All posts by Ron McMillan

Crucial Conversations QA

Talking About Starting a Family

Dear Ron,

How can I apply my new found crucial conversations skills to an uncomfortable issue in my marriage?

After fifteen years together, four of them as a legally married couple, I’d like to start a family but I can’t get my husband to talk about it. I’m almost thirty-three years old and I would like to have this conversation sooner rather than later for obvious reasons!

To complicate matters, my husband knows I attended a Crucial Conversations trainer certification workshop last year, and may resist having my skills forced on him.

Mommy Dreams

Dear Mommy,

It sounds like you are facing an undiscussable—an issue that, like an exposed nerve, sets off a strong negative reaction when touched. Every time the subject is mentioned, the conversation turns contentious and ends in an icy silence or an angry fight. Over time, this becomes a topic we can’t discuss without bad feelings and we conclude, “It’s better to let a sleeping dog lie.”

Without really intending to, we’ve created an undiscussable. We find it’s better to keep the peace and endure the occasional irritation than have yet another blow-up. We lose hope that it will ever get resolved. We live with uncomfortable silence and sometimes pain.

To effectively dialogue, you must make it safe for the other person to talk with you. Resolving undiscussables requires an extra portion of safety because, almost by definition, undiscussables are created by a lack of safety which pushes participants into silence and violence. It takes a lot of safety to initially engage in an undiscussable and even more safety to see it through to completion.

You want to have children together but can’t get your husband to talk about it. This undiscussable is not a peripheral family issue, it is a core issue. This lies at the heart of who you are as a family, your joint aspirations, and the quality of life you will enjoy. To let this undiscussable fester without resolution will be to undermine your marriage and family.

Build Safety. Safety is created by two essential conditions: Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect. Start deconstructing this undiscussable by demonstrating respect. Rather than blind-siding your husband by bringing up the subject during his favorite ball game, ask to set a time to talk with him that’s mutually convenient. “Honey, I would like to talk with you about an important subject and I want to pick a time that we won’t be disturbed for about an hour, a time we can focus on each other and not be distracted. Would tonight after dinner work for you?” This courtesy helps to build Mutual Respect.

Set Expectations. When you actually begin the conversation, set some expectations and guidelines that will help maintain the respect you show each other and continue to build safety. “Thank you for clearing time for our talk,” you say without sarcasm. “My goal is not to make a decision tonight. I just want to fully understand how you feel and help you understand how I feel, as well. Can I make one request? Let’s agree that neither of us will leave until we’re both done, until we both feel heard. Is that okay?”

If he’s impatient and interrupts with something like, “What’s this about? What is it you want to talk about?” Try, “I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s just that before we talk, I want to agree on some guidelines for our discussion. Is that okay?”

Establish Mutual Purpose. Help to establish Mutual Purpose by telling him what you really want. “I love you so much and I want us to always be together. I don’t want anything to strain our relationship. I want to understand how you feel and I want you to understand how I feel.” Having reinforced respect and Mutual Purpose, share with him what you are thinking and how you are feeling about inviting children into your family.

Don’t Judge. A few no-no’s: Don’t attribute motive to him; don’t judge him based on a standard in your head, and don’t make threats or ultimatums. A bad example: “You are so irresponsible and lazy. That’s why you don’t want children. You don’t care one bit about me or what I want. Well, Peter Pan, it’s time to choose . . . ” Rather, keep thinking back to what you really want: to respectfully and lovingly share your thoughts and feelings and deeply understand his. You don’t want to shame, manipulate, pressure, or trick him. You want this dialogue to be honest, open, and loving.

If the dialogue takes a hurtful turn—if he becomes silent and/or gets upset or if you feel the same—go into a listening mode: inquire, paraphrase, reflect, prime. Don’t push your point. Demonstrate your understanding of his meaning.

Take a Break. If the dialogue breaks down, if feelings become too raw, or if he doesn’t want to continue, show respect. To continue at this point could be to cross the line into controlling or disrespectful behaviors. Call for a strategic withdrawal.

First, suggest a break. “This is proving to be a tough issue for us. Why don’t we take a break for now?” Second, thank him. “Thank you for being willing to talk this over with me. I appreciate your sharing and listening.” Third, establish the next step and time frame. “Why don’t we take some time and put some thought into this and see if we can get clear about what having children would mean to us and our life together. Then how about this weekend we do a picnic and see how we’re feeling?”

Sometimes taking a break can help us collect our thoughts, process what we’ve experienced, and help us restore our emotional batteries. The danger becomes that in disengaging we are “putting off” our dialogue or cementing the subject as an undiscussable. The key comes in respectfully agreeing to take a break from the topic and agreeing when you will continue the conversation.

The title of our book, Crucial Conversations is plural. This conversation with your husband about having children might not be the resolution of the issue, but rather the beginning of several conversations—each one expanding the Pool of Shared Meaning, each one building respect, Mutual Purpose, and Safety. Over time, feelings and ideas can change, options can surface, and a crisis of disagreement can form the foundation for a stronger love and a family that has learned how to work through the toughest of issues.

All the very best,

Crucial Accountability QA

Seeking Accountability

The following article was originally published on August 4, 2004.

Dear Ron,

I lead a faith-based, non-profit organization after fifteen years as a mid-level executive in the wireless industry. Working with board members and volunteers is tough sometimes. My difficulty comes in creating safety and expressing my concerns when people do not deliver on their commitments. Given the volunteer nature of both parties, I want to appreciate their desire to serve, not alienate them, and yet I want to let them know things that need to be done are not getting done. Can you help me?

Seeking Accountability

Dear Seeking,

Talking through tough issues with someone in a volunteer organization is a lot like dealing with peers or someone at a higher level in any organization. You cannot rely on position, power, or the threat of losing employment to get the other person’s attention. If you are too heavy-handed, you risk creating offense; if you sugarcoat or water down your communication, you minimize the problem. What to do?

Consider the following tips:

Start with Heart. Make sure you go into the conversation with the right end in mind–you want to solve the problem of someone not keeping a commitment in a way that preserves and enhances the working relationship. You don’t want to shame. You don’t want to make the other person feel bad or wrong.

Master Your Stories. Ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person not keep his or her commitment?” It might be a motivational problem (he or she didn’t WANT to do it) or an ability problem (he or she wasn’t ABLE to do it). Which is the case? You don’t know! Don’t assume the worst; don’t tell yourself a villain story. Be curious, not furious.

Get Unstuck. Decide at what level the conversation needs to be held: content (first time), pattern (it’s happened before), or relationship (how it affects the trust and respect between the two of you). If the problem is a pattern of a behavior that you’ve dealt with before, don’t just talk about the current instance. Talk about the fact that it keeps happening and discuss what you can do to keep it from continuing. If it’s starting to affect how the two of you work together, address that issue, and discuss what you’d like from your working relationship.

STATE your Path. Start with the facts of what’s going on, not your conclusions about why it’s happening. An effective way of sharing the facts is to compare what was promised with what happened. Don’t make accusations (“You didn’t keep your promise.”) Don’t make statements of emotion (“You make me so mad!”). Instead, try, “you told me the report would be ready by Monday. It’s now Tuesday and I still haven’t received the report. What happened?”

Move to Action. Remember at the end of the conversation to document “Who does What by When,” to clarify the plan going forward. This will ensure that everyone knows what is expected, and help them understand what they’ll be accountable for. Be sure to follow up. This will still be a difficult conversation, but handling it with these principles and skills will increase the probability of solving problems in a way that builds both respect and your relationship.

Best of luck,

Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting a Rude and Disrespectful Coworker

The following article was first published on December 18, 2012.

Dear Ron,

I am currently a medical director of emergency services at a small community hospital, and I have an ongoing problem physician who provides outstanding medical care but can’t keep his mouth shut. He offends nursing staff with his obnoxious, condescending, and judgmental comments, and his patient satisfaction scores are horrific, as you might imagine.

I have talked to him about this issue several times, as has the emergency department director at another hospital. I would rather help him improve than fire him and make him someone else’s problem. How can I confront this problem physician about his rude and disrespectful behavior?

Sympathetic Director

Dear Sympathetic,

I admire your concern for this “problem physician.” Too often we, as leaders, treat individuals as cogs in the machine—interchangeable parts to be hired and used. Sometimes we use them up, discard them, and hire some more. This is the danger of literally believing the label that people are only “human resources.” Your concern for the individual is an important starting point for solving this problem.

Another common mistake leaders make is to put our concern about individuals above all other people in the organization. We often hold on to problematic individuals or underperformers at the expense of fellow teammates. In your organization, these teammates might include the nursing staff, patients, and other doctors.

When we allow someone to stay in their position and it results in others being abused, team values being sacrificed, and work being inefficient, it’s not compassion, it’s negligence. The difficult challenge of leadership requires balancing our concern for all the stakeholders and working through their often conflicting needs.

At a minimum, direct reports deserve their leader’s honest evaluation of their work. They deserve targeted, behaviorally specific feedback, and improvement suggestions. Anything less shortchanges the individual and undercuts team and organizational effectiveness.

As leaders, we should also provide the resources and means to make the needed improvements. Many leaders assume the problem with poor performers is they lack motivation; therefore, the obvious way to fix the problem is to motivate their employees. However, motivation is only one of three possible causes of poor performance. It is also possible that the employee wants to perform but is unable to do so because of a lack of skills, knowledge, or resources. A third possible cause is a combination of motivation and ability—they are unable to do what’s required and don’t want to do it even if they could. To try and skill up the unmotivated is a waste of time and resources. To motivate the unable only creates depression, not progress.

You describe the physician’s behavior as “offensive, obnoxious, condescending, and judgmental.” You mention that you and others have talked to him several times with no discernible improvement. Has he expressed a willingness to change, then failed to improve? It might be an ability problem. Has he shrugged off your feedback and shown no interest in trying to change? If this is the case, he probably lacks motivation.

Going forward, here’s my recommendation. Have a crucial conversation with the physician. Don’t try to solve the most recent occurrence; rather, use it as an example of the pattern of behavior you want changed. Be specific. Be factual. Compare what you expected with what occurred. Note that you and others have had several talks with him about this subject, with no discernible improvement. Explain that it’s time to take action, then give him two choices. If he is willing to make a heartfelt effort to stop his hurtful behaviors, offer to give him your complete support. This assistance could include training, coaching, counseling, pairing him with a partner, frequent accountability, or feedback sessions to gauge progress and provide support.

If he is willing to try, set behaviorally specific objectives such as, “You will not call anyone in the hospital a ‘fat head.'” Identify how you will measure his progress—such as peer interviews, surveys, key observer reports—and set specific dates and deadlines to review progress as well as make modifications and changes. Set a final date by which he must demonstrate specific changes or explain that termination will result. Make sure all expectations are absolutely clear about deadlines, the behavior to be changed, and how it will be measured. You don’t require perfection, but you do require sustained, significant improvement. If he agrees, follow the plan.

If he does not agree to the development plan you propose and cannot propose an acceptable alternative, initiate the removal process. Allow no more delays or chances.

Responsible leaders care about their people—the one and the many. They don’t callously fire individuals, nor do they allow a single employee to disrespect, abuse, or negatively impact others. They don’t demand change without helping people have the means to change and reasonable time to do it. Responsible leaders give actionable feedback and recognize progress. And they follow through.

I wish you all the best in the difficult and worthwhile effort of leading and serving others.