All posts by Steve Willlis

Crucial Conversations QA

What To Do When Someone Repeatedly Disrespects You

Dear Steve,

What do you do when respect is violated time and time again? I have revisited mutual purpose with a peer, but we always end up in the same loop: I feel disrespected and dialogue comes to “a screeching halt.” Because of the disrespect, I go to silence and remain there. What do you do if another continually disrespects you every time you attempt to have a crucial conversation?

Signed, Seeking Respect

Dear Seeking Respect,

I can assure you that you’re not the only one who’s been driven loopy by disrespect. Since the “loop” you describe often shows up in small, intermittent outbreaks at first, the tendency is to tolerate it initially. “It’s just that once,” you tell yourself, “it probably won’t happen again.” Until it does. And then you’re stuck with it—at least that’s the way it feels. And as you well know, repeated violations of respect cause the conversation to come to a halt as we shift to trying to preserve or regain respect.

But for those who understand this axiom, there’s hope: when people don’t feel safe, they don’t dialogue. This is true regardless of how much power you have in any given situation. When you don’t feel safe, you look for ways to use your power to control the outcome. Your silence is an attempt to control a situation in which you don’t feel safe. But if you can make it safe, you can talk to almost anyone about almost anything. Which means there’s hope.

Feeling safe in a conversation is a byproduct of feeling a sense of mutuality. In other words, when I believe we have mutual purpose—common goals, objectives, and interests—I’ll enter the conversation. And when I feel that you respect me, I’m willing to continue in a conversation even when it turns crucial. The two conditions are essential to maintaining dialogue in the face of disagreement.

Now while you focused mainly on disrespect in your question, purpose is also important. It’s clear how these two conditions are distinct, but not always as clear as to how they are related. When you work on one, you’re working on the other. So, when you establish mutual purpose, it boosts the feeling of respect you have for the other. And, when there’s mutual respect, it reinforces your sense of mutual purpose. And while you can’t fully address problems of disrespect by establishing mutual purpose, it can be a good place to start. Let me illustrate.

There once was a petite and brilliant analyst named Sun Lee. She was considered the “number whisperer” of her team; she could tame any data set she came across. She discovered her affection for numbers during her younger years in China, fully embraced it during her university studies in the United States, and settled into an organization with plenty of free-range data sets to keep her happily engaged.

On that same team resided a mountain of a man who loved to see data tamed: Frank. Frank led the team. He measured about six foot three inches tall and had spent several years filling in his tall frame so he had enough bulk to block out the sun when he stood over one of his team members. He knew he was imposing and he used his size to get things done—but only when it was necessary. Which was becoming increasingly frequent.

Sun Lee knew this all too well. She had both seen and experienced what everyone referred to as “Frank’s style.” She noticed it was becoming a problem for her team, and more importantly, for herself.

One day, Frank came bursting onto the floor. “Sun Lee! Sun Lee, where are you?!” Sun’s teammates instinctively ducked into their cubicles, opening a clear path for Frank to Sun Lee’s desk. Frank started his tirade when he was twenty-five away, which culminated with a dramatic paper throw-down on her desk. “The numbers are wrong! The numbers are wrong! And if these numbers are wrong, then everything’s wrong!”

Again, the thing that was so unusual about this interaction was that it wasn’t unusual at all. Frank was often disrespectful when problem-solving. And notice here, he and Sun have the same purpose: tame a data set. But Frank’s disrespectful approach put him at cross-purposes with others. (Notice the interplay of purpose and respect in motion.)

As Frank leaned into solving this problem, Sun Lee tried something new. She held up her hand to pause Frank and asked, “Frank, do you want those numbers to be right?” (Notice she’s circling back to mutual purpose here.) “Of course I want those numbers to be right!” he shot back. But she didn’t stop there. She realized that re-establishing mutual purpose would only go so far to rebuild mutual respect. She continued with, “I do too, but the way you’re talking to me doesn’t make me feel like getting those numbers right.” Frank stopped, took a step back, and looked at her. Sun Lee asked a few more questions to better understand the problem, identified the mistake and laid a plan to correct it.

What made her approach effective was that she used mutual purpose to frame the real problem, which wasn’t the numbers but the way she was being treated. She made the lack of respect she was experiencing discussable. Sun Lee started a new pattern with Frank. He learned that he didn’t need to loom and boom to accomplish his purpose. It was a new starting point for the whole team.

See if you can establish mutual purpose to frame a conversation about respect. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may take a while for your peer to change how he or she dialogues with you. If you find they aren’t able to make a shift, you may need to alter some of the parameters of your relationship, like how and when you interact. And remember, if this is a coworker you’re talking about and you find the situation completely intractable after attempting the conversation, you can always bring in an appropriate HR person to help. Finally, in extreme cases, you may need to consider distancing yourself from this person.

All the best,


Crucial Conversations QA

How to Set Boundaries for a Friendship

Dear Steve,

My wife and I have this friend who avoids crucial conversations. It got to a point where so much bad stuff had built up and festered that this individual “put her foot down” and told us “we are changing our friendship,” and “this is how it has to be.” We’ve witnessed a lot of self-absorbed behaviors, like dominating conversations, trying to redirect conversation to what she wants to talk about, and completely ignoring us at social events. Boundaries are being crossed, yet the boundaries are very ambiguous. My wife and I have both read Crucial Conversations. I understand how to create safety to have a conversation and establish Mutual Purpose. But how do we communicate our expectations moving forward, especially if she tries to dictate the terms of our relationship?

Feeling Bound

Dear Feeling Bound,

As you might suspect, this type of situation requires a significant, sustained effort to address. So before you decide to resolve it, you should ask yourself whether this is a friend you want to have in your life. As you consider the question, I encourage you not to say “yes” just because you’ve been friends up to this point. It’s okay to allow your relationship to change and shift.

If you decide not to remain friends, advice from Maya Angelou might be helpful: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” A “no” means you can stop reading here and back away from the relationship. If, on the other hand, you’ve answered “yes” to the question in question, read on.

First of all, I’m glad you found Crucial Conversations. It offers practical approaches that can make a difference. Let’s start with one skill from the Mutual Purpose skillset: Invent Mutual Purpose. You arrive at this skill once you’ve committed to discover what the other party wants and find a mutual purpose. At this point, you’re ready to define boundaries—though it’s good to double check that you indeed understand what the other person really wants before inventing mutual purpose. And when you’re “inventing,” you’re not just making up purpose arbitrarily. You’re combining your wants with the other’s to come up with something new for the relationship.

Inventing requires effort. It’s not always as simple as merging your individual purposes into one purpose that automatically becomes mutual. It often requires some time to work out. Those who are best at it tend to shift to higher-level, longer-term goals when they become stuck or tempted to compromise, whether values, time, or overall “wants” for the relationship. In practice, this means not getting caught up in negotiating requests like “keep every other Friday open for us,” but rather moving to a higher value like “how can we respect one another’s other commitments and desires and still nurture the relationship?”

A little side-note on compromise. Compromise isn’t necessarily bad, but people often fail to find a more powerful, longer-lasting purpose when they compromise quickly. Working through this all will allow you both to modify and alter your purpose until you both feel good about it. It will also you give you the chance to revisit our initial question: Is this a relationship worth keeping? You may find that your purpose is how to distance yourselves in the healthiest way possible.

Now, if this person doesn’t want to find mutual purpose, it may help to make visible to her what’s currently invisible. Sometimes people don’t see the impact of their behavior, so they continue without regard to how it affects others. You can help see the effects of their behavior by pointing out natural consequences. People don’t always notice all the consequences of their behavior. They act, others respond in a desired way, and that’s all they see. But usually there are multiple consequences, not all of them good.

To successfully inspire a person to change his or her behavior with this skill, you need to show how their behavior is leading to consequences that they find undesirable. In practice, it might sound like, “You may not be aware of this, but when you allow a problem to build up and refuse to talk about it, it makes the problem harder to deal with because there’s a lot more stress and emotions that everyone has to sift through.” You may have to point out different natural consequences before you discover the one, or few, that resonates with the person. And they may need some time to think of things before they are ready to respond.

If you approach this conversation with the intent to understand and love, you’ll compensate for less-than-perfect word choices you might make in the process.

Best of luck,

Getting Things Done QA

An Inside-Out Look at GTD

Most people consider Getting Things Done® (GTD®) a personal development experience. The name itself portends a boost in personal productivity. And yet Getting Things Done is not simply about getting more things done—although it does deliver on that promise. It’s about getting more of the right things done by changing the way you interact with your priorities, should-dos, need-to-dos, and even want- or hope-to-dos.

It’s this promise that hooks people in the beginning, but the benefits aren’t solely confined to individual performance enhancement. When GTD is adopted and fully implemented, its benefits extend to those around the individual practitioner. It changes the way the person engages with their own “to-dos,” and, because of that, it changes the way others engage with that person. Over time, it brings about an inside-out transformation. Here’s how.

GTD principles and practices are based on what we do when in the “productive state.” It helps you look inside to understand exactly what to-dos you are trying to manage in your head. It helps you get clarity about what those things mean to you and the effort required to complete them. It helps you organize these things so you can remember them when you need to, and not before. And it helps you ensure you spend time and effort on your highest priorities given your circumstances.

These practices result in more focused attention on your pressing to-dos, better management of time (more time actually doing than worrying about what needs to be done), a feeling of balance between work and life, and time to spend on higher priorities that normally would get pushed aside in favor of urgent tasks. This all naturally follows from looking inside oneself and making appropriate adjustments.

One of the unintended benefits, however, is that when you become clear on what you will and won’t work on, what your priorities are, and how you’ll spend your time, that information gets communicated out to others. They begin to get the message that when you commit to something, you intend to give it the attention it deserves. This communication starts from the moment you Capture things effectively, in which you communicate “I care about doing a good job on this.” It continues when others see you take time to determine Next Actions, which communicates “I intend to follow through with this.” And as you might imagine, when people consistently get these messages, they start to see and interact with you differently.

While you’ll experience many of these inside-out benefits as a natural result of adopting and practicing GTD, there are some things you can do to accelerate their realization.

First, think big, but start small. To fully implement all of GTD into your daily and weekly routines requires time. So, while adopting GTD is your goal, the best place to start is with one skill. Work it into your daily routine until you have a two-week span where you consistently use your new skills. Then add another skill to what you’re already doing. Soon, you’ll be experiencing the inside-out benefits of GTD.

Telegraph your moves. I worked with a manager not long ago who was very skilled at this. She would tell people what she was about to do and then do it. And it was mostly around behavioral expectations. She would say things like, “I’ll review all the ideas we captured tomorrow and drop you an email about what items I can fit into the current workload and which ones will require outside support.” In doing this she established trust and a sense of mutual purpose. People didn’t have to guess at what to expect, or when to expect it.

Activate team support. Take time to talk with your teammates, and perhaps others in the organization, about your GTD system. Ask for their support as you transition to a more efficient and effective way of interacting. For example, one of my colleagues uses email as his primary capture tool. One time, during a meeting, he asked those present to send him all requests via email. He said it was ok to chat about a task in the hallway or breakroom, but that a follow-up email would ensure it got the appropriate attention from him.

When you consistently send these messages, you provide others with information about how to interact with you as well as what to expect in your work. It’s a two-fer—it benefits you and the people around you.

That’s the inside-out benefit that’s waiting for you and your team.