Crucial Conversations QA

What to Say When People Break Boundaries

Dear Steve,

I recently built and moved into my dream home. My partner’s daughter has four very unruly children who do not respect my boundaries. How do I have the crucial conversation I need to have, so both my partner and his daughter understand that the children need to be taught to respect others and demonstrate good manners in the homes of other people?

Signed,
Dream Weaver

Dear Dream Weaver,

When I left home to live on my own, I never realized that choosing to share living space with others would bring me face-to-face with so many different crucial conversations. And it didn’t matter if we had known each other previously or not. The shared space seemed to be the biggest factor in whether issues became crucial.

In your situation, I’d recommend you focus on two crucial conversations meta-skills: notice and act.

Notice
It sounds like you are at the nexus of several different conversations and therein lies the challenge. Since the conversations are related, there’s a huge temptation to approach them as if they were the same conversation when they are, in reality, distinct and different. From my reading of your situation, I count at least two separate issues that need attention and focus. It sounds like you have concerns that need to be discussed with the kids who are violating boundaries. And another, separate conversation with your partner about response—or in this case, lack of response—to the kids’ behavior.

Since both are related to the undesirable behavior, people are tempted to bring everybody into one room and hash it out, or only talk to your partner about the kids’ behavior. I’d recommend that you talk to your partner first so you can reaffirm, establish, or re-negotiate how you’ll work together on issues like these.

Much of what partners find really troublesome is tied to not feeling supported by or aligned with each other when trying to address difficult issues. So, in essence, you now have two problems you’re trying to solve simultaneously: You’re unhappy about the kids’ behavior and also starting to feel an increasing frustration that your partner isn’t supporting you like you’d expect him or her to. You’ll find that as you’re able to address these two issues separately, they will be much easier to work through than if you bundle them.

So, handle them one at a time and I’d recommend that you work on the one with your partner first. Once you’ve sorted things out with your partner, you can then jointly (being the key word here) address the kids’ behavior.

Act
In this case, the skills for holding the conversation are the same for both topics you want to discuss. It isn’t always the case that you’d need the same skills, but this time it happens to be. The two sets of skills I’d focus on here would be Make It Safe and STATE my Path.

• Make It Safe. This is where you take the time to ensure that your loved ones know and understand that they are indeed loved ones. It’s really easy in this type of discussion to lose sight of this step. When this happens, people start telling themselves stories about you, why you’re bringing the issue up and even what it means. You can head off a lot of these problems by Making It Safe. In practice, this means that you actively reinforce your purpose for bringing up the issue throughout the conversation (i.e., if talking with the kids, then “catching a problem before it gets out of hand,” or, if talking with your partner, then “making sure we work together to address concerns,”). When you notice your partner or the kids becoming defensive, it’s great to pause and make sure they know that while you don’t love the behavior being exhibited, you do love them. Contrasting is a great skill to use here to help people see what you do and don’t want. In essence, you don’t want your relationship with them to go away, just the distracting behavior.

• STATE My Path. Now onto the “open your mouth and let the words do the work” part. While the skill set here provides a nice structure to this, it does not mean that it will be easy—just possible. So, in order to get your words working for you, approach these conversations with STATE: Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing.

Usually, people use STATE to tell other people what they’re noticing about them. I’d encourage you to use it to tell your loved ones about you. People often use STATE as if they are building a lawsuit against the other person: “These are the facts, and therefore you must accept conclusion Y!” Instead, you want your loved ones to understand how you’ve come to the conclusions you’ve come to.

Let me suggest a framework script to illustrate this point. “I’d like to talk with you about some things that I’ve noticed over the last little while. I have some observations that I’d like to share with you and some of the conclusions I’m starting to draw, and then I’d be really interested in hearing your perspective.” At this point, pause to check for safety, and when you feel you can, proceed with a statement like, “I’ve noticed that (insert a couple of observations here). And you may not be fully aware of this, but when I see these things it represents a violation of (insert your tentative conclusions here). So I wanted to talk with you to get your take on it.” At this point, you’ll want to reassess safety to ensure the conversation continues in a healthy and productive tone.

Like I said, this doesn’t take the angst out of the conversation, but hopefully provides some guidance for how to more successfully navigate this tough conversation.

Best of luck,
Steve

Influencer QA

Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters

Dear David,

I think many are familiar with the Marshmallow experiment to demonstrate the benefits of delayed rewards. Is there any corollary data that demonstrates that those challenged with delaying rewards (i.e. those who ate the marshmallow) also struggled with avoiding penalties? In other words, do those so inclined ALSO engage in little behaviors to avoid consequences? I think of my daughter who is a marshmallow eater (unlike her brother who would wait). She also would lie a little to cover up a small infraction. But the lie eventually grows to become something with much bigger consequences. The son who understands the value of waiting for rewards is also much more likely to confess a little mistake and “take his stripes” but avoids the major repercussions of a compounding issue. Does data back this up and how can we help those who would eat the marshmallow understand the value of waiting and the penalties of compounding mistakes?

Thanks,
Marshmallow Parent

Dear Marshmallow Parent,

Wow, you’ve put some great thought into this question. Yes, I think the marshmallow study may tie in to what you are observing. But that’s not where I want to start. I’d like to start with how you handle the little lies your daughter is telling.

When Children Lie: Lying is tough because it undermines trust and shows disrespect. It’s hard not to take it personally and get angry. Part of what I like about your question is that you approach the lie with concern and curiosity, rather than moral outrage. I think that’s the best approach you can take as a parent.

For children, lying is often a faulty form of problem-solving. Your daughter has gotten herself into a fix and a lie seems like the solution—albeit a very poor-quality solution. So, treat the lie as a lack of skill and help her work on her ability to problem solve.

Of course, you also have to hold her accountable. Think of a reasonable consequence related to the lie and the problem she was trying to cover up.

For example: Suppose your daughter said she was doing her term paper at a girlfriend’s house when actually she was visiting a young man.

Begin with: “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. When you lie to me about where you are and what you’re doing, it makes it harder to trust you. So, you’re grounded for the rest of this week and you can’t see Tanner this weekend.”

Then, explore why she felt she had to lie: “Help me understand why you felt you had to lie about this?” You aren’t looking for an excuse for the lie. Instead, you are trying to understand the reason for the lie.

Finally suggest a better solution: “I would prefer you say, ‘Mom, I know you want me to work on my term paper this evening, but I really want to see Tanner.’ I would listen, and we could talk about it. Of course, there is a good chance I’d say ‘No,’ and you’d be disappointed. But that’s not as bad as lying, and hurting the trust we have.”

Teach Self-Control: In Walter Mischel’s classic studies, he followed four-year-olds who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in order to get a second marshmallow. Years later, these strong-willed children scored hundreds of points higher on their college entrance exams, had stronger marriages, earned more in salary, and got promoted more often. He showed that the ability to delay immediate gratification in service of longer-term goals is an important skill.

What people often forget is that Walter, together with Albert Bandura, also showed that self-control is a skill that children must learn, not a capacity they inherit. I remember watching my next-door neighbor teach this skill to his four-year-old. We were at a pool that had a waterslide. The rule for the slide was to wait at the base of the ladder until the child in front of you had landed in the water and reached the side of the pool. Little Ryan had trouble remembering this rule. His father and I were in the water having a conversation, but every few seconds, he’d have to remind Ryan, “Wait, wait, watch the girl in front of you. Okay, now you can go!” Ryan must have gone down the slide fifty times, and, by the end, knew how to hold himself back without reminders.

Of course, Joe, my neighbor doesn’t just teach self-control at the pool. It is a part of his positive parenting every day. He seeks out these teaching moments when he can help his children develop character skills.

Teach Influence: As I suggested earlier, lying is often a child’s last-ditch effort to get their way, when they feel they have no ability to influence their parent. Helping a child mature is all about gradually, sensibly, and safely giving over control. Children who believe they can get their parents to change their minds are more likely to try dialogue and less likely to lie.

But this loosening of reins is easier to advocate than it is to practice. One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.

Do as I Say, not as I Do: Whenever I answer a question about parenting, I feel I need to add that I’m not a parent. My wife and I have 24 nieces and nephews, so we’ve gotten to witness some wonderful parenting, but I don’t practice what I preach. For example, over the years, we’ve had nephews and nieces join us for dozens of “Camp Davids”—hiking Bryce Canyon or the Olympic National Park, unicycling in Moab, and surf lessons in Southern Cal. But these fun adventures don’t really involve much parenting. In fact, Camp David only has one rule: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” So, my advice comes from skilled friends and relatives, not from hard-won experience.

Thanks again for your probing question. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on how to handle your situation.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Are Top Leaders Exempt from Using Crucial Conversations Skills?

Dear Joseph,

Your book, Crucial Conversations, suggests that we are more effective if we express ourselves “tentatively” and encourage others to challenge our views. But many leaders (Jack Welch, Donald Trump, etc.) are the opposite—forceful and even dogmatic. And yet, they are very successful. I can’t remember either of these men speaking “tentatively” or encouraging others to share their divergent views. So do crucial conversation skills only work in some cases? Why do some reach the top in spite of doing the opposite of what you teach?

Signed,
Double Standard

Dear Double Standard,

I am not going to weigh in on specific personalities (Welch, Trump, or other public figures) . . . but it’s funny you should ask this question.

Just prior to the election, we did an interesting experiment that illustrates the answer I’ll offer to your important question.

We asked more than 3,600 subjects—who told us they held strong political opinions—to watch a brief video clip of someone who either agreed or disagreed vehemently with their view. Some watched a clip of someone sharing their view in an aggressive and dogmatic way. Others saw a clip of someone sharing their view strongly—but in a way that showed respect for those who hold alternate opinions. Then, we asked the subject to rate the likeability, intelligence, and persuasiveness of the person they just observed.

The results stunned us.

Those who watched a dogmatic person who agreed with them rated them as far less intelligent, likeable, and persuasive than someone who disagreed with them—but disagreed reasonably. And the differences were not subtle—those who presented their views with passionate respect were:

  • Five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
  • Four times more likely to be seen as likeable
  • Three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
  • 140% more persuasive
  • 140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
  • 180% more likely to maintain relationships with others

So how do you explain this? If a respectful approach to communication makes this profound a difference in how people perceive you, how could someone rise to power by doing the opposite?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in how we introduced the video to our subjects. We did not say, “Watch this person on television.” Instead, we said, “Imagine this is your coworker who is trying to engage you in conversation . . . ”

Can you see the difference? And why it would make such a difference? The difference is performance vs. relationship.

National politics is more about performance than relationship. Performance is monologue not dialogue. It must be brief, simple, and memorable. Relationships are none of these. They require dialogue. Conversations are often lengthy, nuanced, and messy. The way we framed our video experiment placed it in the context of an office relationship.

It turns out that the rules that govern memorability are different than those that generate a sense of connection and trust. Conflict and repetition promote memory. So, in political performance, we need a foil or antagonist to create a sense of conflict. We dramatically juxtapose our view with that of the antagonist. And we repeat the same simple dictum ad nauseum. In this context, exaggeration increases effect.

But imagine someone trying that in conversation! It wouldn’t work. You’d walk away. They would rupture relationships. In fact, we saw the breakdown of relationships during this last political season as people attempted the same grandstanding gestures they saw played out on the nightly news in social media or in office conversation. Bad idea.

Interestingly, even politicians and larger-than-life business leaders must be bilingual in this respect—or they will pay a price. There’s a difference between winning a campaign and building an organization—or relationship. We’ve studied the latter for three decades and can say unequivocally that if you attempt to use political performance skills in the sustained relationships of your life, you’ll pay an enormous cost.

Does that mean you’ll fail completely if you violate respectful communication practices? No. Because success is not about a single variable. But it does mean that you’ll fall short of the success you could have had if you had managed this one variable better. Some succeed in spite of their weaknesses, but rarely because of them.

Interestingly, one of Jack Welch’s most coveted cultural goals was to build a culture of candor. He knew that an organization that doesn’t habitually speak truth to power is doomed to suffer for the lack of it. My guess is his public persona was different in some ways than his interpersonal approach.

I hope this distinction helps you decide which habits will create the life and results you want most.

Warmly,
Joseph