All posts by Emily Hoffman

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Be on the Receiving End of a Crucial Conversation

Dear Emily,

I’ve gained a lot from using crucial conversations skills in my life, but always as the initiator. What I feel less skilled at is being on the receiving end of criticism. My last relationship ended partly because my partner and I could not come to an agreement about my children. In that relationship, I always felt judged, defensive, and rebellious when my partner tried to talk to me about my kids and how their behavior was affecting them. I want to learn from my mistakes. Any advice on how to be a better at being the recipient of a crucial conversation?

Sincerely,
Defensive

Dear Defensive,

Some years ago, I needed to have a crucial conversation with Ron McMillan, co-author of Crucial Conversations. I was young and inexperienced. I had a tough topic to address and was anxious about offending Ron. I was pretty sure I was going to bungle the conversation.

I remember sitting down in his office and blurting out, “I need to have a crucial conversation with you and I know I am going to mess it up, but I think your crucial conversations skills are good enough to cover both of us.” And they were.

Ron, for me, was the perfect exemplar of how to receive a crucial conversation. I loved your question because it demonstrates tremendous insight. As the recipient of a crucial conversation, we can draw on the same foundational principles that we use when initiating a conversation, but we apply them with a slight twist. Here is what I have learned, from Ron and others, about receiving a crucial conversation.

1. Don’t expect the other person to crucially converse perfectly. For those of us who know and practice crucial conversations skills, it can be tempting to unconsciously expect everyone to start their crucial conversations by building safety and sharing facts. We are trying hard to hear their tough message and think that the least they can do is state it well. So, when that other person slips up and says something rude, hurtful, or disrespectful, we tell ourselves a story: this person is being rude, hurtful and disrespectful. While logical, that story doesn’t help us in the moment. Instead, it creates a feeling of defensiveness.

Consider how you might react to someone saying something rude, hurtful, and disrespectful if your story was: “Wow! This person has a tough message to share and she really has no idea how to do that well. She could use some training.” When we stop expecting people to share their meaning perfectly, we see their poorly delivered messages as a lack of skill rather than poor intent. This reduces our defensiveness because suddenly it’s not about me anymore, but about them.

2. Take time to prepare and time to respond. For many of us, it is easier to initiate a crucial conversation because we’ve had time to prepare for it. We’ve thought through not only what we want to say, but why we are saying it (our intent), and how we will say it (so as to demonstrate our good intent). When someone initiates a conversation with us, we don’t have the benefit of time. Unless, that is, we ask for it.

You can always take a time out in a conversation. Sometimes, asking for a time out is easy: “Hey, I can see this is a really important topic to you and it is important to me too. This isn’t a good time for me to have this conversation. Could we connect on this tomorrow?”

However, it can be tough sometimes to call a time-out in a way that works for both you and the other person. After all, the other person has likely been stewing on this topic for a while and has finally gotten up the courage to talk to you about it. To him, it may feel like now or never. He has a message and he wants to deliver it. Now. How do you call a time out when the other person doesn’t want to take one? The key to doing this is to differentiate between listening and thinking versus listening and talking. You may not be able to take a time out on listening but you can take a time out on responding. Here is how that might sound: “I can tell this is really important to you and I want to hear what you have to say. I also really want to think about it before I respond, to make sure I have taken the time to consider everything you are saying. So, I’d like to listen carefully to what you have to say and then schedule a time for tomorrow when I can come back with my thoughts.” It is the rare person who will demand that your response must be now or never.

3. Get clear on your intent in receiving the message.
In crucial conversations, we teach that safety is about intent. If you are feeling defensive, it is likely because your perception of the other person’s intent is negative. She is trying to criticize me. She doesn’t love my kids. He doesn’t think I am a good parent. As you feel yourself getting defensive, step back and create safety for yourself by challenging your perception of the other person’s intent. Sometimes you can do this internally, talking it through in your head, creating the best possible interpretation of the other person’s intent. And sometimes it helps to do it out loud: “I am starting to feel defensive because it seems like you are implying I am not a good parent. My guess is that is not the case but it feels like it right now. Help me understand what your intent is in bringing this up.”

You can also reduce your defensiveness by getting clear on what your intent is, regardless of the other person’s intent. Why do you want to listen to this message? What is your goal in the crucial conversation?

A couple years back, Joseph Grenny sent me an email saying that he had heard from a mutual friend about some things I was struggling with. He said that he had some recent insights he thought might help and asked if I would be open to some feedback. Now, Joseph and I have worked together a long time and I know that he loves me. And still, reading his message, I felt vulnerable. I went to this “feedback” lunch with Joseph chanting in my head: feedback is a gift, feedback is a gift. I told myself that whatever he said, I wanted to take it and use it to become better. Luckily for me, Joseph is every bit as skilled at crucial conversations as Ron McMillan. While the conversation wasn’t always comfortable, it was incredibly helpful.

I have had other conversations with people far less skilled who nonetheless had important feedback to give me. My goal in these conversations is always the same: regardless of how they share their message, I am looking for what is true in that message, and what I can use from their message to improve. That is my intent in hearing them and it creates tremendous safety for me.

Being the recipient of a crucial conversation is not easy and not comfortable. We are vulnerable and unprepared most of the time. But if we are sure of our intent, to listen to others and understand their perspective, and if we claim for ourselves the time we need to process their message, we can hear what others have to say.

Best of luck,
Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations in a Crowd and Other Less Than Ideal Circumstances

Dear Emily,

I have enjoyed reading your guidance. Your advice and books tend to assume an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM / phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act.

In these conditions, a conversation is more likely to turn crucial. That has happened to me recently. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation. Please describe how to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.

Best,
Living in the Real World

Dear Real World,

What a great way to describe this—a constrained crucial conversation! Constrained by all the realities of life. Here is what I love about your question: you are putting the power of Crucial Conversations to the test. If crucial conversations skills only work under ideal circumstances, they aren’t really all that valuable. If, on the other hand, crucial conversations skills can stand up to the test of real life, then they are of immense value.

Consider a spectrum of conditions in which you face a crucial conversation. On one end of the spectrum, you have the ideal conditions; on the other, you have the suboptimal conditions you describe above. When faced with those suboptimal conditions, it can be easy to use the situation as a rationalization for our silence: “I can’t have a crucial conversation with this person because it won’t be private, quiet, in-person,” . . . fill in the blank. Or, we attempt the conversation, it doesn’t go well, and then we use those suboptimal conditions to justify our poor results: “Of course it didn’t go well! It was so noisy, distracting, stressful,” etc. Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions to appear or using less than ideal conditions as an excuse, I would suggest you ask yourself, “How can I move along the spectrum, even a step or two, toward improved conditions?”

Ideal conditions are those that make it easier to engage in the core principles of crucial conversations: creating safety, mastering our stories, and encouraging others to share their meaning. They allow us to be present and focused, attuned to the responses of ourselves and others in the conversation. Certainly, those things are easier to do under some conditions than others, but if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can creatively solve most conditional challenges.

Here are four quick tips you can consider for some common challenging conditions:

1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds. We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.

2. Walk and talk. One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.

3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter. Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:

“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”

Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.

4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals. We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.

These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others. What other tips have you found for holding constrained crucial conversations in your life? There are more than 350,000 very wise readers of this newsletter. I invite you to share your experiences and tips with us by adding a comment below.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Emily

One note: Some crucial conversations demand complete privacy. For example, a conversation in a hospital about a patient should not be held in a place where someone else might overhear confidential and legally protected information. In cases like these, you must delay the conversation until an appropriate location can be secured.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Along With Your Mother-in-Law

Dear Emily,

My husband and I recently moved to a new city and my in-laws decided to move near us. I often feel intimidated and inadequate around my mother-in-law. I called her one day to try and resolve a conflict concerning one of my children and I walked into a land mine. She unleashed several months of frustrations with me about my personality and how I raise my children. She questioned the success of my business and also told me my husband was in a terrible marriage. I was completely dumbfounded and responded to her in anger. My husband and father-in-law defended me and both told her she was way out of line. The two of us have not talked about what happened and my husband wants me to move on since he stood up for me. While I appreciate him standing up for me, her words are ringing in my head and I have had very little resolution. I feel even more inadequate knowing how she truly feels about me. How do I move on and be in her presence knowing she dislikes me so much?

Sincerely,
Blindsided

Dear Blindsided,

I hear the heartbreak in your question. I hear it. I believe the human spirit has an innate and deep desire for connection. For many people, our family connections are the most central. And when those connections are tenuous, hurtful, absent, or destructive, our heartbreak can be profound. So, I say, I hear you.

Your way through this relationship will be your own. I do not presuppose to be able to light that way for you. I can, as a friend, share some insights that have provided light for my path.

It is easy to presume that your story is a story of two women—you and your mother-in-law. In some ways, that is true. And, for just a time, let us step back and see what would happen to our thinking if we decided that this story, this experience, was yours alone. If we decided that this story was about you alone, and not about her, what questions might we ask? Here are some that come to mind for me:

Why does what your mother-in-law think of you matter? Why do you crave her approval? I ask that question without judgment. It is okay that her opinion matters. We are social animals. Connection to others matters. Therefore, the opinion of others matters. But what if you shifted your thinking and understood that her approval of you is hers to give, not yours to earn? Whether she gives it or not is about her, not you. How would that thinking shift your relationship with her?

Is her validation of you important enough to change yourself in order to receive it? Because changing yourself may be the only path to receiving her validation. And you may decide to change as you determine how important her validation is for you. Normally, we look at it the other way. We want other people to change. We want our mother-in-laws to recognize us for who we are and accept and love us for that. While this is a natural desire, it is also out of our control. But changing yourself, should you choose to do so, is within your control.

The question you ask (how can I be me and have her like me?) is not necessarily one of your choices. Your choice is to separate the questions: How can I be me, the me I want to be? And, what will it take in my actions for my mother-in-law to like me? If those two answers were aligned, you wouldn’t have written to us. Because they are not aligned, you need to decide which question is more important to you. If the former is more important, then go ahead and be you. If the later, then change in ways that will be pleasing to your mother-in-law. Neither choice is right or wrong—just make the choice that is right for you.

Are you holding her to a standard of perfection that is unfair? There is much more to your relationship with your mother-in-law than can be captured in a paragraph. I know that I have only the barest sketch in front of me. So, I will tread lightly. Based on what is here, I wonder . . . how much of what your mother-in-law said in that argument was a result of her own high emotions—her own frustrations and anger—rather than a permanent judgment of dislike toward you?

Because we know our own heart, it is often easy for us to see in ourselves the disconnect between what we really think and feel and what we may express in times of anger and frustration. And, we know that at times, our emotions take control, driving our actions in ways that are misaligned from our true intentions. It is much harder for us to recognize or accept that disconnect in others. After all, all we have to go on is what we have seen of them through their actions.

Do you know her heart as well as you know your own? You don’t because you can’t. It may be easy to say, “Yes, I know her heart. I have seen it through her actions and I know she dislikes me because that is what her words and actions communicate.” And that may be true. But, I would simply ask: Has there ever been a time when your words and actions (out of anger, despair, grief, or just sheer exhaustion) have been misaligned with your best self? If yes, then consider granting to others the reprieve we would give ourselves—realizing that one bad argument or even twelve negative interactions does not necessarily mean we are doomed to a state of permanent dislike.

Ten years ago, when I began training Crucial Conversations, I was surprised that the first fifty percent of the course was focused on me—on internal work I needed to do before I could open my mouth and start a conversation. In my naiveté, I often felt as a facilitator that I should “hurry through” that part of the course to get to what people had come to learn: how to talk to others. But in the last decade, I have learned that if anything, we are underselling the importance of working on ourselves first by only giving it the first fifty percent of the course.

Dig deep and know that this is your story. It is not about her. It is about you. Once you find your answers, you will be ready to begin a dialogue that has the potential to heal a relationship and has the certainty of healing you.

When you are ready to have that conversation, here are a few ideas about how to approach it:

First, apologize. Yep, that’s right. Based on the details you shared, I would consider apologizing to your mother-in-law for the things you said as you responded to her in anger. Now, the challenge with this apology is that it must be sincere and it absolutely can’t be given with the expectation of anything in return (i.e. don’t apologize as a way of hinting to her that she should apologize back to you). Your apology should be an acknowledgement, not a justification, of your behavior.

Next, express your intent in holding the conversation. What is it you really want? My hope is that your intent is to build a positive, peaceful relationship with your mother-in-law. If that is the case, say that. And mean it.

Then, check in with your mother-in-law to understand what her intent is. Does she share a similar purpose i.e., having a positive, peaceful relationship with you? If not, what type of relationship would she like to have with you?

Finally, in this first conversation back into the relationship, focus on listening, exploring, and understanding. You may even consider preparing for the conversation by generating a list of questions you can ask—judgment-free questions that focus on gaining insight into your mother-in-law. There will be time later to share your perspective, to let her know (if and when appropriate) how the conflict between you has impacted you. Instead, in this first conversation of healing, simply listen. Listening, more than any words you can say, will demonstrate your commitment to repairing your relationship.

I wish you the best of luck in this very important crucial conversation.

Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

Weathering Strained Holiday Relationships

The following article was first published December 1, 2015.

Dear Emily,

Every year I have the same argument with my mother and husband. Every year, my mother demands that we spend Christmas Day at her house while my husband, and father of our two children, wants to stay home. We usually go to her house. This year is no exception but we have an addition to our household. My husband’s mother has moved in with us and it will be her first Christmas with her grandchildren. Her health is failing and travel is extremely difficult for her. My mother, who lives two miles from me, knows this. After the usual badgering, I finally gathered the courage to say that we would not leave his mother alone at our house on Christmas Day. I offered to have the entire family come to our house instead, either to spend time with her on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day. My mother will not accept this and has decided to throw a temper tantrum. So, we are staying home.

My question is, how do I permanently stop this argument? It has made me hate Christmas.

Sincerely,
The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

Ah, the holidays. A season fraught with expectation, disappointment, and heartache. I vote we cancel Christmas this year! Who’s with me?

Okay, okay, I don’t actually want to cancel Christmas. I love Christmas. But reading your question did touch a place in my heart that harbors a bit of dread for the stressful holiday season and brings to mind the plaintive cry, “Why can’t we all just get along?” We all know how stressful the holiday season can be. However, your situation is not really about Christmas at all, is it? It is not even about a conversation. Your challenge is the health and well-being of a critical relationship.

The answer to the question you ask is straightforward. How do you permanently stop this argument? Stop talking to your mother. Ouch, right? But that would stop the argument. Don’t worry though, this column doesn’t end here. Instead, I am going to take a guess that your question is something more than how do I permanently stop this argument. I think your question may in fact be “How do I stop this argument in such a way that honors both my mother and me and also strengthens our relationship?” Are you starting to see how this isn’t about Christmas at all?

When you reframe the question, you start to get at the heart of what you really, really want. Yes, right now what you really, really want is for your mother to: 1) grow up and be an adult, 2) recognize that she is acting selfishly, 3) understand that you need to meet the needs of your mother-in-law and that this relationship is also important to you, and finally, 4) not make such a big deal about something that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Am I getting this right?

In Crucial Conversations, we teach people to prepare for a conversation by Starting with Heart. By getting really, really clear on what the intent is. We do this by asking ourselves, “What do I really want? For myself? For the other person? For the relationship?” The challenge with this question is most of the time our first answer is the wrong answer. We are quick to jump in with what we really want right now. It may be to win, to save face, to be right, to have our mother tell us we are right and of course we can have Christmas dinner at our house. But if you stop there, you will likely miss what it is you really want, because after all, this isn’t about Christmas.

Over the years, I have trained myself to ask the question four or five times before I settle into an answer. The internal dialogue might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, what do I really want here?”
Mini Me: “I want this argument to stop. I want to enjoy the holiday and I want my mom to recognize that it is not just about her. I am trying to balance a lot of demands.”
Me: “And why do you want that? Why is that important to you?”
Mini Me: “Because I need my mom to recognize that I have a family too and it can’t just be about her tradition and her view of what should happen.”
Me: “And why can’t it?”
Mini Me: “Because I am an adult and a mother too. I need my mom to see me as such so that we can have a meaningful relationship. I love her and I want to meet her needs. I also want her to recognize that I have grown up and that families change over time. I want to relate to her as an adult, not just as her child.”

Asking yourself, “What do I really want?” is a great start but it may not be enough. You may need to ask yourself several times to get clear on what you want and what the core issue is for you.

Related to starting with heart and asking what we really want, for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, is the concept of Mutual Purpose. Again, in Crucial Conversations, we teach creating Mutual Purpose as a skill to increase the level of psychological safety within the dialogue so you can discuss any content. And, because all relationships at their heart are built by a series of conversations over time, sometimes Mutual Purpose becomes much more than a safety skill—it becomes the entire dialogue.

Creating Mutual Purpose starts by understanding what purpose we are bringing to the dialogue. In this case, we have already done that heavy lifting as we dug deep into our heart to find out what we really wanted. I really want a relationship with my mom that reflects my adulthood. I don’t want to stay stagnant in a parent-child dynamic I have outgrown.

Once we understand what purpose we are bringing, we need to understand the purpose the other person brings. What is it that my mother wants? Here again, the key will be to dig deep and not accept a surface-level answer. Human beings act in both predictable and unpredictable ways for one reason—we are trying to have our needs met. Those needs may be physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, or something else entirely. But ultimately, we are driven to act in order to meet a perceived need. So, another way of asking what your mother wants or what her purpose is, is to ask, “What need is my mother trying to meet by acting in this way? What need is met by hosting a traditional family Christmas dinner at her home?”

My guess is that you already have a pretty good idea of the answer. After all, you have known your mother all your life and have likely developed some insight about her. Think about your answer to that question of what needs your mother is trying to meet for herself by requiring everyone to show up for Christmas dinner. Got it in your head? Good. Now write it down. Done that? Good. Now tear it up and throw it away. Seriously. Don’t guess what your mother needs. Ask her. Ask her a couple of times in a couple of ways. Probe with curiosity, validation, and sensitivity. Really try to understand. So often we jump into a dialogue around purpose assuming we know (or have a pretty good guess) what the other person’s purpose is. We may be right. We may be wrong. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we will have done a disservice to him or her and to the dialogue by making the assumption.

If you want your mother to treat you as an adult, treat her like one by actively trying to understand what lies deep in her heart. What you find may surprise you. And, it will also give you the beginnings of a way forward. Once you understand her need, you can begin to see her actions within the context of that need. It doesn’t mean you will agree with those actions and it doesn’t mean that you will be eating Christmas dinner at her house or even that she will be eating it at your house. But what it does mean is that you can start to explore ideas and options to meet both of your needs.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays,
Emily

Change Anything QA

How to Avoid Getting Angry

Dear Emily,

How do you stop your emotions from shifting into “fight” mode and verbal violence? I understand the principles of Making It Safe, but often, I only become aware that I am in “violence” well into the conversation—when my own emotions are already heated and boiling over. The wisest choice at that point seems to be to get out of the space and conversation where I can get my emotions under control, but, by then, the damage is usually done. While I have greatly improved over the years and am far more aware of my own bullying nature (intellectual or otherwise), I still struggle to change.

Signed,
Upset & Unaware

Dear Upset & Unaware,

Oh yes, I have been there. I have been in that conversation where I said something and as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Why am I saying this? And with this tone?” I could literally feel the expression on my face, and it was not one of curiosity or calm but rather of condemnation. So yes, I have been where you are—having raced down a path to anger, judgment, and verbal violence. Inevitably, in those moments, I think to myself, “Wait. I teach something about this. Oh, yes. It’s called Learn to Look. Learn to Look for when a conversation turns crucial because the sooner you get back into dialogue, the lower the cost.”

But sometimes learning to look seems to come too late. I don’t want to simply learn to look for the signs that a conversation is going off the rails so that I can course-correct quickly. I want to avoid going off the rails at all. So the question for me is not: “How can I recognize earlier when I have been triggered?” but, “How can I not get triggered at all?”

So that seems pretty crazy, right? Not get triggered? Ever? Impossible. In real life, stuff happens. Irritations abound. Rough edges push up against all sides of our lives. The triggers are there and will always be there. Yet the question remains, “How can I avoid being triggered?”

I have two practical ideas to offer you, but, before I get to them, I want to add a frame to the discussion and a challenge for everyone reading this.

The Frame

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is the idea I am fascinated by—that we need not wait until our response has begun and then somehow catch ourselves because we are responding in a way that is overly forceful, or angry, or violent. If we learn to see that space, to expand it, to live in it, then we can respond in ways of our choosing, rather than simply reacting. The question is then, what can we do to enlarge and inhabit that space more often?

There is no one right answer to this question. I have two ideas that I believe are helpful. However, just as we teach in Change Anything, no one can tell you what your Vital Behavior will be for a change you need to make. Everyone’s Vital Behaviors will be different and diverse.

A lot of people read this newsletter (over 350,000), and there will be a lot of different answers regarding how we can enlarge and inhabit the space between stimulus and response. So I challenge you to share your own answer with us in the comments below. What do you do to enlarge and inhabit this space? I am looking forward to seeing the wisdom of this particular crowd.

And, without further ado, two ideas to help.

1. Morally engage—all the time. In his new book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, psychologist Albert Bandura makes the point that we are not bad people but that we behave badly (Want to win a signed copy of this book? Read to the end to learn how to enter). And when we act in ways or treat people in ways that are counter to our moral compass, we use a variety of strategies to disengage from that morality and thereby reduce our inner conflict. Said another way, our poor actions are not a result of moral defect but of moral slumber. If we want to behave better, we need to wake ourselves up.

Here is one example of how you might do that: Write a note to yourself that awakens you to your values and then review it regularly. Write down what it means to you to be a good person or why you care about other people. Put it on a card that your carry in your wallet or a Post-It note on your computer monitor. Put it in your phone. Set an alarm to read it regularly. Wake yourself up again and again to who you are and who you want to be.

The note in my office that is directly beneath my monitor screen and that I read several times a day is, “Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.” This is meaningful to me because I am a problem-solver. A fast problem-solver. Far too often, when I am in problem-solving mode, people become barriers between me and the solution. But while it is true that in moments of moral disengagement, I can become so focused on a problem and solution that I forget people, it is also true that I have a deep, abiding respect for humans and humanity. I love people and I want to be the person who connects with other people. It is not about changing who I am, but simply reminding myself of who I am.

2. Eat for energy. Bet you weren’t expecting that one! I just finished reading Jim Loehr’s, The Power of Full Engagement. Among the many takeaways for me was that the energy we bring to an interaction impacts the outcome. Dr. Loehr’s goal is to help people learn to manage their energy in a way that improves interactions, impact, and outcomes.

I recently received some very valuable 360 feedback. As I analyzed and mapped this feedback, I realized that some of my interactions don’t always go so well. Turns out, the interactions where I am abrupt, short-tempered, or irritated occur between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Really. It’s uncanny, but not surprising. I eat breakfast and lunch early and by 4:00 p.m. I’m usually running on low blood sugar. Compounding my low energy is the fact that I have usually been sitting for hours on end by this point. So when someone comes in for a crucial conversation, it is not surprising that I don’t always handle it well.

The solution is, in part, to eat in ways that provide sustained, useful energy for me throughout the day. Basically, eat often and eat light. I started having an apple or a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts about 3:00 p.m.—before I start feeling tired or irritable. And then I get up and walk around and take some deep breaths. I have noticed that when I do this consistently, my interactions are far more effective and far more kind.

So, there you have it—a frame, challenge, and two ideas. I am looking forward to seeing what other ideas are out there!

Best of luck,
Emily

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Influencer QA

False Perceptions Revisited

Dear Emily,

I appreciated your blog article Recovering from False Perceptions. I agree that apologies can do more harm than good, and it is important to assess the need and/or reason for the apology. However, that post was more from the point of view of the individual with the false perception. I was interested to see what your advice would be to someone who feels they are the victim of false perceptions. I have an employee whose coworkers have labeled as lazy, uncaring, and untrustworthy. He wants to restore his image/brand with his coworkers and managers. What advice do you have for someone in this situation?

Signed,
Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

Combating false perceptions can be frustrating. We often feel as if we are the Victim: “Others have misjudged me despite my hard work, exemplary efforts, and noteworthy achievements!” We may cast our coworkers in a Villain role: “Why can’t they just see me for who I really am?” And then we start to feel Helpless: “This is so unfair and there is nothing I can do about it!”

So, while your question is about personal brand, I’d like to look at it through the lens of what we teach in Crucial Conversations Training about Mastering Our Stories. I will direct my comments directly to your employee, the person who wants to restore his brand.

Victim story: What am I pretending not to notice about my role?

Whenever we tell ourselves a Victim Story (“Woe is me! I am the best, hardest-working employee here and others have unjustly judged me as lazy, uncaring, and untrustworthy.”), we need to challenge our story by asking: “What I am pretending not to notice about my role in the problem?” I have several ideas on how this relates to perception and personal brand:

1. False perceptions don’t exist. There is only your perception of my behavior and my perception of my behavior. Just because your perception is different than mine doesn’t mean it is false. When I judge your perception as false, it lets me off the hook. It allows me to say, “I am right and good and just and you are wrong.” I get to stop looking at me and my behavior because my perception is true and yours is false. But, if I can accept your perception as valid and real, I can shift my thinking and open myself up to self-reflection. I can clearly see what things I have done or not done that may have contributed to your perception.

2. Accept the starting point. You don’t get to tell people what your personal brand is, anymore than Nordstrom or Coca-Cola get to tell people what their brand is. You get to act and people get to perceive. Their perception is your brand. We sometimes confuse personal brand with personal identity, personal values, or personal mission. It is easy to say, “That is not my brand. I am disciplined, focused, and driven.” While it may be true that your personal identity is disciplined, focused, and driven, and that your personal identity impacts your brand, recognize that it is not your brand. Your brand is how others perceive you, not how you perceive yourself. While you get to influence your brand, you don’t control it because you can only influence, never control, others’ perceptions.

Villain Story: Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?

When we tell ourselves the story that someone else has falsely judged us, we get to cast them in the Villain role: “They are wrong. How could they be so unseeing of the true me?” The antidote to a Villain Story is to ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do (or think) this?”

3. Understand your brand. If you want to know why someone thinks of you as lazy and untrustworthy, the easiest way to find out is to ask them. But before you rush out to start this conversation, realize this—asking for feedback on your personal brand is NOT a crucial conversation. Sure, the stakes are high and your emotions may run strong. And yes, there are differing opinions. So why is this not a crucial conversation? When we talk about crucial conversations, the goal is to fill the Pool of Shared Meaning: yours and mine. In this particular case however, the goal is to fill the pool with only their meaning. This is a focus group, not a conversation.

Think of it this way. If I work in marketing and want to know what my company’s brand is in the marketplace, I get a group of people together and ask them questions about how they perceive my company. When they respond, I may probe deeper to understand. What I don’t do is say, “Oh, that is interesting and not at all what we are really about. Our company is actually very different than that and here’s why.”

Asking people about your brand is all about getting information and understanding your brand. It is not about you convincing others with your words that they should see you differently.

Helpless Story: What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?

When we accept that we can’t control others’ perceptions of us, it is tempting to tell ourselves a helpless story: “Their perception is their perception and there is nothing I can do.” We fail to see the difference between control and influence. While you can’t control others’ perceptions, you can influence them, as all good brand marketers know. You open yourself to influence when you consider this question: “What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?”

4. Build a positive brand, not a non-negative brand. Don’t wage war against your negative brand and try to convince people that you are “not lazy, not uncaring, and not untrustworthy.” Being “not lazy” is not a powerful brand. Rather than try to erase the negative brand, focus your attentions on defining what positive brand you want to create: “I am a hard worker that gets great results. I am a people person who cares deeply about individuals.”

Once you have defined that positive brand, consider what behaviors or actions on your part would drive that perception in others. What would someone see that would lead him or her to conclude that you are a hard worker who gets results? What would someone see that would lead him or her to the conclusion that you are a people person who cares deeply about individuals?

These might be new behaviors for you. But the key is that they need to be behaviors that are visible to others if they are going to impact others’ perceptions.

Armed with these new behaviors, you can then create a change plan for enacting these behaviors.

5. Close the loop. This is a powerful step in personal brand building. You have asked for feedback on your brand, accepted it, and now acted upon it. Now is the time to go back and close the loop. Return to those who gave you feedback and say: “Here is what I have done with the information you gave me. Have you seen an impact?”

This is powerful for two reasons. First, it validates and strengthens the relationship because you are demonstrating deep respect to the other person. You took what they said and did something about it.

Second, if the other person hasn’t noticed a change (and hence your brand hasn’t changed), this provides a nudge for them to reflect and re-evaluate. They might say, “I hadn’t noticed the change, but now that you point it out . . . ” Or, if upon reflection, they haven’t seen the change and their perception hasn’t begun to shift, that is a great data point for you as you consider whether the behaviors you have changed are driving the results you want.

I hope this gives you some helpful ideas. Just remember, your personal brand is about you, not about the other person. You can influence your brand when you stop telling yourself Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories.

Good luck,
Emily

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Enjoy a Difficult Relationship

Dear Emily,

I have an older sister who I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. I often find myself getting frustrated with her because of her actions. I know that I have a deeply rooted story about her—that she is very self-centered. I’ve asked myself why a reasonable, rational, person would do what she does and I can always come up with an answer for that scenario. But when I see all of the scenarios as a pattern that has persisted my whole life, I have a really hard time telling another story besides my negative one. I’ve tried talking to her about specific situations and we usually come to common ground but it always happens again. It’s hard to point out the pattern without sounding as if I am keeping a list of her mistakes. She also gets very defensive because she sees it as attacking. I’m not perfect either so have no right to point out her flaws. I want to get along with her and enjoy spending time with her but honestly find dealing with her tedious and exhausting. What can I do?

Best Regards,
Exhausted and Discouraged

Dear Exhausted and Discouraged,

I have an older sister that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with. She is brilliant, informed, dynamic, opinionated, and oh so very different from me. One of the very best parts of our relationship, which is very dear to me, is that we don’t see eye-to-eye. Invariably, when we are together, I learn something new, either about the world or about myself. Either way, her different view of the world is a blessing in my life.

I share that not to say “be like me” or “too bad your sister isn’t as cool as mine.” Instead, I simply want to point out all the baggage that comes with a phrase like “we don’t see eye-to-eye.” When did seeing eye-to-eye become the goal? When did not seeing eye-to-eye become a bad thing, or something to be overcome or worked around? Diversity of opinion, thought, approach, and experience can enrich us if we let it.

As I read your inquiry, I wanted to know more. I wanted all the details of specific things your sister had done so I could judge: is she really self-centered or are you stuck in your own negative story, a story that is blinding you from the reality of who your sister is? I kept thinking about variations of that question: is your story about your sister accurate? And then I realized… it doesn’t matter. You have done exactly what you need to do: you identified your story as a story, you challenged your story, and then you went and discussed your story with your sister. That is more than 99 percent of people out there manage to do.

But you’re still stuck, right? And why? Because crucial conversations don’t solve every problem. Because crucial conversations don’t take away a person’s right to choose how he or she will behave. Your sister, despite your conversations, still gets to choose who she is, who she wants to be, and how she will behave. Your choice is to decide what kind of boundaries you want to put in place, in your life and in your relationships.

Here is a suggestion of how to think about your way forward. It’s a variation on what we teach in Start With Heart that I have found helpful.

Think about your interactions with your sister. Try thinking of a specific interaction that didn’t go well, that was (as you described it) tedious or exhausting. Got it? Okay, now as you are thinking about that interaction, ask yourself: what do you really want? My guess is the first answer is to not be exhausted! Maybe you want peace or enjoyment. You want to be able to laugh and share. You want to feel energized and validated.

Now, next step (and here is where the variation comes in): what do you really want for your sister as she is right now? Sometimes when we simply ask ourselves “what do I really want for the other person?” the answer is all wrapped up in the changes we want him or her to make, the person we want him or her to become. We say things like, “I want her to be less self-centered.” But the key to drawing and maintaining healthy boundaries is to acknowledge who she is right then and ask, what do I want for her, as she is right now, and what do I want for my relationship with her, as she is right now? This doesn’t mean people can’t change and that we can’t have influence. Life is not about being frozen in a specific point in time. It does mean that we need to accept who people are today, where they are today, and then make a decision about what relationship we want to have with them today.

I have found that as I do that, I am able to recognize and enjoy the positive aspects of a current relationship because I can place a boundary between me and the negative aspects of the relationship. This might mean that I don’t do certain things with certain people and it absolutely means that I don’t expect certain things from certain people. Instead, I am able to better enjoy someone for who they are. I let go of the expectations or hopes I had for what our relationship should be or could be, and acknowledge the relationship for what it is.

I may be reading far more into your words than what is there… and yet in them I feel a sense of hurt and loss, that your relationship with your sister isn’t what you want it to be and you are carrying that with you. Chances are you are carrying the weight of that disappointment into every interaction you have with her. So, my suggestion is to lay down the weight, see her as she is, and decide what type of relationship you want to have with her—just as she is today.

Best of Luck,
Emily