All posts by Joseph Grenny

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

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations with a Defensive Spouse

Dear Joseph,

My wife and I have a communication issue. We don’t talk enough about problems. Our conversation never lasts longer than forty-five seconds. This pattern has left a lot of issues unresolved that I feel are detrimental to the long-term health of our family. As soon as there is some indication of responsibility or accountability on her part—a behavior change she needs to make or a promise she broke—she responds with something like “Oh come on!” or “I can’t right now!” or, “Why do you always bring that up?” At this point, the conversation escalates and I back off.

How can I hold a safe space when this happens and ensure that we actually resolve something? What else can I do to create healthy communication practices when I can’t even get past the first forty-five seconds?

Signed,
Got a Minute?

Dear Got a Minute,

I can sense your frustration—and even despair. You crave the opportunity to get closure on concerns that are important to you and feel powerless to engage your wife sufficiently to do so. I’ve felt similarly stymied in cherished relationships in my life. Here are some reflections from those difficult times.

1. Work on me first.
First, I would invite you to consider your own behavior. Look courageously for habits or incidents where your behavior might have given her cause to feel unsafe, disrespected, or even despairing about communicating with you. If appropriate, you might even make this a focused topic of conversation with her. Perhaps beginning with, “I’ve been thinking about how I complain that you won’t stay in conversation with me about issues that are important to me. I’ve been thinking about ways I have brought that frustration on myself. I want to learn how to make our conversations work for you. I have recognized several things I do that I believe are hurtful to you. If you are willing, I’d like to ask you to add to my list. Could we talk about that sometime?”

2. Talk about talking. Having examined and owned your part, ask for an opportunity to talk about how both of you talk. Ask for permission to share things she could do to make it easier for you to discuss sensitive issues. Frame the conversation as a way of coming to agreement on ground rules for how, when, and where you’ll deal with topics that are difficult for both of you. The ground rule of this conversation is that both of you are “right.” The goal is not to agree on needs but to validate any need and ground rule the other person wants. Don’t criticize hers. Similarly, assert your own. Stand up for yourself in expressing your needs and the ground rules that will help you assure them. For example, if you struggle to share your concerns without being interrupted, you might ask for a ground rule that says, “We won’t interrupt each other—even if we disagree with what the other is saying. We will hear each other out before responding.”

3. Give her a reason to want to. Crucial conversations only work when there is a Mutual Purpose. In your question, you articulate how communication failures are affecting you. You make no mention of how they might be affecting her. Do your best to empathize deeply with what is and isn’t working for her in the relationship. Frame the request to talk in terms that sincerely appeal to her needs as well. At some level, her choice to limit her communication with you at times is rational. It is accomplishing some purpose for her. Clearly, it also has downsides—but there must be an upside. How can you present a request for communication that is more appealing than what her limits are getting her? For example, “I know at times you feel I am insensitive and unaware of your needs. I want to do better at that. I believe if I can find a way to communicate better with you, that would help. Can we take some time to talk about what is and isn’t working in our communication? My hope is that this will help me be more connected with you and be a better husband—and it will also help me feel heard and cared about as well.”

4. Influence with your ears.
The best way to help her feel safe, and feel as though conversation can actually serve her needs, is to listen. Hold yourself accountable to validating everything you hear from her, and confirming you have heard it well, before you share anything. If she shares very little, validate what she does share and reassure her you are committed to offering her more safety in the future than she has experienced in the past. As Stephen Covey said, “You can’t talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into.” Be willing to demonstrate your sincerity until she believes it.

I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you. Communication is life. It is the only vehicle we have for connecting meaningfully with others. I wish you the best as you improve yours.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Help! I’m Stuck on an Airplane and Need Some Skills

Dear Joseph,

Recently, I was on an overnight flight, trying to sleep. The person in the next seat was using headphones and laughing loudly every two minutes or so. I told her, politely: “Excuse me, you probably do not realize it, but you are laughing quite loudly, and it is preventing me from going to sleep.” In response, she muttered an offensive epithet and turned away from me. I decided not to engage further and closed my eyes. I didn’t get any sleep as she continued to make noise. Once the lights were back on and we started having breakfast, she started talking to me angrily saying that I should find a different seat or use earplugs if I am disturbed by noise. I had no desire to be engaged in an argument but did not know how to respond to get her to stop. What could I have done differently?

Signed,
Anger Management

Dear Anger Management,

A sign of your emotional maturity is your capacity to sit with others’ drama without absorbing it.

Your experience bears a striking resemblance to one I had three months ago. A perky woman next to me began peppering me with questions the instant she sat down. “What’s your name? What do you do? Why are you going to LA?” and on, and on. I introduced myself, answered a couple of perfunctory questions, then said, “I’ve got some work I want to get done. May I talk with you more when I finish in a couple of hours?” She huffed and turned away.

That was a crucial moment. In moments like that, I have three emotional choices: ignore, absorb, or acknowledge.

Ignore. I can reject the clear evidence of the other person’s upset—often in a defensive way. I can actively neglect him or her in an attempt to punish. Or, I can do so to ensure my own safety. In either case, this willful ignorance is false. I actively resist the other person’s emotions while pretending I am not.

Absorb. I can take responsibility for how the other person is feeling by apologizing, or rescuing him or her. I could turn to this lady next to me and say, “I am sorry, what’s on your mind?” or, “Please don’t be mad, I’m just very busy—I have to get these things done or I’ll be in big trouble.”

Acknowledge. Acknowledgement means I care that she is upset but also recognize that it is her choice to be upset. After acknowledging that she is angry, I first examine my own role to discern whether I have fallen short of my own moral duty. If I have, I own it. I don’t own her emotions, but I own the actions that invited her to feel that way. For example, if I had been curt with her I might say, “I don’t think I said that in a very respectful way. I am sorry. I would enjoy talking with you once I have handled some things on my mind. I hope you understand.” Next, I acknowledge that she is feeling that way by validating her. “It appears you’re upset that I won’t talk with you now. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Do NOT apologize for your choice, simply express your empathy with her upset.

In my own case, the woman began to order drink after drink. The more she took in, the angrier she became. Every few minutes, she would turn to me and say, “Are you ready to talk now, Mr. Big Shot?” With a couple of more drinks in her she began to swear at me and call me names.

It is hard to stay in acknowledge rather than absorb when a relentless string of profanities is coming at you. But it is possible. You slip from one to the other when you begin to feel either that: a) the other person’s behavior means something about you—i.e. when people are unhappy with you or don’t like you that your own worth is threatened; or b) you are responsible for the other person’s feelings—i.e. your safety or worth require you to keep others happy.

Moments like the one you had on the plane—disruptive though they may be—are a great chance to develop the internal muscle to stay in acknowledge and avoid slipping into absorb. When you are able to sleep in spite of someone else’s drama, you’ll know you’ve reached momentary competence. My ability to sleep is usually affected more by the emotional noise inside me than the physical noise outside me. If I can quiet the first, I have at least a hope of rest. Continued practice can propel you to sustained competence. Truthfully, I’m working hard to get there myself.

Once I finished my work, I turned to the woman next to me and said, “I would like to talk now if you are still interested.” It turned out, she was on her way to the Betty Ford Clinic for her alcoholism. I doubt my conversation with her changed her trajectory much, but I was happy that I was able to connect with her for a few minutes.

Next time you’ve got a party going on in the next seat, take advantage of the opportunity to do some emotional calisthenics.

Warmly,
Joseph