful behaviors, offer to give him your complete support. This assistance could include training, coaching, counseling, pairing him with a partner, frequent accountability, or feedback sessions to gauge progress and provide support.

If he is willing to try, set behaviorally specific objectives such as, “You will not call anyone in the hospital a ‘fat head.'” Identify how you will measure his progress—such as peer interviews, surveys, key observer reports—and set specific dates and deadlines to review progress as well as make modifications and changes. Set a final date by which he must demonstrate specific changes or explain that termination will result. Make sure all expectations are absolutely clear about deadlines, the behavior to be changed, and how it will be measured. You don’t require perfection, but you do require sustained, significant improvement. If he agrees, follow the plan.

If he does not agree to the development plan you propose and cannot propose an acceptable alternative, initiate the removal process. Allow no more delays or chances.

Responsible leaders care about their people—the one and the many. They don’t callously fire individuals, nor do they allow a single employee to disrespect, abuse, or negatively impact others. They don’t demand change without helping people have the means to change and reasonable time to do it. Responsible leaders give actionable feedback and recognize progress. And they follow through.

I wish you all the best in the difficult and worthwhile effort of leading and serving others.