All posts by Al Switzler

Crucial Conversations QA

Owning Up To a Crucial Conversation

The following article was first published on March 12, 2008.

Dear Al,

A relatively new male hire in my wife’s company invited the other men out to a “male bonding lunch.” He asked a female coworker at equal level for advice on where to go and to call in their reservation.

While the men were gone the women discussed this occurrence and felt it was rude and sexist. Some of the men were embarrassed as well when they realized none of the women were invited. Now, there is a sexual discrimination feeling that did not exist before.

What crucial conversations need to happen and who needs to be involved? How can these conversations be handled sensitively?

What To Do?

Dear What To Do,

Knowing when to speak up and how? And who needs to be involved? Ah, those are the tough, life-changing questions. Let me address a couple of points.

First, who owns a crucial conversation? And, how do you know when you should own it? Over the years, I have found two principles that help answer these questions:

1. That little voice in your head either screams or won’t go away. When the “new male hire” asked the question, the “female coworker” probably had a little voice that said, “Male bonding lunch? Is this a good thing?” or “Me call in the reservation? This is not a good thing!” She could have brought up one or both issues right then. She could have also caught herself getting ticked and asked the humanizing question (“Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human ask this?”), concluded he was new, and then simply asked if they could talk about both issues.

Or, the male hire could have noted his female coworker’s subtle non-verbal signals (rolled eyes and white knuckles wrenching a budget document) and noted that she seemed upset and asked why. Either person could have owned the conversation in real time, which is the ideal situation.

2. We start acting it out, instead of talking it out. This is another indicator that we are failing to own up to a crucial conversation. When this happens, we talk about people instead of to people.

The two biggest ways we act it out instead of talk it out are 1) gossip and 2) non-verbal signals like avoidance, frowning, sarcasm, etc. Bystanders can defuse the situation by helping others realize that their gossip or non-verbals are a sign that they are avoiding a crucial conversation.

In this case, instead of keeping her conclusions to herself and talking to her male cowoker, she talked to others about the issue. She opened that proverbial can of worms and now everyone is dealing with numerous trust and respect issues. Any colleague could have stopped her by saying, “Whoa. He’s new. Let’s help him understand when he comes back,” but that also didn’t happen.

Second, how do you start such a conversation? Since both of the coworkers failed to catch the mistake before lunch, it needs to be addressed as soon as it is safe. To create safety, she must first master her story by reminding herself that she doesn’t really know why he did what he did. This will help her control her emotions and conclusions.

The first crucial conversation needs to be a private conversation between the female coworker and her male coworker. She must lead with observations and questions, rather than emotions and conclusions. This one step alone can make a huge difference.

The second crucial conversation should be with the entire company. To help defuse the tension that has been introduced into the culture, gather the entire company together and set clear expectations around what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Make sure you reach complete agreement between everyone before concluding the meeting. This conversation is the first step to avoiding future instances, creating guidelines to hold others accountable to, and ensuring that everyone operates under common expectations. Make sure to communicate these expectations to new employees upon hire.

I have only scratched the surface. But what I have covered is powerful. Anyone can own a crucial conversation—whether it’s real time (the best) or next time (which is still good).

Best wishes,

Crucial Accountability QA

How to Hold Employees Accountable Without Micromanaging

The following article was first published on November 2, 2004.

Dear Crucial Skills,

As a manager, I resist micromanaging at all costs; it’s not the way I want to be managed and it’s not the way I want to manage. However, I may well be a manager who can be taken advantage of, and that doesn’t feel particularly good. I’m in higher education where there is high value placed on collegiality. This translates most often into a great deal of autonomy at the expense of accountability. If I’ve ever had to have a crucial conversation, I feel I can only do so with extreme delicacy. How can managers find the proper balance with employees?

Dr. Delicate

Dear Dr. Delicate,

As I respond to your question, I want to extend it to other situations. I don’t think people want to micromanage or be micromanaged anywhere. Micromanagement is not desirable even in tense environments such as airport towers, nuclear power plants, or emergency rooms. It’s certainly not what people want at home with partners or with children. “Take out the garbage. Did you put in a new liner? Did you put the lid on the garbage can? Did you close the garage door?” All of this sounds like nagging. It certainly minimizes autonomy and initiative. And, as you noted, it minimizes collegiality and other positive forms of relationships.

On the other hand, particularly in high-risk situations or where there is a track record of performance problems, managers or leaders don’t want to say, “I don’t want to micromanage, so I’ll just trust you to perform and get back to me when you find it convenient.”

So what can be done to hold people accountable without micromanaging? Here are a few suggestions.

Excellent performance begins with clear expectations. As you set expectations with individuals or groups, make sure you not only include what the desired results are, but also get agreement about how you will talk about issues or problems that come up. Talk about the process of accountability and about how you define management vs. micromanagement—from both sides.

It could sound something like this: “We’ve agreed that the proposal will be submitted for review to me by next Tuesday at noon. Can we talk for a few minutes about what each of us should do if we run into problems or barriers?” In this discussion, you can talk about what the other person will do to keep you informed in advance if there is the possibility of a delay, or if he or she needs additional input, or whatever. Also, you can get agreement about how you’ll check in with the person.

The outcome of this conversation is that both of you should feel comfortable with and clear about the outcomes and the process you’ll use to ensure accountability. Ask specific questions such as, “Do you feel okay about the process?” and “Are you comfortable with our plan concerning accountability?” These questions give you opportunities to make sure that your intention is to get results and not to micromanage. To emphasize this point, you need agreements about how you hold others accountable. What is your comfort level about frequency and specificity? What is the other person’s comfort level? The balance comes from the dialogue you have up front.

Look at your story. Too often people tell themselves that if they confront someone, the person will see it as micromanaging. This can be a “Sucker’s Choice”—a choice where we see only two options—both of them bad. For example, “If I confront people, they’ll see it as being ‘on their case’; or I can not confront them and let the results suffer.” In reality, there is often a third, better alternative; you can confront the issue of accountability AND not micromanage. So you mentally push yourself to find the AND. “How can I confront this issue so the results are achieved AND avoid having the other person think I’m micromanaging? In fact, how can I deal with performance issues AND strengthen our relationship?”

Such questions, of course, help you to focus on what you really want for you, for the other person, and for the relationship. You don’t have to choose between performance and relationship . . . you can get both.

Describe the gap. If you need to discuss a performance issue, you can create the safety needed for a helpful discussion by describing the gap. Describe what you agreed on and then what you observed and how it differed from what you expected. The gap between these two is what you are going to talk about. If you can begin well, the rest is often easy. Make sure you start with facts, not emotions or conclusions. You begin with an observation, not an accusation.

When you can do this well, you send a message that says, “I’ve noticed this and I’m interested in learning what happened—I have not pre-judged you or the issue.” Also, when you have an agreement upfront about how accountability discussions will be held, there are no surprises. With no surprises and lots of safety, holding talks about performance is not seen as micromanaging.

I hope these three points help. I also hope that you and others can see how they can be applied at a college, in manufacturing, other businesses, and at home.

Best Wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Communicating with the Unresponsive

This column will be Al Switzler’s last. He is transitioning to a more advisory role and will be supporting some of our non-profit efforts. We will be introducing new thought leaders in coming issues of Crucial Skills.

Dear Crucial Skills,

What do I do about a supervisor who doesn’t respond to or acknowledge e-mails and other correspondence from me? I even use the “read receipt” which indicates that it was read, but still no response.

Awaiting a Response

Dear Awaiting,

When I read questions like this, I sense frustration, self-doubt, and difficulty in restraining your anger. But before I respond to your question, let me start with a caveat. Every situation varies. Since I know so little of the specifics, history, and stressors, I’m shooting in the dark a bit. But, hopefully you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt if I have guessed incorrectly.

With this in mind, I’d like to insert your question into a bucket that contains other similar questions and challenges:
• “What do I do when my supervisor makes a commitment to involve me in decisions and then doesn’t? I feel uncomfortable chasing her down all the time.”
• “How do I respond if someone I work with goes to radio silence—someone from whom I need information, help, or approval?”

And so I will offer three tactics for responding to these kinds of challenges.

1. Start with Heart. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. You have some history with the other person. You know how long this has been going on. You could explain how many times you’ve tried to talk with your supervisor about his or her unwillingness to respond. I’d say that, in one way, regardless of the background, you should start by asking the “humanizing question” with a twist. The humanizing question is this: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?” This is an invitation for your brain and emotions to engage in an empathy exercise. What could be going on with your supervisor? What stress is s/he experiencing? In what ways could you be part of the problem? And here is the twist: In what ways could you be part of the solution?

Allow me to speculate here. Could it be that your supervisor is facing tons of stress from above and is acting as a buffer between you and the stress? Could it be that your supervisor gets 547 e-mails per day and is simply swamped? Insert all the empathetic responses you can think of here. Then create a plan to be helpful. You might go to him or her and ask if it would be possible for you to send fewer e-mails by setting a weekly (or daily) five-minute meeting to keep your projects speeding along and to keep him or her informed. Together, you will need to work out the specifics. But I think the principle is sound. Begin with empathy, find the key barriers, and then try to be part of a solution—rather than maintaining the stance that your supervisor is the problem.

2. Clarify the workflow. Often when there is a struggle in a relationship, it’s because the people involved are dependent on one another for many actions—sometimes too many. For example, what do you need from your supervisor and what does your supervisor need from you? Do you need updates or approvals? Delays cause you grief and radio silence has you sitting on your hands. Does your supervisor need trust and predictability? Is this a complicated project that has your supervisor juggling seventeen balls with little time left over to answer e-mails? The conversation you might have is about empowerment—getting more on your plate and less on your supervisor’s. Go to your supervisor with a plan for how you might streamline your work in a way that continues to give the supervisor increased trust and predictability.

Years ago, we worked with an organization that had hundreds of forms requiring anywhere from four to fourteen signatures for approval. Our analysis found that any signatures above the first four were redundant—people signed the form simply because the person before them signed it. They reduced the number of signatures dramatically and thus reduced the waiting time between approvals. You might go in with a proposal, in question form, about moving more of the approvals to you. Additionally, show how you would keep the supervisor informed and when and how you would deal with exceptions. Such a discussion would make you part of the solution.

3. Talk about the real issue. I saved this for last with good reason. Sometimes we don’t feel we can talk about the real issue without trying other tactics first, so I’ve led with them. However, I stress that this may be the first tactic. The real issue with your supervisor is not that s/he is not responsive. The real issue is that there is a pattern adversely affecting the quantity and quality of your work. Sometimes the assumptions we make about our supervisor and our relationship keeps us from the real discussion. Generally, I’d suggest that reframe your assumptions and find a way to talk about this pattern. Select a good time and a private location. It might go something like this: “I’m finding a consistent need to get information or approvals from you but then have to wait on the messages I send. I’d like to talk about what we might do to make this process more efficient so the projects can proceed smoothly. Would that be okay?” The two of you can share ideas and make a plan. If that doesn’t happen, I would also have a script prepared where you could talk about your Mutual Purpose—you aren’t trying to cause more stress but trying to find solutions that would make it easier for your supervisor while allowing you to get your work done more quickly and efficiently. I would then suggest tactics like the two detailed above. I like going into any crucial conversation not only prepared for the topic at hand, but also with several other strategies to use if the first plan doesn’t work.

Will it work? I don’t know. Will the situation improve if you do nothing? I doubt it; it seldom does. Do you have enough tactics and scripts and enough Mutual Purpose and respect to engage in the conversation and feel confident that some progress will be made? Absolutely.

I wish you the best,

Crucial Accountability QA

The Silent Spouse

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on February 2, 2005.

Dear Crucial Skills,
Whenever my husband and I get into a conversation that he doesn’t want to continue, he will resort to a comment like, “You always have to have things your way,” and will refuse to continue the conversation. This approach leaves issues unresolved and interferes with other areas of our life. How can I get around this?

Dear Unresolved,
When we teach Crucial Conversations Training and ask for the kinds of challenges people face, this issue comes up in several ways. Some talk about being married to a mime. Others comment that their spouse seems Finish Reading

Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Family Vacations—Putting R&R Back on the Agenda

Dear Crucial Skills,

A group of my family and friends is flying to a wonderful resort for a family wedding. Everyone usually gets along, but when we travel together, one family member can be the deal breaker! She can be demanding and outspoken. Because I am a retired psychiatric nurse, I am usually called upon to help settle situations with her. I’m happy to help, but this is my holiday too. What can I do so that I can also relax?

Needing a Vacation

Dear Needing,

Congratulations! You are obviously skilled at resolving interpersonal conflict, dicey situations, and family squabbles. That is a good skill set. Over the years, I’m sure you have been the reason that dinners, barbeques, holidays, and vacations have been salvaged and reasonably successful. So again, great work. Wouldn’t it be great if every family had a designated helper? Or two or three or four? I’m hinting at the solution.

The question is, what do you need a vacation from? On the first level, you need a vacation from work, routine, and stress—like we all do. On the next level, you need a vacation from being the designated conflict resolver. The need, I’m thinking, was self-created. When you saw a conflict, I’m imagining that with good intentions, you alone stepped up and then stepped in to resolve the conflict. Or you waited until tempers exploded, gossip overflowed, or family members were packing, and then someone begged you to help. Again, you intervened. Don’t get me wrong, during these many cycles, you helped a lot, but you also sent a message that the people arguing, domineering, bickering, or brawling, weren’t responsible or didn’t need to worry about their actions. The super nurse would always save the day, the trip, or the event. If you’re like me, saving the day can bring some personal gratification. But you and I, and others like us (you know who you are) have created a cycle that is tiring and stressful—a cycle that we now need a vacation from.

So with that introduction, I offer a little advice about how to create your own vacation. It begins by thinking about what gaps you need to consider and who you need to talk to.

Scenario 1

Who you address: Everyone in the party.

Gap: People need to resolve their own conflicts. In the past, you have always stepped in.
Strategy: You don’t do anything—before, during, or after. You send a non-verbal message that it’s not your job. The outcome is predictable and not pretty. I don’t suggest this possibility.

Scenario 2

Who you address: The demanding and outspoken family member.

Gap: We need everyone to behave well, and historically she has been domineering and outspoken.
Strategy: Talk to her privately about what would help the wedding go smoothly, and what could cause it not to. Ask her for her help. If she is agreeable, I’d ask if you could help by giving her an agreed upon, but very subtle signal, if she begins to behave in ways that might not help the other guests enjoy the wedding. This strategy is best if you and she have a friendly relationship. If not, I probably wouldn’t attempt it.

You should note that the previous scenario is preventative. It helps create clear expectations and comes with agreed-upon, real-time subtle cues. The next scenario is also preventative but takes a very different approach—a coaching approach.

Scenario 3

Who you address: Anyone who has had a falling out with the original demanding and outspoken family member.

Gap: They need to resolve their own conflicts. In the past, they have let these issues go from bad to worse, or asked you to intervene.

Strategy: Meet with them privately and tell them that you have intervened in the past and feel that you need a break. Tell them that they need to resolve the conflicts themselves. They can try to avoid conflict by being patient or avoiding behavior that eggs the other on. Or if there is a conflict, they can work it out themselves. Offer coaching help, but assure them that your time as the designated conflict-resolver is over. If they ask for coaching, share your ideas. I’m sure you have many helpful tips that work. (It might be too self-serving on my part if I suggest you recommend that they buy a copy of some good book on the subject.)

In conclusion, I again offer you my congratulations for having the ability to resolve conflicts. It seems you have saved a lot of events from completely unraveling. As a result, you have helped create some dependencies that now need to be reevaluated. I think that the last two possibilities I’ve noted will help you be less central in preserving your family unity. I’m sure you have the skills to do them; to the extent that they work, you will have earned your vacation.



Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Above and Beyond? How to Deal with a Strong-willed Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,

I manage a small technical team. One particular member of my team is a seasoned high performer who is very strong-willed. This person enjoys being the “hero” in the customer’s eyes by sometimes intentionally making commitments that lead to unnecessary and excessive overtime. Because of exempt status, this person is not eligible for overtime compensation and the company has no comp time policy. The employee has expressed an opinion of entitlement to compensation for this overtime, especially since the work brings in significant revenue directly to the company. This has put me, as his manager, in an uncomfortable and awkward position when I have had to address the issue. Despite repeated requests to stop this behavior, the employee persists in making commitments “for the good of the customer” even though we have told the employee we cannot provide compensation for overtime work. How should I deal with this?



Dear Manager,

What we have here is an archetypal crucial conversation! Clearly the stakes are high, you and your seasoned high performer see it differently, and the emotions have kicked in. As I have read and reread your question, my mind has been flooded with options. I have tried to sort through the flood to find a few bits of advice that I think are most cogent, noting that because I don’t know the context or history, some of this advice may be less cogent than I would hope. Nonetheless, here is some advice in chronological order.

Consider your options. All people facing crucial conversations have at least three options. You can remain silent, turn to violence, or hold a crucial conversation. If you choose silence, you are essentially giving the employee your permission to continue acting this way. However, most people don’t really remain silent—they gossip. And that generally unravels and hurts the relationship. Or you can choose violence—you can bottle up your emotions until you explode with accusations, sarcasm, or worse. Neither of these first two options, which are very common, will help. So the first bit of advice concerning how to deal with this is to speak up with candor and courtesy.

Get your head and your heart ready before you open your mouth. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?” Do you really understand the reasons this seasoned, high-performing employee is acting this way? Have you asked him? Does this employee feel like you care and that you are trying to understand? Are his reasons limited to serving customers and compensation? Could the employee be identifying a big problem that you, as a supervisor, need to help solve? What is your purpose? What is his purpose? What is the Mutual Purpose? When we have an issue with someone, we are often too quick to generate conclusions that oversimplify. So make sure you have done your best to understand.

It’s likely you’ve noticed that the first two bits of advice deal with you and not the other person. Each of us needs to make sure we work on us first. We don’t want to charge into a conversation with incomplete and clever stories, with our faces showing that we have held court in our heads and found the other person guilty. Once you have carefully engaged in the first two pieces of advice, you can then proceed.

Talk about the real issue. Over the years we’ve talked and written about determining what conversation to hold using CPR—Content, Pattern, and Relationship. The problem that many of us suffer from is that we talk ourselves blue in the face about the wrong issue. We choose simple over complex, easy over hard, and incident over pattern. I’m not sure what the real issue is with your employee. Maybe the issue is a pattern of making inappropriate commitments to customers. Maybe the issue is a sense of entitlement about the lack of overtime pay or perhaps compensation in general. Maybe the issue is that you have made repeated requests and he has not made a firm commitment. These are things to think about. I will say that clearly you must address a pattern and probably a relationship issue. Again, without knowing the context, let me suggest a couple of approaches for when you open your mouth.

Speak up about what really matters. Of course, you want to make it safe to talk. Safety would include privacy (not having spectators), timing (choosing a time when you won’t be rushed or stressed), and purpose (clarify up front what you are trying to accomplish and ask if now is a good time for the two of you to talk).

You might begin by saying, “We’ve chatted at least three times about making commitments to customers that require overtime and your feeling that it’s not fair that you not be compensated for this. I’ve asked you numerous times not to make these commitments and you know the compensation policy. I’d like to understand and I would also like to talk about this so that we don’t have this issue recur. Is my purpose clear?”

What you have done here is clarify an outcome. You are not merely trying to solve the problem of his making commitments to customers; you are trying to eliminate a pattern and to build a relationship so that you can trust him when he makes a commitment. What the solution is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a motivation problem and when you share the consequences of the employee’s actions, he or she may understand them and comply. Maybe it’s an ability problem, and when the two of you identify how your employee can say no to customers, you’ll have a solution. Maybe you’ll learn something that will cause you to support a salary increase for the employee or a change in a process or policy. When you start the conversation, the outcome is not predetermined; but when you finish the conversation, the next steps and commitments should be very clear—as in Who Does What by When, and Follow up.

There is no magic solution to challenges like the one you are facing. There are some tested principles and I’ve based my advice on them. All of these tactics and principles stem from the Law of Crucial Conversations: If you’re stuck in some aspect of your life, at work or at home, there is a crucial conversation you’re not holding or not holding well. Get better at crucial conversations and get better at everything.

I wish you well in stepping up to this conversation,


Crucial Conversations QA

How to Work With a Chatty Cathy

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

Several of my coworkers sit and face each other in the cubicles next door to me. They’re good friends and it seems, especially lately during our slow season, that they spend the majority of the day chatting about anything and everything. Most mornings, the first hours are nothing but chatter. It’s terribly distracting. I’ve tried to plug in my earphones and listen to music to help me focus but it doesn’t drown out the noise. Any tips on asking the “chattaholics” to turn it down and minimize the disruptive discussion without seeming rude or snobby?



A Dear Annoyed,

This sounds like a classic case of being stuck. I define “stuck” as not getting results you want, getting results that you don’t want, failing relationships, recurring problems, or being frequently bugged. Our Crucial Conversations book and training contain a set of skills that helps you get unstuck. These skills help you solve situations characterized by high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. Before I offer some advice, I want to take a moment to suggest how these situations generally develop, and hope this note will motivate everyone to speak up early.

Here is the main point. Chattiness, like tardiness, or sloppiness, doesn’t happen suddenly—it sort of sneaks in or evolves. No one or no team starts the day by saying, “Look we have typically been getting eight hours of effective work done every day, but now I suggest that we chat for three hours and work for five. Won’t that be fun?” And I doubt any group started chatting three hours the first day. Social time most likely increased by a few minutes every day. Lower standards creep in little by little, here and there, which can make the problem hard to notice.

With that background, my first bit of advice is to catch problems early. When you catch them early, it’s easier to speak up. Early on, you might have been able to say something like, “Hey team, I have a lot of work to do, and it’s hard to get it done when we talk this much. I can be chatty myself; however, I’m wondering if we could chat during breaks and lunch and focus on work when it’s work time. That would really help us all out. What do you say?” Early on, you are not dealing with a long pattern; there is no new, lower norm. It’s just easier for anyone to speak up early. Even if you have let the problem grow over time by remaining silent until now, the sooner you choose to say something, the easier the crucial conversation will be.

Remember that when any of us see that we are stuck, we have three options.

We can stay silent. Often we don’t want to speak up because we feel it’s not our job, we don’t want to make waves, or don’t want to lose a friend. But I would caution you—silence is the petri dish upon which lower standards grow.

We blow up. We’ve had it “up to here.” So we explode with something like, “Give me a break! Shut up, you gossip mongers, will you??? I can’t get my work done.” Again, be careful. Leading with emotions and labels is the dynamite that weakens relationships.

We speak up with candor and courtesy. When we do this, we show that we value both the standard and the relationship and that we are speaking up to maintain both.

If you try the third option, you should be prepared with what you’ll say or do next. Often, people are silent, not because they don’t think they can bring up a topic, but because they are fearful they won’t be able to deal with the response. The key to preparing is to assess the situation and relationship and think about what might happen if you speak up and then get ready with some responses.

As an example: You begin the conversation as stated above and someone responds with one of the following statements.

• “Who died and left you in charge?” This is an opportunity to share your intention with what you are and are not trying to do—otherwise known as contrasting. You might say, “I’m not trying to be bossy here. I value you as friends and we all have a lot of work to do. I’m just trying to solve a problem I’m facing and asking my coworkers for help.”

• “Since when did you become Captain Perfect? You’re just as bad as I am.” Again, share your intention. “I realize that I’m part of the problem. That’s why I used the word we. I don’t want to come across as a perfectionist; I’m just trying to find a solution to a situation that is affecting all of us.”

• The other person simply nods and rolls his or her eyes. You can tell that right at this moment he or she is thinking statements like the ones above or worse. You might say, “I realize this is a tough subject. It was very hard for me to bring this up because I’m part of the problem. I still want to talk and visit with you. I also want to get a lot of work done. It looks like I’ve bothered a few of you by bringing this topic up. I’m asking if we can find a solution that will help us get the work done and still be friendly.”

Of course there are no “ideal” scripts to use in situations like this one. It’s hard for me to offer options when I know so little about the details or circumstances. But I assure you that you will find your own, more effective scripts if you prepare and have the purpose of finding a solution while also maintaining or strengthening the relationship.

Remember to speak up early in a candid and courteous way and to prepare for responses that will help clarify your intentions.

I wish you the best,