Crucial Conversations QA

The Anatomy of an Apology

Dear Justin,

I recently did something hurtful to a family member. Shortly afterward, I said I was sorry but the person didn’t seem to accept my apology. I’ve tried to reach out but they are giving me a bit of a “cold shoulder.” They still seem bugged about what I did. I feel like I’ve done my part and now it’s up to them to accept the apology. Should I be looking at this differently?

Apology Not Accepted

Dear Apology Not Accepted,

I can totally relate to this. For the past few years, I’ve been on a quest to better understand sincere apologies and make them a habit in my life. I’ll share what I’ve discovered. I hope this helps. Finish reading

Kerrying On

Good Golly Miss Molly

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on September 29, 2015.

Throughout my teenage years, I worked for my mom and dad painting an eighty-year-old boarding house they had purchased. It was a sprawling, artless, clapboard building that hadn’t been given much attention for decades, so it took me several summers to finish the job. It was like painting a giant sponge. Plus, the job almost killed me. I learned that if I placed a giant, borrowed, professional extension ladder nearly parallel to the front of the house and stood chest to the wall on my tippy toes, on the very top rung, I could paint the highest point on the house—which I did.

I didn’t plunge to my death, but according to our next-door neighbor, I should have. In fact, he had bet on it. It turns out that he and the other men in the neighborhood had taken to watching my insane painting maneuvers (of which there were many) and wagering on whether I’d get injured. Apparently, my neighbors mixed up the notion that it takes a village to raise a boy with the idea that it takes a handful of village idiots. In any case, my neighbors underestimated me. Not only did I make it out alive, but the painting job provided me with money for college—money my parents promised to pay me one day when I went off to school.

Unhappily, when I finally did head off to a junior college in Rexburg, Idaho, I was woefully unprepared. For starters, I had no idea how cold cold can be. There are days in Rexburg when your nostrils freeze shut just from breathing. The light jacket I wore because it was (1) the only jacket I owned and (2) very James-Dean like, put me in danger of frostbite whenever I ventured outdoors. So I finally broke down and bought a thick coat (good idea) with all of the food money my parents had given me for the semester (bad idea). In short, I traded cold for hunger.

Not being one to suffer silently, I wrote my parents and asked for more money. Mom feared that I would waste any additional cash she sent me on dating and other such non-food items, or—if left to cook on my own—I would only prepare junk food. So she sent me a check for forty dollars and insisted that I purchase a cafeteria punch card that could be used to buy dinner for, hopefully, a couple of months. Students who lived in the dorms and ate at said cafeteria, ate all the food they could eat. My puny card granted me entrance to the facility. However, when I arrived at the end of the line, since I didn’t live in the dorms, a cafeteria employee would take my paper card and punch out the price of each item I had selected—eventually reducing my card’s value to zero.

I quickly learned that if I bought a full dinner each day, the card wouldn’t last until the end of the semester. Not even close. This turned dining into a tortuous, lonely affair. I couldn’t sit next to the dorm kids. They would look at my solo scoop of mashed potatoes and ask why I didn’t take more food. “It’s delicious!” they’d rave as they wolfed down a slab of meatloaf large enough to serve as a flotation device. So I sat alone and ate soda crackers to supplement my mashed potatoes. For dessert, I sucked cinnamon from the cafeteria toothpicks.

After a couple of weeks of nursing my food card along, I fell into a routine. It centered on Molly, a farm girl from Rigby, Idaho, who now took classes at the junior college and worked at the cafeteria punching my card. As Molly took inventory of my tray, she would ask me about my classes, encourage me to buy more food, and tease me about my losing weight. “You look like your cells are dying,” she once told me. Molly never asked about my financial circumstances, but I could tell from the look in her eyes that we were now playing a game. She was the Red Cross volunteer and I was the refugee who had washed onto the shores of Rexburg.

We played this game until my Spartan diet began to wear on both of us. One day, while serving a thick slice of chocolate pie to a regular dorm patron, Molly looked at me apologetically, as if somehow she were responsible for the vicissitudes of capitalism. Later, when the pie came back with only a couple of bites out of it, she kicked the garbage can. It was growing positively Dickensian.

Finally, a couple of weeks before the semester came to an end, I started loading more on my tray so I could make it through finals. I piled it on for several days without having the courage to examine my card. And here’s where it gets weird. With each new food item I added to my tray, Molly seemed happier. In fact, she now tracked my intake with an odd flourish. “Take that!” she would shout as she punched my card.

Eventually, I pulled out my meal card to determine when my life would start turning ugly. To my surprise, a miracle had transpired. Molly had dutifully punched my waning card, but it still had several dollars left on it. How could that be?

As you’ve probably guessed, the farm girl from Rigby had wrought the miracle. The day I started loading more food on my tray, Molly started punching the air, and not my food ticket. Once I figured out the deception, I was extremely grateful, but said nothing. The least I could do was to quietly accept Molly’s offering—even if it meant colluding to steal from the college. Eventually the semester ended, we went our separate ways, and Molly vanished from my life. Years later, I paid back the school (a hundred times over), trying to make up for my criminal ways. Nevertheless, I still have a tender place in my heart for Molly, the selfless guardian angel who had risked expulsion on my behalf.

Decades passed without my thinking about any of this, until I started teaching an MBA class that was offered during the dinner hour. Since many of the students came to class looking hungry, I decided to honor Molly by paying her kindness forward. So, for several years, I provided MBA students a meal (tacos, pizza, etc.) at the beginning of every class period. Many thought I was trying to curry their favor. Others suggested that my actions were guilt-induced. The truth is far more complicated. It all started with a careless kid who fortuitously didn’t fall to his death while painting a house. This was followed by a string of payments for painting that house. Next came an act of kindness—since the payments were never fully completed. Then, the careless kid grew up and honored the act of kindness by paying it forward.

So, here’s what this weird chain of events boils down to. Let us look at our own lives and see where we can pass on the kindnesses we’ve been shown—let’s see how we can be the hero for someone else. Who knows? Maybe our own small acts of kindness will have a ripple effect in the world we live in.

When MBA students asked me whom they should thank for their dinner, I told them to thank Molly. She’s the hero of this tale. You can’t be a selfless, punch-faking guardian angel who risks being fired and thrown out of college to help out a hungry stranger without being a hero.

Crucial Accountability QA

Transforming a Negative Environment

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on September 17, 2014.
Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a mid-level manager in human services, and support a twenty-one person staff. Nineteen of these team members have a professional approach to their work, manage their emotions appropriately, and are respectful to others. However, two team members are constantly negative, complaining, and disrespectful. I have addressed these behaviors with them, but they only improve for a little while before reverting back. I am continually amazed at how these two team members can negatively affect nineteen otherwise positive people. Over the years, I have seen this on other teams as well, where the negative member(s) adversely influence the positive members, even though the positive members are in the majority. Is there a reason that negativity trumps positivity?


Dear Discouraged,

Thanks for a winning question. Infectious negativity saps the vitality from far too many workplaces. Your final question is especially interesting to me: Why does negativity trump positivity?

I’ll describe several reasons for why negativity spreads and persists, as well as suggest a variety of solutions.

1. Negativity trumps positivity because humans are designed to be risk averse. This makes sense when you think about our survival instincts. Bad news signals danger and may require action. Danger signals are processed by the amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, instead of by the prefrontal cortex. These amygdala-mediated thoughts seize our attention and focus it on the danger. This is why even people who are normally positive pay more attention to negative than to positive information.

2. People pay attention to negative information because it violates the organization’s public relations bias. Most organizations and most leaders try to sugarcoat problems, hiding them from employees. The result is that employees are hungry for the truth—especially for the less-flattering truths they believe are being withheld from them. This means they pay special attention, and seriously consider, the negative information they hear—even when it comes from less-than-trustworthy sources.

Solution: The solution to these first two problems is to add more and more honest information to the pool. People who have questions and concerns will turn to darned near anyone for information. Make sure you are there first with honest answers.

3. Too many people count on others to speak up for them. They are too timid to speak up for themselves. The people who do speak up fall into two camps: those especially skilled at crucial conversations and those who aren’t. Those especially skilled folks know how to speak up in ways that are frank, honest, and respectful. Those who are especially unskilled are honest, but offensive, and may not even realize how negative they actually are.

Solution: Create opportunities and make it safer for people to raise questions and concerns. Don’t force the silent majority to rely on their least-skilled members to raise their concerns. In addition, train and coach the less-skilled communicators to be more skilled in how they raise their concerns—and direct them to raise their concerns with you.

4. The fourth reason that negativity spreads is different from the first three because it deals with a different kind of negativity: disrespectful behavior. When someone is disrespectful, others often respond with disrespect—tit for tat. As a result, disrespect becomes a poison that spreads quickly through a team.

Solution: Every team has informal/implicit norms for what constitutes respectful behavior. When disrespect is seen too often, it may be necessary to make these norms more formal and explicit. This may require a team meeting, a few crucial conversations, or an actual code of conduct. You’ll need to decide how explicit the norms need to be.

However, the key to success isn’t the norms, but how they are enforced. You need to achieve 200 percent accountability: Team members are 100 percent accountable for being respectful; they are also 100 percent accountable for others being respectful. This means that team members, not you, hold each other accountable. It may require some coaching or training, but it is essential. You, as the leader, can’t keep these norms alive. They must be enforced by the team members themselves.

5. Negativity is a habit that’s hard to break. We’ve all observed this unfortunate truth. People commit to stop complaining, rumor-mongering, or being disrespectful, but then fall back in to their old ways.

Solution: Use our CPR skills to make sure you frame the problem correctly. Here is an example.

Content: If the problem is a single incident, then address the content. The content includes the facts about what you expected and what you observed. For example, “When you have a concern or hear a rumor, I expect you to bring it to me, so I can deal with it in a productive way. I hear you shared a rumor this morning—as if it were true—with several team members without checking it out with me first. What happened?”

Pattern: If your chief concern is with the pattern of behaviors, then address the pattern. The pattern is that the person has made a commitment or promise, and has failed to live up to it. For example, “We’ve talked before about sharing rumors without checking them with me first. I thought I had your commitment to stop doing this. I hear you shared a rumor this morning. If my facts are right, then you broke your commitment to me. Help me understand.”

Relationship: If your chief concern involves trust or respect, then address the relationship. The relationship may need to change. For example, “When you make commitments to me and then fail to follow through on them, I begin to think I can’t trust you. And if I can’t trust you, I don’t see how I can have you on my team. Help me understand.”

I hope these ideas help you deal with the negativity that spreads in your workplace. Let me know how they work.

Good Luck,