All posts by Candace Bertotti

Crucial Conversations QA

What To Do When a Conversation Fails

Dear Candace,

I work at a church, and sometimes the members cause drama. Recently we received from a parent two angry emails about our children’s ministry. This parent has a reputation for getting angry, but she’s rooted in the church so probably isn’t going away. For a long time, I deliberated whether it was worth asking her to offer feedback in less emotionally charged ways, then I scheduled a meeting. I explained that I am open to feedback but asked that she give it more constructively. She didn’t respond as I’d hoped, saying, “I needed you to know how angry I was,” and “I’m sorry if I offended you, but I was just being real.” The conversation ended without resolution, but I want to make progress to prevent future blowups. What should I do?

Confused Clergy

Dear Confused,

Let me share just a few tips that can help you get a fruitful conversation going.

Look Behind the Curtain of Action

When someone lashes out, it’s often because fear is lurking behind the curtain of their actions. Consider what your church member might be afraid of and how you might address her concern before it appears on stage.

You can encourage her to open up by sharing your good intentions at the beginning of your next conversation. This “good intention” shouldn’t be to change her (so she can give feedback more constructively), but to find mutual purpose and get results.

So, consider the ultimate result you are looking for. “I’d like to find a way for us to operate more as a team to create the best children’s ministry.” Or “I’d like to explore ways we can express feedback and disagreement—in a way where you feel heard and in a way the recipient can hear it—so we can continue to improve our children’s ministry.”

My favorite quote in Crucial Conversations captures this idea: “People don’t get defensive about what you’re saying. They get defensive because of why they think you are saying it.”

If you don’t share your good intentions up front, the other person is left to guess. Don’t give them the opportunity to guess wrong.

Build Team Trust

Given that this member gets angry with other members (and I’m guessing they in turn get angry with her), you may want to address trust and respect with your whole team.

Quaker peace activist Gene Knudson Hoffman said, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” While you may not be enemies, the point is the more we know about someone, the harder it is to dislike them—or send them angry emails.

Consider holding a meeting with several key members that work together. Acknowledge where trust could be stronger. Then, actively create space to build trust. Consider having each person share something personal—a challenge they overcame in their youth, for example. Such challenges often reveal windows into who people are as adults. Go first and model vulnerability. If the first person shares something surfacy, others will likely follow their lead.

To recap, look behind others’ actions to identify and remove potential fear. Stay focused on the ultimate goal and communicate it. And continue to build trust with your entire team. As we say in Crucial Conversations: “People can’t hear your content unless they trust your intent.” Address fear and build trust and you’ll have much less drama when new issues arise.

May your efforts going forward yield a new result.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Deliver Feedback without Insulting Someone

Dear Candace,

How do you deliver feedback that seems to relate less to behavior and more to personality? I oversee an Employee Resource Group (ERG). The leader of this group, like the members of it, volunteers his time and energy to the ERG. We all want the members to thrive and progress, both personally and professionally. However, sometimes this leader gets in his own way. How do you tell a volunteer leader with a heart of gold that the way he processes information and interacts with members frustrates members to the point where they stop participating? It is important that I not alienate volunteers. I am struggling to provide feedback that will enhance this individual’s performance without sounding like I’m critiquing who he is.

Personality is The Problem

Dear Personality,

We also want you to deliver feedback that will enhance your volunteer’s performance. You came to the right place.

To start, let’s make a distinction between personality and behavior: roughly, personality is who you are and behavior is what you do.

Walter Mischel, a groundbreaking psychologist, argued that behavior is not fixed by our personality, but is changeable and driven by situation. Different situations generate different behaviors. For example, I may have an analytical personality—tending to process information at length before making decisions. But if someone is chasing me or a deadline is looming, I’ll make very quick decisions. My behavior can change.

For your situation, what behaviors are necessary for an effective ERG leader? Identify a few high-leverage behaviors that your volunteer needs to excel in his role. Think about his strengths—the extent to which his behaviors match the behavioral demands of the work and role, the more likely he’ll succeed.

Pro-tip: when determining these essential behaviors, ensure they are actual actions and not character traits or outcomes. For example, “send out an agenda, including what decisions need to be made at the meeting and any supportive material, 48 hours before each meeting” is a behavior. “Be more organized” is not.

Give thought to these behaviors ahead of time, and also leave room for his ideas. You might be surprised by the insights from his vantage point—especially when you create a safe space for candor.

Unite through your shared mission of your ERG. Focus on what you really want long-term for yourself, for him, for your relationship, and your group. Share your healthy motive up front so he understands that your intention isn’t to focus on his shortcomings, but for him and your group to be successful.

That doesn’t mean you gloss over his actions that aren’t serving the group. Instead, use facts without judgment to help him identify behaviors that need to be replaced. For example, instead of “you are hard to work with,” share the behavior you witness: “I noticed at the last two meetings there was no agenda. Both meetings ended with three decisions unmade.”

Just because someone has certain personality traits doesn’t mean they understand how those affect other people. Consider sharing facts that reveal the hidden consequences of their repeated actions. For example, “I’m not sure if you are aware, but after you spoke at the meeting, no one else spoke,” or, “after you spoke, two people were in tears,” or, “I notice you spoke for about 50 of the 60 minutes of our meeting, yet your agenda item was one of seven. Five items didn’t get addressed because we ran out of time after the first two. One of the members drove two hours to be at our meeting and his item didn’t get discussed.”

In summary, determine two to three high-leverage behaviors that would help him excel in his role; get clear on your shared intentions and use that as an entry point for discussion; and share facts about your observations of his behavior to safely identify the behavior (and not personality!) that will help him change.

Good Luck,

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Approach a Coworker Who Goes Over Your Head

Dear Candace,

What should I do when my coworker complains about my performance to my superiors before or without addressing the concern with me? I wish I had the opportunity to talk with her, but she always goes over my head.

No Opportunity to Address My Performance

Dear No Opportunity,

It does seem unfair to not have the opportunity to address an issue before it gets escalated.

As you consider how to effectively confront this situation, here are a few tips:

Start with Yourself. What Can You Own?

Is there something you can own about your behavior in this situation? To be clear, I’m not suggesting you are the bad guy here. I am suggesting that we all play some role in how our situation is turning out. Owning your part in it—even if it’s small—can set a tenor of humility and candor that invites reciprocity. Have you been sitting on your frustration and could have brought up your concerns sooner? Have you given her reason to not feel safe delivering feedback (perhaps getting defensive or being resistant or dismissive of suggestions)? Have you had a conversation agreeing on a process for addressing concerns in how you work together? Consider your role in how the situation got to this point and own that. The more humility you bring to the table, the more likely she’ll feel comfortable to hear your message.

Identify and Remove the Fear

Your co-worker repeatedly avoids talking with you. What could be her fear? Think about what she might be afraid of when choosing to not speak with you directly. Perhaps she is afraid of your reaction or your perception of her—or perhaps she’s afraid to confront and reveal her own lack of communication skills. Consider ways you can address and remove those fears when you talk with her: “I get that it can be awkward to address performance issues when we aren’t each other’s supervisor. Please know I welcome the opportunity to address performance concerns—particularly when they first appear. I want to do my best work and if it appears I’m not, I’d honestly like to know.”

Be Honest with Your Intentions and Consider Her Feedback

Do you really want to hear your coworker’s criticisms and what she sees as your shortcomings? Or do you just want a chance to defend yourself and dismiss her concerns? If you’re inviting her to do something that seems risky, prepare to really hear what she might say, sincerely consider her feedback, and keep your reactions in a healthy zone of response. You don’t want to punish her for her honesty. If you ask someone to open up the expired tuna that’s been in the fridge, you have to be ready for the potential smell.

Solve the Problem Long-Term

It could be tempting to have her share some concerns about your performance, address that, and quickly move on. The concerns in your scenario seem to go deeper. It sounds like you want a process in place where both of you can bring up concerns quickly and count on each other to sincerely consider the concern(s). For that process to be sustainable, you must have a working relationship of trust and respect.

Feedback Fridays

You don’t want to feel like every interaction holds a potential performance smackdown, and yet you want to have a candid working relationship. Create some boundaries and make it easy to have these conversations regularly. Consider meeting with your coworker for “Feedback Fridays” every other Friday. The time can be brief, and you can even make it fun (Feedback Fridays with French fries!), but it serves as a trusted placeholder for you both to check in on how you are working together.

I hope these tips help.

Best of luck,