Crucial Conversations QA

Balancing Safety in a Group

Dear Joseph,

I work as a consultant with churches. I recently had a participant in a group who kept pushing her agenda. Her pressure was impeding the group’s progress. I gently told her she seemed unwilling to move her stake. I acknowledged that we all go there from time to time, then asked her to open up a bit. She was silent from then on. I approached her later to ask how she was doing. She said she felt hurt and shut down. She said I had singled her out and embarrassed her. I apologized, but also told her that when we have strong opinions, we sometimes fail to make space for other people’s ideas. I also asked her how I could have handled this better. She suggested that in the future I should not single someone out but speak to the group as a whole. To me that seems disingenuous.

What could I have done differently so I could serve the group without embarrassing an individual?

Facilitator’s Dilemma

Dear Facilitator’s Dilemma,

Your question gave me a flashback. I once had a chemistry professor try the tactic your participant suggested. A friend and I were cracking jokes during class in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. The professor abruptly stopped her lecture and said in an imperious voice, not unlike Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, “Horseplay during my lectures is rude and unacceptable!”

She knew whom she was addressing. We knew whom she was addressing. Everyone else knew whom she was calling out. In fact, they all turned to see our response. I’m sure my face was a deep scarlet color. I know my friend’s was.

I find specific feedback disguised as a general statement to be disingenuous, manipulative, and ineffective. These statements are disingenuous because you aren’t saying what you really think. They are manipulative because they are an attempt to moderate someone’s behavior without overtly acknowledging that motive. And they are often ineffective because they substitute monologue for dialogue and problem solving.

The real issue is that the woman felt embarrassed. And the real question is, how can you create conditions for candor while minimizing the likelihood of embarrassment while in a group?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Normalize mistakes. People don’t feel embarrassed because they make a mistake. They don’t even feel embarrassed about making a mistake publicly. Embarrassment comes not when we conclude we made a mistake, but when we believe we are a mistake. It is the belief that our identity and worth are threatened that provokes shame. You can help minimize this possibility by doing things early on in a discussion to normalize mistake-making. For example, if you’re facilitating a group where you suspect people will have strong and opposing opinions, you might start by saying, “I fully expect that we will have some vigorous debates. You are here because you have both influence and opinions. We need your opinions. We need you to advocate them as strongly as you feel them. Please do so! And we are also here to make a unified decision. What could get in the way of that?” Involve the group in a discussion about the behaviors that will impede group decision making; behaviors like villainizing others’ views, arguing without listening, etc. Having made this list, I would say something like, “Trust me—all of these are likely to happen in the next few hours. And that is okay. That is normal!”

2. Ask for permission. Coaching feels less provocative when it has been invited. Following your attempt to normalize mistakes, ask for permission to offer real-time coaching. For example, you could ask the group, “What would you like me to do when these behaviors happen—as they inevitably will?” Or, “May I have your permission to gently stop the discussion and offer coaching to you personally if it looks like you could use it?” I would then ask for a positive confirmation from each participant. People are less prone to defensiveness if feedback is given on their own terms. Research on perception of pain shows that if a patient chooses the timing of it, they perceive it as less painful than if it comes suddenly and unannounced. If this is true of physical pain, it is even more so of psychic pain.

3. Start small and soon. Finally, establish the norm of offering feedback quickly in your facilitation. Doing so lets the group know feedback is healthy and normal, not menacing and rare. It’s likely the woman in your group felt more offended because she was the only person called out—so the call out seemed intrusive. With all this said, defensiveness is a choice. You cannot keep people from making a choice to take things personally. Some people carry so much shame with them that even the most skillful facilitator can’t bypass their proclivity to personalize. However, you can make it easier on them if you’ll use these simple tools.

Good luck!

Crucial Conversations QA

Being At Odds with Your Spouse

Dear Emily,

Much of what is taught about crucial skills seems to work if both people have similar mindsets toward certain principles in life. But when two people are at odds, how can there be any resolution? My wife and I are not retired, but as we have been discussing how to allocate our retirement money, my wife is all for spending it soon. She has no interest in delaying enjoying the money now. She’s also convinced that she will not live to be the average age (she has no real health issues that would lead me to conclude that she will have anything less than a full life). I’m of the opinion that I don’t want to wake up when I am eighty-five and find that there is nothing left and I need to work. We cannot resolve this in any rational way and the emotional means are taking its toll on our relationship. Am I correct to say that crucial skills only work for some people?

At Loose Ends

Dear At Loose Ends,

“When two people are at odds, how can there be any resolution?” What a powerful, heartfelt question. As I read it, I thought of all the emotion, heartache, and heaviness contained in those three small words: taking its toll. I thought of the relationships that matter most to me and the dark times when I have been at odds with those I love. I felt a small measure of the pain that is often masked by frustration at these times. Thank you for your honest expression of doubt. Just how much can crucial skills really do? Just how far can they really take us? Just how much can they really heal our relationships?

My answer: as much as we will let them. Crucial skills can do as much, take us as far, and heal our relationships as much as we will let them. It’s not the skills that limit us. We limit ourselves.

Now, lest I sound naïve, I don’t want to imply that crucial skills are the panacea for all disagreement, despair, and destruction in our world. They are not. But I do know that far more often than not, it is not our lack of skill that precludes us from achieving resolution and results, it is our lack of heart. Allow me to share a brief example and then I will come back to your particular situation.

Several weeks ago, my friend, and fellow Master Trainer Justin Hale, shared with me a beautiful example of the power of crucial skills paired with an open heart. A trainer in one of his classes shared his experience with crucial skills. This man had first gone through Crucial Conversations before it was even Crucial Conversations! More than a decade ago, he had attended what was then called Path of Dialogue. There he had learned the timeless principles of starting with heart, creating safety, and sharing his meaning. He had put those skills to work in his own life. And yet, despite many successes with his crucial skills, he remained estranged from his family.

You see, this young man had been raised in a very conservative, Christian tradition and his family had not accepted him as the gay man that he is. For many years, their contact had been strained, pained, and minimal. Hearts on both sides of the relationship ached. This issue struck at the very core of who these people thought they were, what they valued most, and the principles on which they based their lives. It doesn’t get much deeper than that.

Finally the time came in which this man, this trainer of dialogue and crucial skills, knew that he wanted to heal his relationship with his family. So, with a tender, open, and I am sure aching heart, he reached out in love and skill to his brother. His efforts resulted in a conversation which literally took hours. Think about that. A conversation which took hours. A conversation which ripped at each brother’s heart. A conversation of pain and grief. This is a crucial conversation. It didn’t get resolved with a simple formula of STATEing my path and exploring yours, tossing in a contrasting statement here and there. It lasted hours and hours because two men wouldn’t give up—on the conversation or each other.

And in the end, this time, they found their way back to one another. They found a way to let brotherhood be more important than the forces keeping them apart. They found their way because they were able to talk and listen and hear.

Now, what I don’t want you to hear in this example is that you aren’t trying hard enough with your wife or that your heart isn’t good enough. That is not my message at all. My message is that extraordinary things can be accomplished with crucial skills. It is not that the use of crucial skills always accomplishes extraordinary things.

Crucial conversations are always easier when there is already a clear and easily defined Mutual Purpose. So, yes, of course it is easier to have crucial conversations with people of like mindset. But, if the skills only work when two people already agree or already share Mutual Purpose, then they would not have helped this man and his brother.

So, what does this mean for you and your wife? It means there is hope. It also means there is hard work still ahead. Here is the place I would suggest you start: you need to step out of the content and rebuild safety by establishing a Mutual Purpose. What does it mean to step out of the content? It means you must stop talking about allocating your retirement money. That’s right. The way to discuss this thorny issue of retirement money is to stop talking about it. Not forever. Just as long as it takes you to find Mutual Purpose. Think about it this way: if talking about allocation of retirement money is causing defensiveness and lack of safety, why would continuing to talk about retirement money help you rebuild safety?

So, now that you have stopped talking about retirement money, what do you do? You first commit to finding a Mutual Purpose and you do it out loud. Don’t just think it. Say it. And aim high. “I want to find a solution that doesn’t just work for both of us. I want to find a solution that strengthens us, builds us, and helps us love each other more. I want to find a way through this conversation that makes our relationship stronger than when we started.”

Once you have committed to finding Mutual Purpose, commit to understanding her purpose. That’s right. Start by listening—really listening. You’ll get your chance to share your purpose, thoughts, feelings, and fears. You will. And, I promise that if you commit to hearing her perspective first, you will build safety in new and profound ways. In fact, sometimes when Mutual Purpose is hardest to find, listening to the other person is the best Mutual Purpose to have. What does that mean? It means that in a conversation, your wife’s purpose is to be heard, and to have you listen and understand. So, if your purpose in the conversation is to hear her, to listen and to understand (not necessarily agree, but simply understand and affirm), then that is a Mutual Purpose right there. And that can often be all you need to get started.

Best of Luck,

Influencer QA

How to Change a Friend’s Behavior

Dear Steve,

How do I convince a colleague that her preconceived assumptions are producing the negative responses she expects? When we travel together, she assumes people in the travel and service industries are incompetent and unmotivated. She believes that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and that airlines, taxi companies, restaurants, etc., are more interested in taking her money than providing a quality service. As a result, people in these service roles spend more time defending themselves than helping my colleague find a quick solution to her perceived “problem.”

I have tried to demonstrate that a more amiable and collaborative approach will elicit a much more satisfactory response, however she doesn’t seem to “get it.” Travel is becoming more difficult and I no longer wish to be associated with her. Is there anything you suggest I do to prove to my colleague that changing her beliefs about others will bring about more positive responses from them?

Best Regards,
Travels with Negativity

Dear Travels,

Thank you for asking an excellent question. It’s difficult to get a person to dismiss the evidence they’ve accumulated—especially when they’ve built it up over a long period of time. Two strategies come to mind that I hope will be useful to you as you approach this dilemma.

Just Try It. One of the first principles in motivating someone to change their behavior is to have him or her gain direct experience and/or generate different data. While this might sound complicated, it can be as simple as conducting an experiment.

In this case, suggest that your travel partner try the following:
1. Smile as she approaches the customer service representative.
2. Greet the person with, “Hi. How are you?”
3. Then, end the interaction with something like, “Thank you for your help on this.”

Your role then becomes to make sure that she’s adhering to a scientific method. Jointly decide on outcomes to track such as overall time to fulfill a request, number or length of delays experienced, and her own level of frustration on a scale from one to five. The principle here is to track data that can be easily captured on a three-by-five card and that would be a meaningful reflection of her overall experience. At the end of the designated time period, sit down, analyze the data, and share observations and conclusions. It’s easy for someone to dismiss perspectives that come from “others,” but much harder for them to dismiss their own. Help her generate new personal data.

Master Her Stories. Invite your colleague to carry a small note pad with her during her travels. Have her write down her story directly after any “bad” customer service experiences. If you’re traveling with her, you can remind her to do this—especially when you notice her venting or starting into a rant. It doesn’t have to be super detailed, just a two-sentence summary. This exercise has the benefit of getting her to reflect on the thought processes that drive her behavior while getting her out of the in-the-moment unproductive patterns. After an agreed upon time frame (three to four weeks is often a good span), have your colleague bring the note pad to meet with you. Invite her to share her stories and then engage her in an exercise called “see both sides.” In essence, have her describe her typical, negative view and then ask her to identify all the ways that typical view is wrong or inaccurate. Then, have her describe two to three ways the same experience could be interpreted. This exercise helps to create a more balanced, accurate picture of what she is experiencing.

Backup Plan. Now, while I applaud your desire to help your colleague—and these two ideas have been really useful for me in similar situations—if she resists your attempts to help her, you may need to take a different tack. After all, you can’t force her to change, and she may not be interested in working on this at all. So, if you’ve tried the above suggestions and she persists in her negativity, you may find the only option left is to let her know the impact her negative behavior is having on you. When, and if, you get to this point, you will need to have a crucial conversation with her. A few tips:

Identify your purpose for bringing up the topic: “I want to talk with you about something that happens when we travel. And I’m guessing you may not be aware of how it’s impacting me.”
Point out the facts: “I have heard you say . . . ” or, “I have observed you . . . ”
Discuss the impact it’s having on you: “It makes me really uncomfortable when . . . ”
Share the result of this behavior: “I’ve decided that I don’t want to check in with you at the customer service desk anymore.”

This is never an easy situation to deal with, and hopefully this gives you some ideas of how you might approach this situation.

Good Luck,