Crucial Conversations QA

When the Skills Seem to Come Up Short, Consider This

Dear Justin,

I believe in the Crucial Conversations skills and I’ve seen them work. But sometimes, no matter what I seem to do, I get poor results. People still get offended, dig their heels in, etc. What should I do if the other person doesn’t want to change his or her behavior—or even dialogue with me—despite my efforts to use the skills?

Seeking Wisdom

Dear Seeking,

Great question. While it’s true that Crucial Conversations skills don’t fix everything, there are a few points that can help when at a loss with a challenging person or situation that doesn’t seem to be getting better:

  • Don’t forget motive. The best place to start when the ongoing conversation isn’t getting better is with our heart, our motive. What is it that you REALLY want? Do you want the other person to “change”? Or do you want to stay in dialogue and build a relationship? If you are hoping, wishing, and praying for the other person to change (believe me, I’ve been there), your behavior might become forceful, coercive, and maybe even manipulative (I’ve been there, too). Conversely, when we focus on dialogue, results, and relationships, we’re more likely to have an open approach to others, which yields much better results.
  • It takes work, a lot of work. Not too long ago, I asked a Crucial Conversations graduate what she had learned from the course and how she’d benefited. Her answer changed my perspective completely. She said, “I was in a thirty-year relationship that was struggling significantly. I learned the skills and went to work on it. I worked and I worked and I worked . . . and I can honestly say it’s gotten better.” Isn’t that interesting? What she DIDN’T say was “The other person is finally fixed,” or “Everything is perfect now.” She saw progress for what it was—progress. She wasn’t looking for perfection in the other person, but for improvement. Often we need to shift our expectations of what “progress” really looks like.
  • Make it safe. I’ve come to realize that creating Safety can take time. Sometimes safety is created quickly in just one conversation and other times it requires more effort over a period of time. When we learn to think of safety as more than a quick-fix tactic, as a principle of creating Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect, we realize how much time (and work) is required to establish a safety zone that allows for healthy dialogue. As much as we’d like painful, grievous, and frustrating situations to be resolved overnight, that’s not always possible. These things take time. So remember that safety is conversational and relational.
  • If all else fails . . . Sometimes we give a relationship all we’ve got and things still don’t improve. That’s the reality of life. In cases like this, we may choose to end the relationship (personal or professional) and move forward with our lives. Sometimes that means moving departments or ceasing to interact with a friend; either way that decision is personal. I find that if I care about the relationship at all, even if things are going very poorly, I owe it to myself and the other person to come back the next day and give it another shot . . . hopefully a better shot.

All the best,

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Crucial Accountability QA

How to Deal with Delicate Workplace Issues

Dear David,

I have a coworker who has FMLA approval (Federal Medical Leave Act), and I think she abuses it. She doesn’t come to work on time. Multiple times she has run out of the office, citing various personal issues—issues not related to her FMLA approved issues.

We have all agreed as a team that if we are not able to be on time, or need to leave early, or have an appointment, we will tell each other by text or in person. She has only followed through on this once. She might tell someone in leadership, but then leadership doesn’t let the team know. It is an ongoing problem. I have met with her and described the gap between expectation and her behavior. I cited ten instances of when this has occurred. She still takes no responsibility. Leadership members are aware, but they avoid conflict and have asked me to hold her accountable. I have no official authority. What is my next step?


Dear Unauthorized,

Your situation sounds very frustrating. Your coworker is not taking responsibility, your leaders are not stepping up, and you’ve tried to hold her accountable with no success. I admire your patience and resolve.

I want to help you. I’ll share a few ideas. However, I’m not optimistic that your coworker will change unless her managers require it, and it doesn’t sound as if they will. Let’s consider the various aspects of your situation.

FMLA Statute. The purpose of the FMLA statute is: “To balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families . . . , and to allow employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons . . . ” To accomplish this purpose, it permits, “Up to 12 workweeks or up to 480 hours of job-protected unpaid leave for family and medical reasons during a 12-month period.”

Notice two points: The statute assumes a balance between the needs of workplaces and families—that both will need to absorb some side effects for the greater good. Second, it puts a time limit on the side effects a workplace needs to absorb.

Your Leaders. It sounds as if your leaders believe your coworker’s actions are acceptable—a side effect they expect to absorb as a part of the FMLA statute. And they expect you and your team to absorb or manage the side effects as well. I’d like to raise a few questions related to this:

    1. Ask yourself what you really want long term—for yourself, your coworker, and the team. For example, if you take a long-term view, say two years out, will your coworker’s FMLA issues go away? Will she return to being a good coworker? Basically, is this a short-term issue?
    2. Ask yourself whether you agree with your leaders—that the problems you are experiencing are within the scope of the FMLA’s broad intent—and whether the legal risks of confronting the problems outweigh the costs.
    3. Your leaders would like you and the others on your team to backfill for your co-worker while she is on leave. Is this possible? Or do you think your leaders need to take additional steps, such as hire a temporary worker to fill in? If your team needs short-term help, document the need and take it to your leaders.

Reflecting on these questions, I hope, provides you greater insight and clarity regarding the situation.

Yourself. Your frustration could easily get you into trouble. Remember, you don’t have your leaders’ support. They say they want you to hold your coworker accountable, but I don’t buy it. Here is my story: I think they are mostly saying that they won’t be the ones to hold her accountable—perhaps for fear of violating FMLA statutes. My guess is they want you to focus on getting the work done, while avoiding conflicts and any legal liabilities. The more you make an issue of your colleague’s behavior, the more your leaders may come to see you as the problem.

But don’t let my story prevent you from speaking up. If I were you, I’d check out my story with your leaders, taking care to make it safe for them, so they share their honest perspective.

Let’s suppose you decide you need to live with this situation for the next few months. How do you get your heart right? You don’t want to feel resentment toward your coworker or your leaders. This resentment won’t help you be a better person and is likely to leak out in your words and actions.

I’ll offer a few ideas, but I’m not sure which, if any, will work for you. First, try to identify and empathize with your co-worker’s situation. Look for what you can respect about her. For example, it sounds as if her life is difficult in many ways, and yet she is trying to stay employed. Second, tell yourself that this situation is limited in time. When you look back at it five years from now, it won’t matter. Third, focus on being the person you want to be. Be a role model for caring and patience. Use this circumstance as a test to demonstrate to yourself who you really are.

Your Coworker. Drawing on skills from Crucial Accountability, you could address your coworker’s motivation and ability. I would do so not with the intent to change your coworker’s short-term actions, but to make sure that when she completes her FMLA leave, she returns as a valued member of your team.

  • Motivation: Should you address the problem as a matter of motivation, I worry your coworker will feel excluded and punished by the team. That would violate the whole purpose of FMLA and could create long-term damage to her relationship with the team. Ask yourself what you and your team can do to let her know she is still a valued member of your team. She needs to know that her team is there for her in her time of need.
  • Ability: If you approach the problem as a matter of ability, ask yourself what you and your team can do to backfill for your coworker. Are there ways you can help her stay updated on information she misses? Can you extend her a lifeline or job partner who makes sure she doesn’t get left out or left behind?

Again, I respect your actions, your patience, and your persistence. I hope some of these suggestions help.

Best of luck,

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

Kerrying On

A New Gratitude

Norman Chadwick didn’t mind walking to high school even though it was nine blocks away. He did mind the fact that most of the students who shared his route made fun of his shoes.

“Hey, Clodhopper,” the boys would shout as they passed by Norman. “Do you think your shoes are big enough?” Or, if they were feeling especially clever: “Hey Clod, Sasquatch called and he wants his shoes back.”

This particular Monday, Norman (big shoes and all) walked into the community’s cream colored, 1930s, WPA high school building and quietly pressed his way through a tangle of students rummaging through their lockers. Buck Forester, the school’s star linebacker, saw Norman coming and shouted: “Hey Clod, how’s ‘bout an Elvis song!”

Norman enjoyed performing Presley numbers in the hallway. A throng of students would gather and laugh and clap as he climbed onto a bench, strummed on his imaginary guitar, and launched into his best imitation of “The King.” But not without repercussions. As much as Norman enjoyed performing, no one on the faculty approved of his spontaneous shows—especially Mr. Hunter, the football coach.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” Norman bellowed to a group of kids gathering near Buck’s locker, “cryin’ all the time.”

“Go for it!” Buck shouted, “Rock out!”

The crowd grew as Norman’s tortured gyrations and off-pitch caterwauling reached new heights of awkwardness.

“You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

And then, as the crowd’s derisive hoots and hollers reached their zenith, Buck yelled: “Go Clod! Work your guitar, swing those hips, and . . .”

Bang! Buck’s locker exploded as Coach Hunter grabbed Buck by the collar and lifted him off his feet. The once-grinning linebacker was now pinned to his locker—grimacing in pain while his feet frantically banged out a call for help.

“Shame on you!” Mr. Hunter barked to the crowd as he lowered Buck to the floor. “Go straight to your classes! You all know better than this!”

The moment Buck regained his footing, he scurried off to his upcoming class while complaining to anyone within earshot that the coach had attacked him even though he had just been “kidding around.” Coach Hunter took several deep breaths, shook his head in disgust, and escorted Norman to the special-education classroom.

For the next few days, students talked about what had taken place. Some focused on the coach’s violent outburst, while others discussed how cruel Buck had been in the first place. After all, Buck and his friends had egged on a special-needs tenth-grader who thought he was being applauded for his Elvis act, when he was actually being ridiculed. It was disgraceful. And yet, nobody tried to intervene. A few kids wanted to shut down the spectacle, but they didn’t know what to say or do.

Decades have passed since that shameful episode and the question still remains: “What’s the best way for an individual to express his or her disapproval when others start to behave inappropriately? Equally important, how does one respond without mirroring Coach Hunter’s regrettable reaction?

To find an example of how to deal effectively with a breach of civility (from minor acts of disrespect to full-fledged episodes of bullying or harassment) we need not travel any farther than a few paces down the hall from the spot where Coach Hunter demonstrated how not to deal with Buck, the errant linebacker. This time, I was privy to the incident in question. Actually, I was part of the incident. To be totally honest, I was the incident. It took place on the first day of my tenth-grade geometry class. Miss Grace, the school’s aging geometer, had been lecturing at the chalkboard when I made a wisecrack to a classmate across the room. Miss Grace turned to face me and said, “Why, Kerry, you talked while I was talking!”

My first thought was, “Of course! That’s how things work around here. It’s how students make school tolerable.” Only, on this day, when Miss Grace said that I had talked while she was talking, her look of utter shock and deep disappointment was something you’d expect to accompany an outcry such as: “Why, Kerry, you robbed an orphanage!”

The impact of Miss Grace’s startled reaction and look of total disappointment was immediate. Classmates who usually laughed at my tomfoolery were now chastising me. “What were you thinking?” asked Susan LaMont (the girl seated next to me). “Miss Grace was talking. You can’t talk while Miss Grace is talking.”

So powerful had been our geometry teacher’s reaction, it wasn’t long until everyone in her class adhered to her rules of comportment. Weighing in at about 90 pounds and with less than a year until she retired, Miss Grace’s wide-eyed look of astonishment and disapproval carried with it a force that Mr. Hunter had been unable to generate with a choke hold. The coach was correct in recognizing that what Buck and his friends had been doing was shameful, but when he allowed his disappointment to grow into a violent reaction, he created a whole new set of problems.

So, what should a person do in order to follow Miss Grace’s positive example while avoiding Mr. Hunter’s egregious reaction?

When people around you begin to grossly misbehave, it’s important that you do something. Fleeing the scene or clamming up only makes matters worse. For instance, turning a blind eye to a racist comment, or shrugging off a harassing remark, suggests that you’re giving tacit approval to dreadful behavior. Not good. It’s also unwise to verbally attack the original offenders for their disrespectful actions and then strut around triumphantly as if your own brand of abuse just saved the day. Instead, it’s best to replace silence and anger with surprise and disappointment. Acting surprised may not eliminate dreadful behavior in a single stroke, but it helps set a clear standard. Showing disappointment provides a proper sense of magnitude without being abusive on its own.

And now, returning to the hallway kids . . . one might predict that recent advances in the social sciences have led to improvements in how humans treat one another. Even members of that rowdy hallway bunch may have picked up a few social skills along the way. Then again, the explosive arguments and debates that are repeatedly aired on TV are so crammed full of vile tirades and personal attacks that it makes one question the viability of one’s own species. Maybe we aren’t getting any better. Maybe we’re getting worse.

Fortunately (according to former classmates who are in the know) most members of Buck’s hallway gang have emotionally and tactically matured—replacing cheap shots and verbal attacks with acts of respect and benevolence. Equally encouraging, many of the individuals who had once been voiceless dissenters have learned to step out of the shadows and tactfully, yet firmly, deal with inappropriate behavior. And as far as Norman is concerned, I’m told that he’s treated with the kindness and respect he deserves—as a matter of course.

And for this . . . I’m truly grateful.