All posts by Joseph Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Speak Up For Your Morals and Values

Dear Joseph,

I work in Information Technology and our company was recently bought. Several members of the parent company came in to bring our network up to their standards. Me, two of my coworkers, and five employees from the new company worked together all weekend and late into the night. I was the only female in the group. Throughout the entire weekend, people from the new company made crude, sexual jokes about each other and dropped prolific f-bombs. How can I make it known that I don’t appreciate their humor (or lack thereof) without risking the ability to work with them in the future?

New Normal

Dear New Normal,

I sympathize with your plight. It is profoundly difficult to be the lone voice of morality. I have struggled as well in novel circumstances to find a way to express my discomfort and speak up to advocate for my rights or needs.

I will assume a few things for the sake of my response: 1) that your two coworkers have not historically behaved in this way; 2) that you will have ongoing face-to-face contact with the five from the parent company.

You’ve got a couple of options for how to respond. The first is to take formal action. If a) the nature of the comments and b) your impression of the character of the individuals is such that you think a healthy adjustment from them is unlikely, you may want to take this route. In any event, I think it would be wise for you to have a consultative conversation with your HR department so you know your rights and options in that regard.

If, on the other hand, you believe there’s a reasonable chance that a crucial conversation might both change their behavior and offer a future relationship, here’s how I’d suggest you approach it:

1. Document. Gathering the facts is the homework required for crucial conversations. Make a list of the specific “jokes,” comments, and language you found offensive.

2. Write it twice. It sounds as though your goal is not to confront a specific person, but to communicate a new boundary. If so, I’d suggest you do it in writing. Writing lets them know there is a paper trail—which will give a feeling of accountability. It also lets them save face as they can absorb the information in the protection of their cubicle. When holding a crucial conversation in written form, I’ve found it helpful to write it twice before sharing. First, for facts. And second, for safety. Write the note the first time to simply lay out the facts. Give examples of all of the behavior you found loathsome. Be comprehensive so everyone who played a part knows they are involved. Then re-write the note in a way that adds “emotional safety.” Share your intentions (to create a good working relationship) and your respect (any honest expressions of regard for their professional abilities). But do so without watering down your expectations.

3. Ask for commitment. Let them know you can understand they may be used to different work norms and that you are asking for change. But let them know this is a firm expectation. Ask them to reply to let you know if you have their commitment to this standard.

4. Expect weirdness. There are no two ways about it: It will feel awkward the next time you see them. Let that happen. Don’t try to soften it. Simply be professional and courteous and let it wear off. It will.

5. Hold the boundary. Now that you are on notice that this behavior can happen, and they are on notice that you won’t tolerate it, you must hold your boundary. If they relapse into it, confront it immediately. Decide ahead of time on the script you’ll use and practice it until it feels familiar and comfortable to you. For example, you might say, “You just dropped an f-bomb. Do you recall my request that you refrain from that kind of unprofessional language?” Once again, expect weirdness. When people are unwilling to own their misbehavior, they attempt to shift the blame on others—especially those who are calling them out. If this happens, consider making a formal complaint.

Unfortunately, this is the way the world works. The burden for positive change typically falls on those who are most affected, and least responsible, for dismal realities. I hope these suggestions give you a path toward the workplace you deserve.

Warmly,
Joseph

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

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Make Crucial Conversations Training Stick

Dear Joseph,

My company offers Crucial Conversations Training and it is mandatory for management. In spite of having gone through the training, some of my staff refuse to “play by the rules” as it were. What advice do you have for me? I am far from a perfect communicator, but I am absolutely sold on the principles of Crucial Conversations and try to practice them as much as possible.

Signed,
Make it Stick

Dear Make it Stick,

I wish EVERY SINGLE PERSON we work with would ask this question! The VitalSmarts mission is not to “train the world” but to “change the world.” Our fondest hope is that those whose lives we have the privilege of touching are tangibly better off for our efforts. VitalSmarts is not a training company, it is an “influence” company.

So, here’s how you influence real, profound, and sustainable behavior change. If you’re serious about making crucial conversations skills the norm in your team, here is what you must do:

1. Advertise it. If I were to arrive in your organization, how long would it take before I would know that you have strong expectations of how I’ll deal with crucial conversations? Days? Weeks? Months? If you’re serious about instituting a cultural norm, you should advertise it from my first interaction with you. For example, a wonderful organization called NextJump based in New York City invites potential hires to participate in a day of hands-on activities with other candidates. Veteran employees watch the prospects to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Then, they give them feedback—very direct feedback. You might be told, for example, that you seem insecure or arrogant. You are also encouraged to offer feedback to others. NextJump’s goal is to let you know from day one that they are all about truth. You start your job having already received feedback about things you can improve in yourself. If you care about it, advertise it from your first interaction.

2. Ritualize it. Most organizations have espoused values—the ones on the wall. They also have a second set of values—their real values. The real ones are those that govern how people actually get their work done. These real values are the only ones that matter. They show up in how people plan, organize, and execute their work. If you want to make crucial conversations skills live in your organization, you must build practice rituals into the fabric of your work. For example, a company called Decurion begins and ends every meeting with a Check-in and a Check-out. These are opportunities for everyone to share those things that often go undiscussed: personal concerns, emotional distractions, and feedback for others. Employees at Decurion know that addressing emotionally sensitive issues is normal because it is planned into the very fabric of work.

3. Demand it. Let’s face it, few people relish the vulnerability involved in dealing with crucial conversations. Most of us have to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally before one of these taxing moments. That’s why so many of us avoid them. You will never become an organization that turns healthy communication into a norm unless you hold people accountable for doing so. Bridgewater is the world’s most successful hedge fund manager. You will not succeed at Bridgewater unless you show a proclivity for “touching people’s nerves.” Leaders at Bridgewater believe that ego is the most pernicious virus in a healthy social system. If you tend to procrastinate, bypass, or soft-pedal your crucial conversations, your colleagues will let you know. If you want to develop a culture of accountability, be sure everyone is—first and foremost—held accountable for holding others accountable!

4. Cue it. VitalSmarts has worked with thousands of organizations worldwide over the past thirty years. Those who are most effective at creating a culture of crucial conversations competence, let their walls do much of their work. They post principles, quotes, and models in places that prompt awareness of concepts at crucial moments. For example, ideas are embedded in emails about upcoming performance reviews, in conference rooms, or in group work spaces. These both show the organization’s commitment to the skills, and serve as timely reminders.

5. Normalize it. I came to a humbling conclusion recently. VitalSmarts is on the brink of celebrating two million people trained across the world—and I’m proud of our achievement. But, I’ve concluded that while training is an accelerant of change, it is not the most important one. The best predictor of habit formation is not literacy but frequency. It isn’t about how much you know, it’s about how often you use it.

I came to this conclusion by observing a group of convicted criminals and homeless people who formed an organization called The Other Side Academy (TOSA) two years ago. These 70 TOSA students run businesses to support themselves while trying to change their lives. None have any sophisticated communication skills—but they have built the most robust culture of accountability I have ever witnessed. And they’ve done it primarily through daily and hourly practice. Students are taught to simply call out anything they see that they think is wrong. It is deeply uncomfortable at the beginning. But as they see that their peers are doing the same, they begin to engage. Within a matter of days, hardened criminals who would previously have defined accountability as “ratting”, are enforcing standards of integrity that would be the envy of the best run organizations in the world. If you want to change the culture, accelerate normalization of the new behavior by demanding frequency, not elegance.

Thanks for your question. I wish you the best as you work to turn training into real and meaningful change.

Warmly,
Joseph

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

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Confront a Liar

Dear Joseph,

Do you have advice on how to confront a liar? Normal confrontation does not work as they just spin more lies.

Signed,
Being Spun

Dear Being Spun,

Do I know how to confront lying? Hey, I raised five teenagers. You’ve come to the right place!

You wrote only two sentences, so please forgive me for parsing your words in an attempt to be helpful.

1. Master your story. You asked, “Do you have advice on how to confront a liar?” First, stop seeing them as a “liar.” You have reduced their identity to a label. You have zero possibility of creating an atmosphere that will invite them to acknowledge their dishonesty if you see them as nothing more than a sum of their worst behaviors. You’ll have made progress if you can come to see them as “a person who lies” rather than a “liar.” You’ll have made even more progress toward the possibility of dialogue if you can come to see them as “a person like me.” Negative labels are carriers of disgust. Nothing provokes defensiveness more than the sense that others view you with disgust. Disgust communicates that the other person is different, less than, worthless. Ask yourself, “When did I tell my most recent lie?” Perhaps yours are less stark than this person’s, but if you’re like me, you lie. You dress up the truth. You withhold your true feelings. You fail to correct misunderstandings that are favorable to you. Look for ways you are similar to this person and you’ll find a place from which you can feel understanding and even compassion rather than judgment and disgust.

2. Give them a reason to come clean. Acknowledging terrible mistakes is hard for anyone. Lying is one of the hardest of all. Since deceit is often connected to a deep sense of shame or fear, you’re asking someone to shine a light on a terrifying part of their character. They’re unlikely to do it unless there is an upside. For example, the possibility of redemption, forgiveness, a better way of working together, etc. If you are unwilling to offer any of these, don’t hold your breath for an admission of fault. Perhaps they will do it purely out of a desire to feel morally clean again. But I wouldn’t count on it if this is a long-standing and intentional pattern, as you suggest.

3. Master the facts. I recently watched an argument between two people in which one was accusing the other of lying. It went the way they usually do. The accuser cycled over and over through the same vague evidence. “You did it. I know it!” The other person denied having been deceptive. “No, I didn’t!” The accuser repeated the same vague evidence even louder, followed by louder denials. One of the reasons we fail to persuade others during crucial conversations is that we’ve spent too much time thinking about our conclusions and too little time laying out the data. If you want to help someone come clean, it’s best to lay out the strongest case you can absent judgments, accusations, and other hot words. Don’t start with, “You’re lying.” Start with, “I was sitting outside the laundry room the whole time my laundry was in the drier. You are the only one person who went into the room while I was there . . . ”

If you’re confronting repeated behavior, be as prepared to describe the pattern as you are any specific instance. As you lay out examples, refer again and again to the pattern you are trying to draw attention to.

4. Control yourself, not the other person. Prior to engaging in the conversation ask yourself, “What new boundaries will I draw between us if the lying continues?” Even if you share your suspicions as effectively as possible, and even if you are correct about the allegations, the other person may persist in denial. If this happens, your job is to protect yourself by drawing new boundaries. If you don’t do this, you’ll consign yourself to the misery of trying to control the other person. You can’t. And attempting to do so punishes yourself as much as the other person. If you’ve settled it in your mind that the other person can’t be trusted, you need to take responsibility to take care of yourself in this reality. For example, you may decide to distance yourself from the person at work, avoid working on shared projects, or involving them in risky tasks for which you are responsible. The most honest way of moving to this new reality is to do so openly. Tell them you are still unconvinced by their response. Let them know you don’t like carrying this conclusion but that until you can be persuaded otherwise, you will be operating differently toward them. Then specify how. But conclude with a sincere willingness to continue the conversation.

I hope something I’ve said above is of use to you as you navigate this troubling relationship.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Motivate an Undervalued Workforce

Dear Joseph,

Currently, the large organization I work for is undergoing a change of ownership. There are many employees and leaders here who have been with the company for 20+ years. With the change of ownership, the financials are being scrutinized. We are told there will be layoffs—which there have been every year for the past six years. Leadership is saying we need to “get on the train” and get behind their message. We are being told all employees are replaceable and there is no need to retain talent. I have a strong team who do an amazing job without asking for more. However, we can’t keep going at this pace. We are going to lose talented employees. They will go to places where they feel valued by executive leadership.

How do I keep morale up while my team is told they are all replaceable?

Signed,
Train Conductor

Dear Train Conductor,

Let me summarize quickly what you’ve told me:

1. Management doesn’t care about retention.

2. Your employees have options that would offer them more job security.

3. You want them to stick around and be engaged anyway.

If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking me to help you manipulate your employees to do something that is not in their best interest. I decline.

But perhaps you are asking me a different question. Perhaps you are saying, “Some of my employees want to stay in full knowledge of the risk. How can I help them derive enjoyment while working for a company that has no commitment to their interests?”

If this is your question, I offer the following vignette and counsel.

I worked with a remarkable leader named Mike Miller years ago. He led a group of 3,000 IT professionals on a mission-critical project to work themselves out of a job. Essentially, they were consolidating billing systems in a large telecom company in such a way that within 18 months, fewer than half of them would be needed. In spite of assured job insecurity, the team delivered on time, on budget, and on spec—and with stellar employee engagement. How?

1. Mutual commitment. Mike demonstrated that he cared about the interests of his employees. Now, Mike was not the CEO of the company. It’s possible those above him saw all of his people as “replaceable.” But Mike saw them as people. He loved and respected them. And he promised to do all he could to give them maximum flexibility in finding their next assignments. So they trusted him.
2. Reframe the deal. He was candid that for many of the team, this would be a project—not a career. Fortunately, many in the IT world are comfortable with this arrangement. He built trust by being honest about what was and was not available.
3. Be transparent. Mike knew that what his team valued was predictability. They could control their financial lives if they could avoid surprises. He ensured that people knew far in advance when layoffs would happen—and whom would be affected.
4. Make it about the work not the company. I once worked for a defense contractor who made some of the coolest military equipment in the world. Many of the employees were deeply cynical about management. They would lumber dejectedly into the massive parking lot outside the factory toward their car after a long day’s work. And yet, if on any particular day, one of their products was being tested in the adjacent proving ground, these same employees would stop in their tracks and stare in pride and awe. They may have hated the company, but they loved the product. Mike built a sense of passion and pride in his team by focusing them on the unprecedented technical challenge they were taking on. He framed it like President Kennedy did about putting a man on the moon. And his argument rang true—he caught talented employees’ imaginations in a way that helped them want to engage in the task itself—in spite of the company that saw them as tools.

If there is meaning to be mined in the work you do, and if you are willing to put the interests of your people on par with the interest of the company, you have every possibility of retaining your morality while engaging your people in the work you do.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Influencer QA

How to Help Your Child Change His Behavior

Dear Joseph,

For the past four years, my son has been training in martial arts and loves it. In the past few months, he has gotten called twice on his “bullying” behavior. The instructor has told us that if there is one more instance of bullying, he will not be allowed back. We don’t want to diminish the importance of respectful behavior or sound like we don’t think this is important. However, we think the instructor sees our son as a “bully” and not as a person who lacks skills and needs training. We want people in his life who will hold him to a high standard—something he can’t get if the answer is just to kick him out.

We are having crucial conversations with our son. He understands why his actions were perceived negatively even though that wasn’t his intention. He wants to keep trying. How do we help the instructor see that our son needs skills and not expulsion?

Signed,
Expelled

Dear Expelled,

I’ve got a few thoughts for you. Please understand that I am limited to only the information you have shared and may draw some erroneous conclusions. However, my intent is to be helpful—both through encouragement and challenge.

First, I’m going to make an assumption that a martial arts instructor would not use the term “bullying” if the behavior was subtle. I’ll assume it involved physical aggression of some sort. I’ll also assume the class is relatively small—as most martial arts classes are. You say he has been called out twice for the behavior. If it is a small class that would mean most of the kids would likely have witnessed the behavior on both occasions.

  • 1. Consider Others. I would encourage you to care as much about the other students as you do about your son. Given that the bulk of your note argued for the interests of your son, I worry that you have given less thought to the feelings of the other students and parents who are affected by your son’s behavior. The martial arts instructor has clearly attempted to consider both—otherwise he would have expelled your son after the first instance. He is exposing the other students to the bullying behavior for a third time. You will have little influence with the instructor if your sole interest is the prerogative of your son and not the psychological and physical safety of the rest of the class. I am not suggesting that expulsion is the only right answer. I am simply suggesting that if you want others to care about your interests, you must be willing to commit to securing theirs.
  • 2. Think about what you really want. You seem very focused on ensuring your son does not get kicked out of class. Is that what you really want? Is this about helping him learn about life and consequences or staying in a specific martial arts class? You state that hurting others was “not his intention.” You may be right—but life is not about intentions, it is about actions. And if his actions hurt others, life is about accepting consequences. It could be that the best life lesson to help him become a compassionate and responsible man is for him to lose this opportunity. Are you willing to consider that? If not, then your motives might not be what you think they are.
  • 3. Let him own his own problems. Once again, if your goal is to help him become compassionate and responsible, I suggest you stop trying to solve this problem for him and let him solve it for himself. Having been a martial arts instructor myself, I can tell you I would be far more impressed with a remorseful student asking me how he can regain my trust than with a persistent parent pleading that I overlook his threatening behavior. The best way to help him increase his empathy skills is to let him connect personally with those he has wronged—both the teacher and the other students. Don’t rob him of this growth opportunity by trying to engineer an easy outcome.

I can tell you care deeply about your son. Nothing is more difficult or uncertain in life than determining how best to influence another human being. I wish you the best as you make this important decision.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How to End a Relationship Stand-Off

Dear Joseph,

I work with clients who are in conflict with each other. Their “stories” about the other person make resolution impossible. They’ve been in conflict with each other for so long that they are convinced that their judgments are facts. For example, they are both convinced the other person is a jerk, a bully, ignorant, or selfish. It’s so bad, they refuse to talk about what’s not working and to listen to the other’s needs. How do I challenge their view of the other person so that they can have the conversation they actually need?

Signed,
Conflicting Facts

Dear Conflicting Facts,

You’ve asked the ultimate question.

The heart of most conflict is not irreconcilable differences, but irreconcilable stories. And to make matters worse, once we begin acting on those stories, we begin to need them to justify the vengeful, fearful, or immoral behavior we’ve chosen. Furthermore, the fact that others behave in the same petty way we do generates more data to reinforce our stories.

There are only three paths I’ve ever seen break people free from such mutually assured self-destruction. Any of these can work. All three combined substantially increase the likelihood of change. But when people are deeply devoted to their stories these roads are unlikely to be taken.

1. Misery fatigue. Sometimes, after an especially discouraging episode, people can reach a point that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Even though they feel entirely justified in their current behavior, they are willing to suspend disbelief for a moment and consider stepping off the treadmill.

2. Shocking data from a beloved source. Most of us have excessive confidence in our own judgment. Which is why it is hard to break free of our judgments. But occasionally our respect for another can exceed our affection for our own ego. I have seen conflict dissolve when an individual who is deeply trusted—even beloved—by both parties is able to do two things: 1) lovingly but forcefully confront their self-deception; 2) bear witness to a conflicting view of their judgments.

3. A surprise encounter with poignant and irrefutable conflicting data. Finally, I’ve seen judgments give way to new data when the one holding them is forced to explain behavior that conflicts violently with their previous view. A quick example from one of the most enduring conflicts in modern history: Shortly after peace accords were signed between Israel and Jordan, a large group of Jewish, school-aged girls traveled to a neighboring Jordanian village to deliver cookies, flowers, and other tokens of peace. Due to some misunderstanding, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on the girls, killing seven of them. Suddenly, decades of deep distrust threatened to return the two countries to a state of war. War was averted, however, by a single striking act taken by the late King Hussein. The King arranged to visit the home of every one of the dead children. He spoke with each grieving parent and personally apologized for the tragedy. As he entered their home, he would kneel on the ground at the feet of each parent and beg their forgiveness. He did not rise until they bid him do so. That one striking act generated irrefutable evidence that conflicted with decades of conflict-fueled stories. And it made it possible for these two enemy countries to quickly heal from the tragedy and find a way forward through their now shared pain.

The good news in this last path is that it demonstrates how the unilateral action of one party can change the calculus of the conflict.

Here are three suggestions for you to consider as you assess whether you can play a role in reconciliation:

1. Can the parties see the price they are paying for the conflict?
2. Do they feel safe enough with you to be profoundly challenged by you?
3. Is one of the parties willing to sacrifice in order to demonstrate his or her sincere desire for peace?

If your answers to these three questions suggests you have some assets to work with, I find it easier to frame my requests with aggrieved parties as experiments not concessions. Ask them if they are willing to make a gesture as an honest test of their current judgments. And if so, encourage them to watch for new data as a result of the experiment. If this works, you can start a virtuous cycle that can slowly unwind the terrible knot of resentment they have cooperatively constructed.

There are far too many storytellers and far too few peacemakers in the world. I am glad you are one of the latter.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Address Bad Body Odor

Dear Joseph,

My son tells me his roommate at college has a body odor issue. It has become so bad that my son stays at his girlfriend’s more often than not. He has mentioned to his roommate that there is a terrible odor in the room, but hasn’t gone much farther than that. He did speak to the R.A. who said he would speak to the roommate. I haven’t heard back as to next steps. Your thoughts?

Sincerely,
Addressing Odor

Dear Addressing Odor,

Let me back up. I’m going to address your son, rather than you, and assume he is starting over again. He has already dug himself into a hole by being disingenuous—pretending the issue was disembodied odor rather than body odor. He needs to clean that up and start fresh.

Here’s my advice to him.

1. What do you want? What are your options? First, don’t step into this until you know what you really want. Do you like this roommate? Are you willing to invest in the relationship? Are you stuck no matter what? Do you have a housing contract that will not release you unless you claim this is a health and safety issue? If you have an easy exit path and aren’t willing to invest in the relationship, the answer is easy. Get out. If getting out is unlikely and you like this guy, this will be a great opportunity to learn how to deal maturely with relationship problems.

2. Master your story. You won’t be able to have a decent conversation with your roommate until you strip all of your judgments and personalization out of your story. If you feel resentment and disgust toward him, that will drive the entire interaction. So . . . own the fact that your emotions and judgments are just that—yours. You are entitled to not enjoy the smell. But, if you want a shot at making it go away, you need to accept that you are amplifying the experience through the story you’re telling yourself about why he smells.

For example, Rachel Herz studies the psychology of smells. She once did an experiment where subjects were asked to whiff the same odor and then rate its pleasant- or unpleasant-ness. Some were told it was Parmesan cheese. Others were told it was vomit. And guess what? In spite of the fact that they were having the same sensory experience, the Parmesan group judged it as pleasant. The others recoiled in revulsion.

Before you talk with him, examine the judgments you are making. Are you loading up your story with beliefs about his intentions (he’s inconsiderate), his character (he’s lazy), or his morality (smelling this way is bad). Remind yourself that most of the seven billion people in the world think differently about hygiene than you do. Also, open yourself to the fact that these odors may have nothing to do with hygiene. Certain medications generate different body odors as do different physiologies. Your goal is not to dismiss your own desires or preferences but to come to a place of curiosity and compassion from which you can converse rather than coerce.

3. Create safety and clarify purpose. Start the conversation by honoring both your need and his humanity. “I’d like to talk about something that is affecting me. But I’m worried that in doing so, I’ll communicate disrespect, judgment, or intolerance of you. That’s not what I want or how I feel. I just want to find a solution that works for you and me.” Having done so, realize that discussing something as personal as how someone smells is very likely to provoke defensiveness. Which leads to my next point . . .

4. Your actions are yours. His feelings are his. Even if you do your best to approach him with curiosity and respect, he may react to his vulnerability by recoiling in hurt or blame. If he does, do not apologize for your needs. Simply clarify your intentions. For example, if he says, “I don’t have to listen to this!” and heads for the door, offer something like, “I am not trying to attack or insult you. Please let me know if we can talk about this later—I just want to work it out for both of us. I’d like to be your roommate.” Then let it go.

A primary reason many of us stay in silence rather than connecting honestly is that we misunderstand our responsibility for others’ emotions. We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel. Their emotions are their choices. How we act can affect them—and we should always act with compassion and respect. But that is where our duty stops. When you take responsibility for others’ feelings, you begin to live dishonestly. You begin to calculate and manipulate in order to control others’ feelings. And by so doing, you surrender the possibility of both solving problems and connecting deeply.

I wish you the best and assure you that how you approach this moment is important practice for every future relationship of your life.

Sincerely,
Joseph