Crucial Conversations QA

How to Address Bad Body Odor

Dear Joseph,

My son tells me his roommate at college has a body odor issue. It has become so bad that my son stays at his girlfriend’s more often than not. He has mentioned to his roommate that there is a terrible odor in the room, but hasn’t gone much farther than that. He did speak to the R.A. who said he would speak to the roommate. I haven’t heard back as to next steps. Your thoughts?

Sincerely,
Addressing Odor

Dear Addressing Odor,

Let me back up. I’m going to address your son, rather than you, and assume he is starting over again. He has already dug himself into a hole by being disingenuous—pretending the issue was disembodied odor rather than body odor. He needs to clean that up and start fresh.

Here’s my advice to him.

1. What do you want? What are your options? First, don’t step into this until you know what you really want. Do you like this roommate? Are you willing to invest in the relationship? Are you stuck no matter what? Do you have a housing contract that will not release you unless you claim this is a health and safety issue? If you have an easy exit path and aren’t willing to invest in the relationship, the answer is easy. Get out. If getting out is unlikely and you like this guy, this will be a great opportunity to learn how to deal maturely with relationship problems.

2. Master your story. You won’t be able to have a decent conversation with your roommate until you strip all of your judgments and personalization out of your story. If you feel resentment and disgust toward him, that will drive the entire interaction. So . . . own the fact that your emotions and judgments are just that—yours. You are entitled to not enjoy the smell. But, if you want a shot at making it go away, you need to accept that you are amplifying the experience through the story you’re telling yourself about why he smells.

For example, Rachel Herz studies the psychology of smells. She once did an experiment where subjects were asked to whiff the same odor and then rate its pleasant- or unpleasant-ness. Some were told it was Parmesan cheese. Others were told it was vomit. And guess what? In spite of the fact that they were having the same sensory experience, the Parmesan group judged it as pleasant. The others recoiled in revulsion.

Before you talk with him, examine the judgments you are making. Are you loading up your story with beliefs about his intentions (he’s inconsiderate), his character (he’s lazy), or his morality (smelling this way is bad). Remind yourself that most of the seven billion people in the world think differently about hygiene than you do. Also, open yourself to the fact that these odors may have nothing to do with hygiene. Certain medications generate different body odors as do different physiologies. Your goal is not to dismiss your own desires or preferences but to come to a place of curiosity and compassion from which you can converse rather than coerce.

3. Create safety and clarify purpose. Start the conversation by honoring both your need and his humanity. “I’d like to talk about something that is affecting me. But I’m worried that in doing so, I’ll communicate disrespect, judgment, or intolerance of you. That’s not what I want or how I feel. I just want to find a solution that works for you and me.” Having done so, realize that discussing something as personal as how someone smells is very likely to provoke defensiveness. Which leads to my next point . . .

4. Your actions are yours. His feelings are his. Even if you do your best to approach him with curiosity and respect, he may react to his vulnerability by recoiling in hurt or blame. If he does, do not apologize for your needs. Simply clarify your intentions. For example, if he says, “I don’t have to listen to this!” and heads for the door, offer something like, “I am not trying to attack or insult you. Please let me know if we can talk about this later—I just want to work it out for both of us. I’d like to be your roommate.” Then let it go.

A primary reason many of us stay in silence rather than connecting honestly is that we misunderstand our responsibility for others’ emotions. We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel. Their emotions are their choices. How we act can affect them—and we should always act with compassion and respect. But that is where our duty stops. When you take responsibility for others’ feelings, you begin to live dishonestly. You begin to calculate and manipulate in order to control others’ feelings. And by so doing, you surrender the possibility of both solving problems and connecting deeply.

I wish you the best and assure you that how you approach this moment is important practice for every future relationship of your life.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Memorial Day Message

On December first, 1969, my wife and I sat glued to the radio. What event had us so interested? The reading of calendar dates. The radio announcer who had our attention was drawing pill-shaped capsules from a large, glass vessel. Each of the 366 capsules contained a piece of paper inscribed with a day of the year. Men, aged 19 to 25, who were born on the date contained in the first capsule drawn would be the first to be drafted into the US military. Those born on the second date drawn would be the next to be drafted, and so forth. Being drafted meant that, after a brief period of training, you had a good chance of being sent to fight (and possibly die) in Vietnam. That’s why Louise and I were so anxious. It was as if the country was playing roulette—for keeps—with my life.

Pundits speculated that military leaders would call to active duty the first 200 dates announced over the radio. Those holding one of the remaining 166 draft numbers would be allowed to continue on with their lives without having to get used to the practice of toting an M16. Louise and I prayed that the capsule containing my birth date would be the last one selected. Unlike our fathers, who had eagerly rushed into war after Pearl Harbor was savagely attacked, those of us waiting on the Vietnam lottery of 1969 were praying for peace and a high draft number. I certainly was.

“March 30th,” the announcer flatly announced. Those born on that day (my birthday) would be the 217th group to be drafted (if needed). This rather high number sounded safe to me, but was it really? When I telephoned my local draft board, the director told me she anticipated that Bellingham, Washington would draft to number (drum roll please) 216. If this turned out to be correct, one lousy number stood between me and a trip to Vietnam. I was not comforted.

As my senior year of college hurried along, the country’s need for soldiers increased, and the number 217 started to look increasingly shaky. It appeared as if I might graduate from college and be forced straight into harm’s way. Then, one day while walking through the student union building, I spotted a Coast Guard officer sitting at a table smiling at anyone who glanced his way.

“Are you about to graduate?” the fellow asked me. “Because if you are, and you want to serve your country for three years, you might qualify for Coast Guard officer training. And, by the way, did I mention the Coast Guard has a very small presence in Vietnam? Very small.”

I had never considered joining the Coast Guard, and becoming an officer was far from a sure thing. Under normal circumstances, I would have smiled politely and moved along. However, still hanging over me like a death threat were the words: “We’re expecting to draft to number 216.”

After discussing the pros and cons of joining the Coast Guard, my wife and I made our decision; I signed a contract with Uncle Sam. Then, a few weeks after graduating from college, I flew to Yorktown, Virginia where, for four months, I studied navigation, port security, piloting, and other things aquatic.

At the end of the fourteenth week of training, while my fellow officer candidates and I gathered in the mess hall for dinner, a senior official read aloud the duty station to which each candidate would soon be assigned. The lottery continued. Some were ordered to sea, others to land, and yes, a few started down a path that would eventually put them in charge of a vessel in Vietnam.

After working his way down the alphabet, the Coast Guard assignment herald kicked my heart into a full gallop when he announced my name, paused for effect, and then shouted: “TRASUPCEN, Alameda.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was being assigned to serve at the Coast Guard’s West Coast supply center located across the bay from San Francisco. This was a highly coveted, three-year shore station. It was located thousands of miles from the perilous waters of Vietnam and only a short trip across the Bay Bridge to one of the most magical cities in the world.

For the next three years, I worked with a mix of career Coast Guard professionals and short-time folks such as myself. We did our best to provide support for both normal and wartime operations. Nevertheless, the war we supported was enormously unpopular (thus, the need for a draft). Most of the enlisted men who reported to me made a habit of ridiculing the government for forcing them to take an unwanted hiatus from their promising civilian careers. They complained endlessly.

Despite the unrelenting harangue, the individuals I worked with faithfully fulfilled their assignments. They had made a promise and they kept it. And they did so in the face of a hostile civilian population. Each morning, we “Coasties” arrived at work dressed in civilian clothes, switched into our uniforms, and did our jobs. We generally chose not to wear our uniforms to and from the base to avoid being ridiculed. The country had called and we had responded—but when we were spotted, we were often mocked. After all, we were willing participants in what many people believed was an unjustified conflict.

One day, while dashing to the nearby Berkley library to secure a book I needed for a night course I was taking, I didn’t think to switch out of my uniform. As I walked up Telegraph Avenue, people glared at me as if I were—well, a “killer”—as they so freely called me. One guy, clearly disgusted by my involvement in what he must have deemed an illegal war, spit on me. It was mortifying.

During the decades that followed, I viewed the three years I served in Alameda with uncertainty. (By the way, the 1969 draft only extended to lottery number 195. Had I not volunteered, I wouldn’t have been drafted.) I admired the people I served with and, to this day, I’m proud of the work we did supporting our fellow guardians—some commanding boats in harm’s way, some battling the seas, and some working in offices miles from danger. But to be truthful, as the Vietnam conflict wound down, nobody was chomping at the bit to make heroes out of the veterans of the “unpopular war.” And while it’s true that my mates and I didn’t exactly strike back at enemies who had viciously bombed our sacred shores—we did accept the call to serve and faithfully performed our assignments.

Nowadays, I watch uniformed soldiers return home to the roar of cheering civilians, and I cheer right along with them. I’m glad today’s soldiers don’t feel the need to travel incognito. And thanks to a recent event, I have ceased to question my own participation in what had been such an unpopular conflict. After forty-five years of wondering about my choice, the uncertainty of taking part in a controversial war finally came to an end in a decisive and unexpected way. My teenage granddaughter, Kylee, of her own accord, texted me the following message: “Happy Veteran’s Day, Grandpa. I love you. Thank you for serving our country!”

That’s all I needed to hear. It turns out that gratitude from a single grandchild trumps the ridicule of any number of critics. With this in mind, I now pass on my granddaughter’s (and my own) thanks to today’s guardians—from front-line leathernecks, to keyboard warriors—who all deserve kudos. All play an important role in keeping us safe. So, thanks to all of you heroes out there who, when the call to serve came, eagerly answered, “You can count on me!”

We do, every single day.

Crucial Conversations QA

Tips to Battle Unconscious Bias

Dear David,

Five months ago, I started a job at an all-girls private, Catholic, school. I work as a technician and accepted the job because it combines my interest in instructional education and computer hardware and software troubleshooting. It also pays well above what I’ve earned in the past.

I’m a woman, and my teammates are all men. I’m feeling uncomfortable, but not because of the guy-to-girl ratio (4:1). It’s because I feel like all of my actions are being scrutinized under a microscope. I understand that this is a high-demand field. I’ve worked in schools before, but never as part of a team. So I’ve been introduced to things like team meetings and monthly feedback reports.

Lately, whenever I get feedback, I feel like my teammates are “fishing” for things I’ve done wrong. For example, the latest feedback was about what the expression on my face conveys. Help?

Sincerely,
Feeling Judged

Dear Judged,

Thanks for an interesting question. It combines a thought-provoking mix of issues: succeeding as a new employee, responding to feedback, and dealing with unconscious bias. I’ll suggest a few approaches.

Succeeding as a New Employee. Congratulations on your new job. It’s also a great opportunity for laying the grassroots of a successful career. Here is my advice:

Create your Personal Brand. Your brand is your reputation—the image you project. You need to take charge to make it the right brand. Our research for Change Anything uncovered three elements that are essential to your brand:

  • You know your stuff. In your case, this means that you are seen as a master of the different technologies you support. If you aren’t already a master, then put in the time and effort it takes to quickly rise to the challenge.
  • You work on the right stuff. This means that you focus on high-priority, mission-critical tasks, rather than staying in your comfort zone.
  • You have a reputation for being helpful. People need to see you as generous with your time and expertise.

Build Relationships. Reach out to build relationships beyond your immediate team. Schedule two to three appointments per week with your customers—teachers and administrators—across the school. Ask them about their priorities related to the technology services your team provides. Listen for improvements they’d like to see, and take notes. Try to find at least one concrete action you can take to respond to their suggestions.

At the same time, work to build stronger relationships within your team. This is where you need to build your reputation for being helpful. Volunteer for the tough jobs, pitch in when you see a teammate putting in extra time or effort, and ask others how you can help.

Get a Mentor. Find a person who is willing to both challenge you and advocate for you. This could be a teacher or administrator, or it could be your manager. The essential ingredients in the relationship are safety and trust. You need someone who can help you navigate the political complexities of your new job.

Responding to Feedback.
You are getting a lot more feedback than you’re used to, and it feels as if people are using a microscope to search for negative things to say. How should you deal with their criticisms? Here are a few suggestions.

Avoid Defending. It’s hard not to defend, especially when criticisms seem picky, unfair, or inaccurate. But do your best to become curious, instead of defensive. Respond with, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Can you give me an example, so I can understand it better?”

Seek Clarity. Often, when feedback feels unfair, the real problem is that it’s vague. A person says, “You’re not very customer-focused,” when what they mean is, “After yesterday’s service call, you didn’t check back to see if your solution solved all of their problems.” Getting down to specifics will take the heat out of the feedback, and will also make it easier to act on.

Go Public. Here is a secret: People will continue to send you feedback until they are sure you’ve gotten the message. So, once you’ve decided how to respond to a piece of feedback, make your plans public. Going public communicates that you’ve taken the feedback seriously, have made changes, and that the person who gave you the feedback can move on.

Dealing with Unconscious Bias. As a woman in a team of men, you stand out. You get noticed. And, because we humans have our assumptions, your successes may seem a bit surprising to some, and your failures may seem a bit confirming. In addition, you may find that the work environment has been optimized for its prior residents—all men. How should you deal with these kinds of bias?

We recently studied the damaging effects of bias and found that subtle biases like what you describe are pervasive and soul-destroying. I am sorry you find yourself in this kind of environment. Luckily, there are skills you can use to confront what is likely an unconscious bias. I’ll suggest three from our Crucial Conversations book and training.

Speak Up. Don’t just grin and bear it. When you experience an interaction that leaves you wondering—like feedback about what the expression on your face conveys—step out of the content and have a conversation about your concerns. “Can I talk about what we’re talking about? I’ve noticed a pattern. Sometimes you give me feedback that seems more personal than the feedback you give each other. For example, feedback about my clothes, my glasses, and now my expressions. As men, do you ever receive feedback from each other on these things?” The goal is to begin an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that builds understanding and respect.

Make it Safe. Avoid labeling or accusing others. Instead, assume that people have positive intentions unless proven otherwise. Achieving a better outcome for the future requires that we help others and ourselves feel safe while addressing uncomfortable issues. For example, you might begin with, “I don’t think you realize how that came across . . .”

State My Path. Skilled individuals are careful to describe their concerns absent the judgments and accusations the rest of us hold when we speak up. For example, replace, “What you said was sexist and abusive,” with, “Last Friday, you said, ‘That’s the last time I send a woman to do a man’s job.’” Describe what really just happened—no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations, and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you, then invite others to a dialogue where you both can learn. For a recap of these skills, watch our latest Crucial Skills Live video below.

I know this is a lot to process, but that’s what you get when you ask a really good question! I hope you find a few nuggets in my response that will help.

Best,
David