All posts by Steve Willlis

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Survive an Abusive Conversation

Dear Steve,

What do you suggest when you try to use the Crucial Conversations skills only to realize the other person is unhealthy, unaware, and unable to communicate effectively, respectfully, or civilly? Many people are healthy and just don’t have the communication skills, and when they are mentored or trained, they can learn to communicate better. But what do you do when you run into people who are not healthy or seem to have issues like anger management, narcissism, etc.?

Stumped

Dear Stumped,

Some years back, I found myself in, what I considered, a fairly unnerving situation. At the time, I was part of an organization that provided lay counseling to neighbors, by neighbors. While we didn’t handle really significant, chronic, mental health issues, we dealt with some tricky situations.

I remember receiving a call one evening from an older, single woman who wanted to talk with someone. Her adult son, living in another state, had just been incarcerated and she wanted to process it with someone. Once I determined it wasn’t an urgent need, and something that was within my own mandate, I let her know I’d be happy to come over and could be there in about twenty minutes. The silence on the other end of the phone was the first sign of trouble.

After what seemed like an eternity, I checked to see if she was still on the line, “Will that work for you?” I asked again.

“If I wanted someone in twenty minutes, I would have called in twenty minutes!” she stated aggressively.

Now, some of my peers had warned me this person was prone to yell and become abusive. But I had “mastered my story” so I figured I was okay to proceed. I also figured she’d surely respond well if presented with a Crucial Conversations approach. The sublime principles and skills would soothe her fears and bring her back to a healthy interaction. With this inner reassurance, I calmly proceeded back in to the conversation.

I paraphrased back what I understood her concerns to be, reaffirmed my purpose (which was to make sure she got the support she needed), and I rejected all the “either/or” choices as I tried to expand my mind to all the potential “and” options that would create safety. I was in the moment and one with the principles. I was also in deep trouble.

She turned more abusive. Her volume increased, words became more cutting. I felt shell-shocked.

I tried to interrupt her tirade to get us back on track—back to dialogue. I lead with the only thing that came to mind, “Look, I can tell you’re upset and I really want to help you, and yet the way we’re interacting right now is getting in the way.”

Her response let me know she heard my statement as well as how she felt about it. The abuse ratcheted up a notch—something I hadn’t believed possible. I absolutely could not believe a person would treat another person in this manner.

It finally reached a breaking point for me. I reaffirmed that I hoped she’d get the help she was looking for, that it wouldn’t be from me at this time, provided her with the contact information of others who might be able to help, and informed her that I would be hanging up. Which I wasn’t able to do as she hung up first (but not before she fired off some choice, closing remarks).

I was left holding the phone, completely dumbstruck. What had just happened? I’d used my best Crucial Conversations skills and they didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to make the situation worse—much worse. Crucial Conversations skills had failed . . . or had they?

As I reflected on the interaction, I realized I usually thought of success or failure in a dialogue in terms of how the other person responded. But this time it was different. I still thought the skills were of benefit despite the response I received. But why? And how? My understanding started to expand as I realized that the biggest benefit of my Crucial Conversations skills across many different types of interactions was that they helped me to not become part of the problem. It was then that I began to value the impact the principles had on me. It also helped me rethink some of my long held Crucial Conversations assumptions.

Just because you’re engaging in dialogue doesn’t mean the resulting decisions have to be consensus. You always have options to escalate, or even terminate, interactions. When you’re in a position where you believe your safety (psychological or physical) is purposefully being threatened, it’s appropriate to disengage. And you can use your Crucial Conversations skills to do so respectfully.

I’ve also come to better understand the power of telling the rest of the story—especially when it comes to the villain story. So why would a reasonable, rational, decent person continue to berate me despite my best efforts?

Much of what goes into our stories has to do with how we attribute the motives of the person who’s done us wrong. “She did it because she enjoys it!” or “She’s just like that!” are very common attributions we make. It was during tough situations like the one I described above, that I realized even when others’ motives are bad and directed at me, I can still choose to respond in a productive, positive way. I don’t have to be a victim; I can simply choose to get out of the line of fire. There is a powerful and calming connection between these principles of Master My Stories and Start with Heart.

So, while it may be appropriate to stop a particular conversation, it doesn’t mean you have to stop using the skills. Over the years, I’ve become more and more appreciative of the way the skills have positively impacted me—just as much as they have impacted others.

Best of luck,
Steve

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

Crucial Conversations via Email

Dear Steve,

Having successfully used and trained Crucial Conversations for many years, I believe in its efficacy for making difficult communication easier, more respectful, and more productive. My question is around whether it’s ever preferable to preface a crucial conversation by using email. Might this pave the way for a more congenial exchange later on by allowing you to express your ideas without risk of having them interrupted mid-sentence, and also allow the other person time to digest, process, and formulate his or her reactions to your communication without feeling the heat of the moment (and with it, the natural fight or flight response)? Or, because of the one-way, nonverbal nature of email communication, might this approach do more harm than good as a starting point?

Signed,
Pondering a Preface

Dear Pondering,

A while back, I found myself surrounded by unions. I frequently worked in unionized environments in a number of different organizations. The group dynamics in these environments were, well, “interesting” (feel free to insert your descriptor here based on your own experience). Sometimes, it was more interesting and sometimes less. But, regardless of the organization, it always became more interesting the closer it got to contract negotiation time.

At one point, I worked with two different organizations on issues related to hammering out a new contract. And in one of those organizations, it felt like a literal hammering. They referred to the negotiations as, “The blood bath on the lake shore” (it’s original name was too long and not family-friendly, so they shortened it to this).

In the other negotiation, it felt completely different. The atmosphere was collegial, rather than adversarial. Instead of preparing for battle, they prepared for agreement. There was a lot of similarities between the two: Both involved well-established, relatively strong, unions. Both organizations were similar in size. Both were considering touchy subjects and controversial positions. And yet, the whole mood and feel surrounding the negotiations were noticeably different. Why?

I was so taken aback, I asked an HR director at the non-“blood bath” organization if the actual negotiations were as pleasant as normal, everyday interactions seemed to be. The response: “Well, since Randy become Union President, they have been. He’s changed the whole way we go about the negotiations.”

We talked about a number of different things, but the practice she seemed to think made the biggest difference was almost insignificant. She said that before each big negotiation, he emailed exactly what they would ask for in the meeting. “I don’t want there to be any big surprises in the meetings,” he would say. And he always demonstrated his true intent was cooperation by sticking to those items he sent in advance, and/or advising of any shifts or amendments prior to the meetings.

Now, this didn’t take all the crucial out of the conversation, but it went a long way to reduce the strong emotions that arise from feeling like you’ve just been ambushed. And so, while there are some conversations that should never be conducted over email, there are ways you can align your email use with Crucial Conversations principles.

Before we jump in to appropriate uses, let’s pause for a Crucial Conversations caveat. If you think it will become, or has the potential to become crucial, it’s best to hold conversations in-person so you can pick up on non-verbals and adjust the level of safety as necessary. When it’s not possible to have face-to-face meetings, then opt for a tele-conference (phone or video apply here). And as a last option, settle for email. Are you getting an idea of the principle here? Use email to augment, not supplant your in-person discussions. So when and how can email be used?

While the most frequent application for email is as a follow-up to a crucial conversation to ensure we have a documented form of who is going to do what and by when, I think the more interesting application is the way the Union President used email during negotiations. In terms of crucial conversations, I think this approach is especially useful when working with creating Mutual Purpose and STATE-ing your path. And because I think the union example fits nicely as a Mutual Purpose application, I’ll focus on the STATE side of things.

When you have a Left-Hand Column (see the work of Chris Argyris for more on this concept) that’s occupying a lot of your mental capacity, it can be useful to write it out in an email prior to the pending conversation, but only if you complete the following pre-work before hitting the send button.

Write it out and pare it down. When using STATE, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not trying to prove our Left-Hand Column, but rather help the other person understand how we got to that conclusion. You want your perspective to be as concise as possible without losing the meaning of how you really feel. Try to capture the essence of the Left-Hand Column in two to three sentences.

Once you have it distilled to the essence, then work on making sure it’s tentative and that you’ve built enough safety around the concern to avoid having others spiral off into the misinterpretations of intent. And because you won’t be able to be present to see when and if people start to feel unsafe, it’s a good idea to go a little further than usual to create safety. Make sure you clarify your positive intent in sending the email, or provide some context as to why you are sending the email in the first place. Or even send an email indicating your desire to send an email about your Left-Hand Column.

If you try prefacing the actual conversation with an email only to find that you’re spending a good deal of time explaining/justifying why you sent the email, or finding that you’re spending more time than usual working to establish safety during the conversation, then back off the email and return to the face-to-face approach. And just remember, when you’re thinking about whether or not to use a preface, it’s used most effective when it is pre face-to-face. See what I did there?

Best of luck,
Steve

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.

Getting Things Done QA

Help! I’m Buried By My Inbox

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Steve,

Can you help me better understand how, and more particularly when, I should clarify new items that come into my email inbox? It seems like it would take less time to scan my emails for the most important ones I need to take care of, and leave the less important issues for later. I’d appreciate any advice you could offer.

Sincerely,
Stuck in Clarify

Dear Stuck,

Recently, I was at a session where we discussed the number of emails currently in our respective inboxes. The first person to respond had 151 emails. Before she even finished saying, “One-hundred-and-fifty-one,” the person to her left cut her off with, “Amateur!” As it turned out, he was sitting on 5,000!

As we dug in further, we found that much of that backlog was a result of how he interacted with those emails—and surprisingly little to do with the raw number of email he received. And he’s not alone. Many of our GTD® participants own up to having email inboxes that range from full to overflowing. To shed some light on this common challenge, I’ll refer to the CCORE skills from Getting Things Done. CCORE is an acronym from GTD Training that stands for Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. Let’s bring some clarification to Clarify.

The overarching principle behind Clarify is to be familiar with what inputs are coming your way and, more importantly, what type and amount of effort they require of you. To do this effectively, you have to do some thinking and make some decisions regarding those items before taking action. While it may seem like a nuisance to add in this thinking and decision time to your email work, realize that you can either think and decide when things show up, or when they blow up. Of the two options, the preferred choice seems pretty obvious, right? So why, would anyone choose the latter of the two options? No one says, “Let’s see . . . I prefer to only deal with things once they’ve either fallen through the cracks or blown up into a crisis.” But unfortunately, it’s rarely framed this way. Usually, the dilemma comes packaged in an efficiency wrapper: “Why spend all that time ‘thinking’ about getting things done when I could actually just get things done?” People who succumb to this half-truth spend a lot of time engaged in emergency scanning.

Emergency scanning is the process of looking through your inbox for any high-priority emails and responding to those while leaving the others for later. And it’s not that this practice is necessarily evil. It’s great when you’ve just stepped out of an all-day meeting and have a few minutes to figure out if anything urgent requires your attention, or if the person you’ve been waiting to hear from has responded. The problem is when emergency scanning becomes the only way you clarify. Working in this mode ensures that you address only the high-priority items while creating a healthy backlog of less-urgent emails that grow to fill the available space (Parkinson’s fourth law of email). Each of these backlogged emails require multiple touches to re-clarify and re-figure out what needs to be done about it so by saving them for later, you are not getting rid of them. Rather, you are duplicating the amount of work it takes to read them, clarify them, and take any necessary actions.

However, if you take the time to Clarify on your first read—i.e. make decisions about what each email means to you and how you’ll respond—you can either get the task done immediately, file it away for important use later, or add it to a project with the next action clearly identified. Most importantly, you can move on from that email, release its hold on your mental to-do list, and start getting work done.

Clarifying once, and only once, when things show up in our inbox not only creates a proactive bond between you and your stuff, it’s also an efficient way to evaluate your workload and prioritize your commitments. Now, to make it a little easier, you may find it’s useful to clarify with your email in off-line mode. That way, you won’t feel tempted to go back to the top every time a new message makes it’s Pavlovian entrance (bing!).

If you find you have a backlog only a mother could love, I suggest something a little different. Pick a date in the past (two weeks or older works well), and move all those emails out of your inbox and into a folder titled “to be clarified.” This way, you’ll still have them (for those of you who’ve grown attached), and you can chip away at them over time as you maintain a more healthy load.

In one organization, teams that engaged their GTD skills reported an average of thirty minutes of “extra” time they hadn’t enjoyed previously. And where did the majority of that new time come from? A good chunk came from not having to touch their emails multiple times before taking action on them.

For those just beginning, it might take you a little longer to grow accustomed to the new discipline of clarifying. But over time, you’ll find clarifying becomes easier and quicker. And, the biggest benefit you’ll find is the direct link between how clear your next actions are and your ability to take action.

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Change Someone’s Opinion of You

Dear Steve,

Last year, our department’s vice president was laid off and the entire group was moved under the Director of Operations, someone I didn’t know very well. Since the change, he has not made much of an effort to get to know our team and I have had only a handful of interactions with him. On a recent performance review, he commented that I, “can come across as close-minded if I offer an alternative to his suggestion.” I am not sure what he is referring to, especially considering our limited interaction. I am a licensed professional engineer, so some things I work on have to be “just so” from a legal perspective but, otherwise, I feel I welcome alternative solutions on my projects. How can I approach this director to get some feedback without it seeming like I’m arguing with his assessment or trying to defend my position? How can I demonstrate to my managers and colleagues alike that I am open to suggestions?

Sincerely,
Open to Suggestions

Dear Open,

Years ago, my colleagues and I found ourselves in a similar situation after we were shifted to a new reporting structure. It was a little different in that our previous boss remained in the organization and we’d still see him. For a while after the change, one of my colleagues would tell him, “You’ll always be the boss of my heart; even though you’re no longer the boss of my now.” At first, I considered it to be a clever quip, but I now understand that it’s more than a clever quip. It reflects the difficulty many experience following a change in leadership. You’re trying to understand new performance expectations, how to best approach your new boss, how he or she will respond to different circumstances, and what his or her preferences are.

I recommend the very next action you take is to schedule a meeting with the Director of Operations. The purpose of the meeting is not to list off a bunch of examples of how you are open and flexible, but rather to understand his perspective shaping the feedback he gave you. I’d start by stating your purpose, something like, “I want to make sure we work well together, so I’d like to take time to really understand how you see our working relationship—especially your views about how open and/or closed-minded you believe I am.”

During the meeting, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in listening mode rather than explaining or justifying mode. Listen specifically for details and examples of how you have actually been closed-minded. Don’t settle for broad descriptions like, “You’re not open to alternative points of view.” If necessary, probe for more detail. Ask him to describe the last time he experienced that with you. Get specific, observable behaviors. You need to understand where his story came from so that you’re not in the position of trying to talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into. At the conclusion of your meeting, thank him for his time and leave him with an invitation to get back with you with any additional information that might occur to him.

At this point, you should have enough data about the Director to take some action. All that questioning and probing you did is less about you, and more about how he sees the world, as well as how you fit into that world. Look for the times, situations, and circumstances where he most often sees you as closed-minded, and then identify what you can do in those moments to augment the “open-minded” data stream you’d like him to tap into. To do this, I recommend you work with symbolic actions.

A symbolic action is any action you take where other people who are watching will walk away having concluded what you care about, what your priorities are, and even what you value. Now for those of you who have leadership positions, what percentage of your actions would you guess are symbolic? Did you guess 100%? If you did, you would be correct; it’s everything you do, or don’t do. When you show up, if you show up, what you say, what you don’t say, and even how you allocate your budget shapes your specific brand of leadership. All of your actions send messages. While these actions are especially relevant to leaders, they can also be applied to situations where you’re trying to change your boss’s perspective.

Ask yourself, and feel free to extend this question to trusted others as well, “What could I do that demonstrates that I am, in fact, the opposite of closed-minded?” An accompanying question would be, “What could I do or say when I can’t be flexible to help him understand why?” Sometimes it’s as simple as telegraphing your upcoming actions by alerting him to what’s going to happen before you do it.

You’ll also need to put more thought into what behaviors, if seen consistently, would change his current data stream. It may be helpful to think in terms of behaviors that involve sacrifices of time, ego, or even previous priorities.

While changing his mind will require some time and attention, if you’re deliberate about it, you can have much more influence in shaping your overall joint experience with your new boss.

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Decline A Friend’s Invitation

Dear Steve,

My friend and I have been close for many years. However, my husband and I really dislike her husband; being in the same room feels like a chore and is emotionally exhausting. She is aware that I do not like her husband but she likes hosting Christmas dinner and insists we are like family and therefore should attend. The previous three years, I have been able to graciously decline, stating we had previous commitments. Earlier this year, she reminded me that Christmas was thirty-four weeks away and asked what would I like for dinner? I resent the idea of her asking me so soon and we really do not want to attend. How can I address this issue without losing her friendship?

Sincerely,
Trying to Be Friendly

Dear Trying,

You do have a tough decision, but you have a couple of options for proceeding. The tough part is, as I see it, each option has a downside. While this is not an exhaustive list, the main point to realize is that you’re choosing a consequence bundle—a mix of positive, negative, shorter-, and longer-term consequences. In the end, you need to choose the bundle you feel you can live with. So, as with most important journeys, let’s start with a little detour.

How to Choose

Stay with me here, because what happens before you choose is usually the most important bit. This pre-choice will help you select which of the options is the best fit for you.
If you’re not careful, it will be easy to get sucked into an option that appeals in the short-term while going against what you really want in the long-term. Stopping to clarify what you really want allows you to fully explore the range of consequences bundled in any particular option. Doing this the right way usually requires thoughtfully asking (emphasis on the word thoughtfully here) three to four times, “What do I really want?” Your answer to this question will help clarify, up front, the type of strategy you’re looking for and make the selection process a little easier.

I’ve found it helpful to examine what it is I really want in terms of both the desired relationship and the results. Make sure to consider these two factors for you, for your friend, and for the relationship. If you decide you will decline the invitation, then proceed with the following options for gracefully doing so.

Option 1: The outright NO.
This one is the most direct, straightforward, and potentially damaging of the options. It involves telling your friend that you will not be accepting her invitation for dinner. It may also involve declining any and all future invitations to engage with your friend. The benefit of this easy response is counterbalanced with the high potential to sever all ties with your friend (whose only crime is being married to a person with whom you don’t want to spend time). It’s also hard to do when it comes right down to it because who really wants to say “no” when that means disappointing your friend.

This option doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, and yet, it may very well feel that way to your friend if you don’t take time to establish and reinforce safety with her—especially Mutual Purpose. You’ll want to make sure she understands that you’re not trying to sever all ties, AND that you’re not interested in spending time with her and her partner on Christmas Day. Establishing your commitment to seek a mutual purpose will be key, and the big barrier to this will be your friend’s insistence that your mutual purpose is to spend Christmas dinner together. She needs to know that you’re interested in finding one-on-one activities that provide an opportunity to foster the friendship.

Option 2: Only this ONCE!

While this option satisfies your friend, it does mean that you’ll be spending an evening managing your emotions. This option can also be tough because it’s never just once. By attending the dinner once, a precedent is established. Your friend learns that you are persuadable with the right mix of pre-notice and constant follow-up.
Now, there are good reasons that might pull you toward this option. After all, it sounds like it’s only once a year for the span of an evening. If the friendship is really valuable to you, and the only way you see to maintain that friendship is to occasionally endure her husband in small, controlled doses, then this bundle may be the right choice for you.

If you find yourself leaning toward this option, make sure you are very clear with yourself on acceptable amounts, types, and lengths of interaction with her and her partner. This will allow you to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries so as to avoid being roped-in to interactions that weigh on you.

Regardless of which option you choose, or even if you decide that a different option suits you better, remember to take time to reinforce your positive feelings for your friend and the value that you hold for your friendship. In the end, you’ll want to create the conditions under which this friendship has the best chance to continue forward, in whatever form that might take.

Best of luck,
Steve

Change Anything QA

Helping an Unmotivated Teenager

Dear Steve,

I have a thirteen-year-old son who thinks everything in life sucks. He tends to think everything will be better somewhere else. He asks for things and when we get them for him, he decides he doesn’t want it anymore and wants something else. For example, we bought him a guitar so he could learn how to play. He gave up saying, “It’s too hard, I suck at it.” If he can’t do it naturally the first time, he gives up. I’m not sure where he gets that mentality from; he’s seen many people in our family struggle at things, keep going, and finally succeed. Any insight on how to help him?

Signed,
Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated,

I, too, have a thirteen-year-old and he also finds “suckiness” in an increasing number of things. I suspect it has something to do with junior high and the general feeling of awkwardness that young people experience during that period of their life. And while it would be really convenient to attribute this attitude to his age, I don’t think that is entirely accurate.

My thirteen-year-old is also my third thirteen-year-old and so my experience tells me that you can’t take the “life sucks” attitude out of the boy or girl completely. However, there are some things you can do as a parent. Let me offer three ideas to help you avoid pulling out your hair as you think about and approach your son.

Unfix the fixed mind set. Find a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and study it. She’s a professor at Standford University who has studied the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. In essence, a fixed mindset is one that believes that people (themselves in particular) are either naturally good or bad at an activity. For example, one of my colleagues is the son of two math professors. So naturally everyone, including him, thought he’d be good at math. He succeeded early in his school career and both parents are involved in the field. His mindset became fixed in the belief that he no longer needed to put in time and effort to practice or do homework because he was inherently gifted in math. That is exactly the point where his grades began to slip. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one that assumes that if you take the time to practice, study, or otherwise apply yourself, you can learn to become better. He stopped putting in the effort to learn because he assumed it would come naturally.

Along with the many wonderful ideas you’ll get directly from Dweck, you might want to sprinkle in some vicarious experiences. It may be useful to expose your child to the background stories of those who’ve succeeded in their areas of potential interest so they can get a better sense of the amount of effort required to achieve different levels of competence.

When I was a boy, I loved Tony Hawk. He rolled his way into my life when I was about fourteen. As a skater, I thought it was awesome that he turned pro two years earlier (he is two years older than I am). I was even more impressed when I learned how much time he spent on his board to become that good. I had assumed he was just naturally gifted. When I learned how hard he had worked at skating, it changed my perspective on my drive and determination.

See if you can find short articles or YouTube videos that feature successful people in whom your child might be interested. Share them with him and ask questions like, “How good is he/she?” and more importantly, “How long did it take him/her to get that good?” and, “What’s their daily routine?” Get your child to experience the process required to succeed.

Change the frame. This second idea is related to the first. Sounds like your son views many of his efforts that fall short of complete competence as failure: “I suck at guitar! I wasn’t able play this song, so I’m no good!” In addition to being untrue, this attitude also feeds into the fixed mindset described in the first idea.

We’ve found it useful to start framing their beginning experiences in this way: turn bad days, jam sessions, performances, etc. into good data. People often give up because they take a setback of any kind to mean they are no good. Instead, we encourage people to examine the setback for information they can use to improve. And let me be clear, this is not about discounting frustrations. It’s okay to acknowledge these as legitimate feelings. Just make sure you help your child see how the root of these emotions are based in their experience—which can be changed and improved.

It can also be useful to help your child reframe challenges as opportunities. For example, when you notice he is struggling with learning a song on the guitar, try something like, “How many stanzas do you think you could learn in twenty minutes?” When it comes time to hear the progress, praise the work and effort, and ask him about what helped and/or hindered (back to the idea of turning bad days into good data).

Try it out. Now for all this to work, you ought to find ways for your child to “try it out” before having to fully commit to something of interest. And, it’s got to be something in which your child shows interest. Once it seems that you found a good fit, it will be useful for you to help him identify some quick wins that will keep this interest and allow you to practice some of the ideas above.

Hope this helps you steer clear of the “suck,” or at least helps to reduce the amount of “suck-i-tude” you have to endure.

P.S. Don’t say suck.

Best of Luck,
Steve

Influencer QA

Working with a Know-it-All

Dear Steve,

As a nurse, I am responsible for precepting our new hires. In most cases, experienced nurses come to my unit and my job is to help them learn the policies and procedures unique to our unit and the hospital. The most difficult challenge is the “know-it-all” who is impossible to teach. We avoid these people in our personal life and regard them as arrogant, but how do I deal with someone with an unteachable attitude at work?

Signed,
Preceptor
Dear Preceptor,

Braggart, smarty pants, windbag, egoist—however you refer to this category of people, it still doesn’t change the fact that “No ones likes a know-it-all!” (one of my mom’s favorite sayings—just second to the all-time favorite, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”).

Most people figure they’ll just have to grin and bear the time they’re required to spend working with a know-it all. Or, when patience finally wears thin, they try to “help” the person see the impacts of their know-it-all ways. And while either the “grin and bear it” or “put them in their place” approaches might work in a social setting, at work, you can’t simply choose to avoid these folks. It’s your job to work with them—especially in your case.

My best advice to you is to change the way you go about trying to change these new nurse’s minds.

Typically, when we have information we want to impart, our preferred method is tell, followed by tell, and then we end up with, well . . . more telling. You get the point. Instead of starting and ending with tell, try to create an experience that will help them change their own minds. Here’s what I mean.

I asked my good friend, Jamie, who’s responsible for precepting new hires at Med/Surg Psych Forensics Unit if he’d ever been assigned to train a know-it-all, and if so, what he did. “Of course,” he responded, “I had one a little while ago. She was the toughest I’ve dealt with yet.”

She came to her new unit pre-stocked with all the knowledge, expertise, and information she needed for this new unit—at least that’s what she believed. He explained she had ten years of experience as a NICU nurse and was about fifteen years older than him. She spent a significant amount of time making sure he knew she was at least twenty years beyond him in practical experience, common sense, and all around skill.

Two very long days into a two-week precepting process and she was already discounting and ignoring almost everything Jamie had to offer. And that’s when he got smart. Instead of trying to verbally convince her he had something of value to offer, he decided to let her “solo” on a tricky, but non-life-threatening task.

She floundered. He made some suggestions and, finally, she listened. This direct experience was the catalyst to her asking questions and paying more attention rather than trying to prove she already knew it all. Jamie had no more need to convince or compel. His trainee understood there were things she’d need to know and learn to do well in her new position. In a very short period of time, she ended up changing her own mind.

Now, what made this work? When Jamie switched from telling to getting this new nurse to participate in a task that required knowledge she didn’t currently have, he created a direct experience for the new hire. People usually dismiss attempts at verbal persuasion but can’t so readily dismiss things they’ve experienced firsthand. These direct experiences are both more memorable and more meaningful.

So, what does this mean for you? Try precepting up front. Shift from a theoretical description of their role to a practical one. Instead of waiting for some type of direct experience to present itself, design a process so that one of the very first, if not the first, activities you engage in are direct experiences. I’m talking about simulations or actual tasks that represent the typical types of situations a nurse will encounter in your unit. It will allow you to see what skills they are bringing to your area so you will have a better sense of how to customize their overall precepting experience. It will also provide a great direct experience for the new hire to get a sense of how different your area is and where they’ll need to focus.

I think you’ll find that as you try to incorporate this idea, you’ll come to appreciate the Chinese Proverb which counsels: Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.

Best of Luck,
Steve