Crucial Conversations QA

How to Survive an Abusive Conversation

Dear Steve,

What do you suggest when you try to use the Crucial Conversations skills only to realize the other person is unhealthy, unaware, and unable to communicate effectively, respectfully, or civilly? Many people are healthy and just don’t have the communication skills, and when they are mentored or trained, they can learn to communicate better. But what do you do when you run into people who are not healthy or seem to have issues like anger management, narcissism, etc.?

Stumped

Dear Stumped,

Some years back, I found myself in, what I considered, a fairly unnerving situation. At the time, I was part of an organization that provided lay counseling to neighbors, by neighbors. While we didn’t handle really significant, chronic, mental health issues, we dealt with some tricky situations.

I remember receiving a call one evening from an older, single woman who wanted to talk with someone. Her adult son, living in another state, had just been incarcerated and she wanted to process it with someone. Once I determined it wasn’t an urgent need, and something that was within my own mandate, I let her know I’d be happy to come over and could be there in about twenty minutes. The silence on the other end of the phone was the first sign of trouble.

After what seemed like an eternity, I checked to see if she was still on the line, “Will that work for you?” I asked again.

“If I wanted someone in twenty minutes, I would have called in twenty minutes!” she stated aggressively.

Now, some of my peers had warned me this person was prone to yell and become abusive. But I had “mastered my story” so I figured I was okay to proceed. I also figured she’d surely respond well if presented with a Crucial Conversations approach. The sublime principles and skills would soothe her fears and bring her back to a healthy interaction. With this inner reassurance, I calmly proceeded back in to the conversation.

I paraphrased back what I understood her concerns to be, reaffirmed my purpose (which was to make sure she got the support she needed), and I rejected all the “either/or” choices as I tried to expand my mind to all the potential “and” options that would create safety. I was in the moment and one with the principles. I was also in deep trouble.

She turned more abusive. Her volume increased, words became more cutting. I felt shell-shocked.

I tried to interrupt her tirade to get us back on track—back to dialogue. I lead with the only thing that came to mind, “Look, I can tell you’re upset and I really want to help you, and yet the way we’re interacting right now is getting in the way.”

Her response let me know she heard my statement as well as how she felt about it. The abuse ratcheted up a notch—something I hadn’t believed possible. I absolutely could not believe a person would treat another person in this manner.

It finally reached a breaking point for me. I reaffirmed that I hoped she’d get the help she was looking for, that it wouldn’t be from me at this time, provided her with the contact information of others who might be able to help, and informed her that I would be hanging up. Which I wasn’t able to do as she hung up first (but not before she fired off some choice, closing remarks).

I was left holding the phone, completely dumbstruck. What had just happened? I’d used my best Crucial Conversations skills and they didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to make the situation worse—much worse. Crucial Conversations skills had failed . . . or had they?

As I reflected on the interaction, I realized I usually thought of success or failure in a dialogue in terms of how the other person responded. But this time it was different. I still thought the skills were of benefit despite the response I received. But why? And how? My understanding started to expand as I realized that the biggest benefit of my Crucial Conversations skills across many different types of interactions was that they helped me to not become part of the problem. It was then that I began to value the impact the principles had on me. It also helped me rethink some of my long held Crucial Conversations assumptions.

Just because you’re engaging in dialogue doesn’t mean the resulting decisions have to be consensus. You always have options to escalate, or even terminate, interactions. When you’re in a position where you believe your safety (psychological or physical) is purposefully being threatened, it’s appropriate to disengage. And you can use your Crucial Conversations skills to do so respectfully.

I’ve also come to better understand the power of telling the rest of the story—especially when it comes to the villain story. So why would a reasonable, rational, decent person continue to berate me despite my best efforts?

Much of what goes into our stories has to do with how we attribute the motives of the person who’s done us wrong. “She did it because she enjoys it!” or “She’s just like that!” are very common attributions we make. It was during tough situations like the one I described above, that I realized even when others’ motives are bad and directed at me, I can still choose to respond in a productive, positive way. I don’t have to be a victim; I can simply choose to get out of the line of fire. There is a powerful and calming connection between these principles of Master My Stories and Start with Heart.

So, while it may be appropriate to stop a particular conversation, it doesn’t mean you have to stop using the skills. Over the years, I’ve become more and more appreciative of the way the skills have positively impacted me—just as much as they have impacted others.

Best of luck,
Steve

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Kerrying On

Eternally Grateful

Hollywood, 1983

For almost ten hours, I had been waiting to shoot a video clip that, one day, would become one of my favorites. Our production team had started early that morning by taping an example of how to get a meeting back on course. Next, we shot a vignette demonstrating misapplied motivational techniques—and so forth—until we had captured twenty-five training segments. Now, it was time to shoot a modestly comedic clip that was intended to raise the question: “How would you handle this awkward situation?” That is, we’d shoot the segment if we had time.

The script we had written showcased a boss who tries to encourage two of his rather nervous direct reports to share their thoughts on how to solve a pressing problem. Tom, the actor playing the boss, starts the segment by asking, “Should we ship the package express so it’s guaranteed to make the deadline? What do you think?”

“You’re absolutely right,” responds one of his minions while the other shakes his head in violent agreement until he adds, “We should send it express.”

“But we don’t want to incur more shipping costs than are necessary,” Tom continues.

“What were we thinking?” Minion Two exclaims. “We can’t increase costs. That would be wrong.”

“I get the feeling,” Tom responds, “that the two of you are agreeing with whatever I say, simply because I’m the boss.”

“Of course, we are!” Minion One replies, “You are the boss.”

“Well,” Tom continues, “I’d prefer you to share your own opinions.”

“We will!” responds Minion Two.

“Starting right now!” chimes in his colleague. Then the two bring the scene to a close with: “How am I doing?” “And, how about me?”

Much to my delight, we completed the video clip on time. And while it’s true that it took an entire team to produce the segment, it was Tom who made it possible. As the clock sped toward our scheduled closing time and the other two actors occasionally fumbled their lines, or a mic shadow appeared, or a loud noise came from off set (all requiring us to start over), Tom never missed a line. On this particular day, thanks to Tom’s impressive showing, we completed a video segment that otherwise would have never seen the light of day.

Over the next three decades, Tom took part in almost all of our video productions. His acting skills were so remarkable and his memory so prodigious that he became a bit of a legend in our community. For instance, one day when we were about to crash and burn because I had cast an actor in a role that simply didn’t match his image, I called Tom (who wasn’t due on set for a couple of days), and asked him to take the part of the miscast actor. He cheerfully agreed, memorized 17 pages of script in one afternoon, showed up the next morning, and shot the scenes—with scarcely a stumble.

As the years passed, Tom increased in stature, moving from bit player to leading man. Those of us who worked with him took pleasure in seeing him appear in an occasional TV sitcom or take the lead in a national ad. He also taught acting at the local college. To top it all off, when our company held a worldwide conference comprised of people who had seen Tom in several of our training videos, they treated him like a celebrity—stopping him in the hallway, gushing praise, and asking him for photos and autographs.

But then, disaster struck. First, came a stroke and then, a debilitating ailment. Tom’s fifty-something mind remained as clear as ever, but his voice diminished to a whisper and his hands shook uncontrollably. We tried our best to continue to cast Tom, and help him out in any way we could, but it soon became apparent that Tom’s life would never be the same. He’d never act again.

But, Tom never lost hope. “I have an interview at the community theater,” Tom managed to whisper one day when I ran into him at a the mall.

“What part are you reading for?” I asked.

“Wait and see,” Tom smiled widely. “Wait and see.”

Several weeks passed, during which I had no contact with Tom. Then, one day, as I exited a movie, I was surprised by what followed. I was walking down the dark aisle, staring intently at the floor, desperately trying to unravel the convoluted plot I had just seen. Then, I spotted a pair of tennis shoes next to a long-handled dust pan and broom. As I raised my gaze upward, I glimpsed a gold vest, embroidered with a corporate logo. Finally, a familiar face came into view as I heard, “Kerry, it’s me, Tom.”

“Tom?” I asked incredulously. “Yes,” Tom answered as he stepped into the light, smiled brightly, and said, “I got the job I was telling you about! I got the job!”

“The one at the community theater?” I asked.

“Actually, this theater,” Tom responded with a twinkle in his eye. “I work right here at the multiplex. The manager said my voice is strong enough to wait on customers. Plus, he gives me plenty of shifts. I’ve been truly blessed.”

Although stepping out of the national spotlight and into the hallways of the local movie complex wasn’t Tom’s idea of a promising career move, he told me it was honest work and it helped him keep his family afloat. For that he was deeply grateful.

“I also wanted to thank you, for helping me through some tough times,” Tom said as the conversation continued. “I’ll always remember what you did for me.”

With these words of appreciation fresh off his lips, Tom slowly turned and walked toward a theater that was now disgorging dozens of patrons. In a final gesture of good will—holding his broom high in the air—Tom turned toward me and in his loudest whisper stated: “A lot of prestige comes with my new job. At this very minute, just down the hallway, I’ve got several colonels waiting for me.” Then Tom walked down the hall a few steps, turned, shot me a grin, and swept up a patch of spilled popcorn—kernels and all.

Present Day

Every Thanksgiving, our family gathers to celebrate the holiday and share three blessings for which we’re thankful. My wife Louise artfully places three pieces of candy corn on each of our dinner plates (Grandma’s best china). And then, as the turkey cools and all twenty-four of us impatiently wait to dig into the feast, each of us offers gratitude for our bounty—one piece of candy corn, one blessing at a time.

I always express thanks for my family and country—that’s a given. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be adding Tom to my candy corn cavalcade. When it comes to showing gratitude—that is, not merely expressing appreciation for one’s bounty, but expressing appreciation in the face of unrelenting adversity—Tom is my mentor, role model, and hero. I shall always be grateful for his example.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Make Crucial Conversations Training Stick

Dear Joseph,

My company offers Crucial Conversations Training and it is mandatory for management. In spite of having gone through the training, some of my staff refuse to “play by the rules” as it were. What advice do you have for me? I am far from a perfect communicator, but I am absolutely sold on the principles of Crucial Conversations and try to practice them as much as possible.

Signed,
Make it Stick

Dear Make it Stick,

I wish EVERY SINGLE PERSON we work with would ask this question! The VitalSmarts mission is not to “train the world” but to “change the world.” Our fondest hope is that those whose lives we have the privilege of touching are tangibly better off for our efforts. VitalSmarts is not a training company, it is an “influence” company.

So, here’s how you influence real, profound, and sustainable behavior change. If you’re serious about making crucial conversations skills the norm in your team, here is what you must do:

1. Advertise it. If I were to arrive in your organization, how long would it take before I would know that you have strong expectations of how I’ll deal with crucial conversations? Days? Weeks? Months? If you’re serious about instituting a cultural norm, you should advertise it from my first interaction with you. For example, a wonderful organization called NextJump based in New York City invites potential hires to participate in a day of hands-on activities with other candidates. Veteran employees watch the prospects to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Then, they give them feedback—very direct feedback. You might be told, for example, that you seem insecure or arrogant. You are also encouraged to offer feedback to others. NextJump’s goal is to let you know from day one that they are all about truth. You start your job having already received feedback about things you can improve in yourself. If you care about it, advertise it from your first interaction.

2. Ritualize it. Most organizations have espoused values—the ones on the wall. They also have a second set of values—their real values. The real ones are those that govern how people actually get their work done. These real values are the only ones that matter. They show up in how people plan, organize, and execute their work. If you want to make crucial conversations skills live in your organization, you must build practice rituals into the fabric of your work. For example, a company called Decurion begins and ends every meeting with a Check-in and a Check-out. These are opportunities for everyone to share those things that often go undiscussed: personal concerns, emotional distractions, and feedback for others. Employees at Decurion know that addressing emotionally sensitive issues is normal because it is planned into the very fabric of work.

3. Demand it. Let’s face it, few people relish the vulnerability involved in dealing with crucial conversations. Most of us have to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally before one of these taxing moments. That’s why so many of us avoid them. You will never become an organization that turns healthy communication into a norm unless you hold people accountable for doing so. Bridgewater is the world’s most successful hedge fund manager. You will not succeed at Bridgewater unless you show a proclivity for “touching people’s nerves.” Leaders at Bridgewater believe that ego is the most pernicious virus in a healthy social system. If you tend to procrastinate, bypass, or soft-pedal your crucial conversations, your colleagues will let you know. If you want to develop a culture of accountability, be sure everyone is—first and foremost—held accountable for holding others accountable!

4. Cue it. VitalSmarts has worked with thousands of organizations worldwide over the past thirty years. Those who are most effective at creating a culture of crucial conversations competence, let their walls do much of their work. They post principles, quotes, and models in places that prompt awareness of concepts at crucial moments. For example, ideas are embedded in emails about upcoming performance reviews, in conference rooms, or in group work spaces. These both show the organization’s commitment to the skills, and serve as timely reminders.

5. Normalize it. I came to a humbling conclusion recently. VitalSmarts is on the brink of celebrating two million people trained across the world—and I’m proud of our achievement. But, I’ve concluded that while training is an accelerant of change, it is not the most important one. The best predictor of habit formation is not literacy but frequency. It isn’t about how much you know, it’s about how often you use it.

I came to this conclusion by observing a group of convicted criminals and homeless people who formed an organization called The Other Side Academy (TOSA) two years ago. These 70 TOSA students run businesses to support themselves while trying to change their lives. None have any sophisticated communication skills—but they have built the most robust culture of accountability I have ever witnessed. And they’ve done it primarily through daily and hourly practice. Students are taught to simply call out anything they see that they think is wrong. It is deeply uncomfortable at the beginning. But as they see that their peers are doing the same, they begin to engage. Within a matter of days, hardened criminals who would previously have defined accountability as “ratting”, are enforcing standards of integrity that would be the envy of the best run organizations in the world. If you want to change the culture, accelerate normalization of the new behavior by demanding frequency, not elegance.

Thanks for your question. I wish you the best as you work to turn training into real and meaningful change.

Warmly,
Joseph

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.