Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Speak Up in a Pandemic

Dear Joseph,

Where I live, concern about COVID-19 seems lax. I’m often surrounded by people who have already thrown social distancing and mask-wearing out the window. Just the other day, while in line at the grocery store, the man behind me blatantly ignored the big sticker on the floor telling him where to stand and I found him practically breathing down my neck as I was checking out. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say to someone who clearly has no regard for the current situation. Any advice for how to navigate this weird world we’re living in?


Dear Tongue-tied,

What you described is a quintessential crucial moment: a moment with huge downstream consequences. And we’ve all been there. And, yes, I do have some advice. Speak up. Please!

We’re in the middle of one of the greatest influence challenges of our day. Medical science can’t yet solve our global problem. All we have to rely on is human behavior for now. So, success in the next several months will not actually hinge on masks and sanitizer, rather, it will be getting people to use these simple measures, every time, for however long it takes. And frankly, that won’t happen unless those who see someone drop the ball speak up and remind them.

But you’re not alone in feeling nervous about speaking up. We asked Crucial Skills Newsletter subscribers about their COVID-related fears. Three out of four said they are nervous about infection risk when interacting with others. Nine out of ten said they feel downright uncomfortable around strangers. Forty percent expressed the same nervousness about being infected by coworkers. Nearly one in four even admitted to being nervous around their extended family members. And yet almost three-fourths of us say we often say less than we should when others lapse into risky behavior.

Why do we fail to speak up? Some of the reasons you told us include:

  1. I don’t feel it is my place to tell others how to behave or act (33 percent)
  2. I don’t know how to speak up in a way that won’t feel offensive (33 percent)
  3. I worry that speaking up won’t do any good anyway (31 percent)
  4. I don’t feel I am an authority on the matter (29 percent)
  5. I am unsure on exactly what to say (28 percent)

So two things are clear:

First, we know that a few simple behaviors are the key to saving lives for the foreseeable future. For example, research shows that if employees wash their hands five times during a work shift, transmission risk is reduced by as much as 45%. Even more promising, a review of multiple studies concludes that if just two-thirds of us wore even marginally effective masks consistently, the epidemic could be stopped.

And second, we know that the only way we can create strong social norms for safe behavior is if people remind those who lapse.

So, what does that mean for you and for me? It means that when we observe people disregarding the rules that will keep us all safe—not to mention move economies and businesses toward recovery—then it’s our job to speak up. It’s all of our jobs to speak up. End of story.

Here are three things to remember when it’s time to speak up and save lives.

1. It’s Kind to Remind. Your motive for speaking up is a better predictor of others’ response than you might think. If you are speaking up in an attempt to belittle, punish, or control, others will pick up on it and respond in kind. The key to mustering the courage to speak up is to remind yourself, “It’s kind to remind.” When your motivation is kindness, your words feel different. So, next time you’re worried about speaking up, repeat this phrase: “It’s kind to remind,” then open your mouth and save a life. And when your mouth opens, a great word to begin with is “Please.” WATCH MY VIDEO TIP >>

2. Gratitude Not Attitude. One of the best ways to help us establish a norm of polite reminders in the world, is to offer an example of a polite response when you are reminded. For example, our research in hospitals shows that when a doctor says “Thank you” after being reminded to wash her hands, the nervous nurse who reminded her is significantly more likely to offer a reminder the next time he sees a lapse. Any time someone reminds you to do something safe, look them right in the eye and say the magic word: Thank you! A quick, sincere thank you makes the tension they felt before speaking up disappear. And it disabuses all who see it of their fear of offering similar admonitions. So remember, It’s kind to remind. And when someone does, give them gratitude not attitude! WATCH MY VIDEO TIP >>

3. Speak Up and Let Go. When you’re in an awkward moment writhing with uncertainty about whether or not to remind someone to be safe, I’ve found it helpful to do two things: Speak up and Let go. First, speak up. Don’t overthink it. Don’t amplify your own misery by imagining all of the horrible things that might happen if you open your mouth. Hardwire it. Make it automatic. Have a ready phrase at hand—something clever, catchy, and brilliant like: “We’ve been asked to have only five in the conference room.”

Then, let go. Don’t hand your self worth over to the other person. Let them have their own reaction. Usually what dresses up like resentment in others is actually embarrassment. And that is theirs to work through. It’s not a comment on your dignity unless you make it one. Break off eye contact. Don’t make it a standoff. Take a breath. Congratulate yourself for doing the right thing. Then let it go! WATCH MY VIDEO TIP >>

While COVID-19 has amplified the intensity and seriousness of our social interactions, we built our business on research that shows it’s possible to achieve dialogue in crucial moments. And when you do, results follow. These skills are timeless, but they are also needed now, more than ever. And still, we acknowledge that finding the right words, isn’t always easy.

To help you, my colleagues and I have created a video series that shares tips and scripts specific to crucial moments we all face right now—tips that are built on the skills and principles taught in our bestselling book and training course Crucial Conversations. In just a minute or two, we’ll answer that age-old question, “But, how do I say that?” and give you the confidence AND words you’ll need to speak up when it matters most. We hope you’ll enjoy it and share it with others who are feeling just as concerned as you. WATCH AND SHARE the How Do I Say That? video series >>

And if you’d like to take the next step and learn five skills for speaking up, check out our on-demand mini-course. In this course, I teach principles and skills that will help you feel confident and capable to speak up to anyone in any situation. LEARN MORE >>

Please join me in saving lives by speaking up.


Crucial Conversations QA

How to Respond to the Silent Treatment

Dear Joseph,

A couple of months ago, my father stopped answering phone calls and texts from my siblings and me. He hasn’t been home when we’ve attempted to visit him. He doesn’t have voicemail. We’ve reached out to his wife who says she doesn’t want to get in the middle of it. He did answer a phone call from my brother’s wife about one month ago but told her it wasn’t the time or place to talk about it. He sent my nephews a birthday gift, but he signed it with his first name instead of the usual “Papa” signature. I sent him a text that asked if he was planning on telling us what he’s upset about or if he’s just done with us. In the text, I said I would assume a non-response meant he was done with us, and I would not bother him again. He didn’t respond.

Deafening Silence

Dear Deafening Silence,

You’ve written your question in a mysterious way. In fact, I feel as though I am in a similar deafening silence while trying to respond. You’ve offered nothing of context. So, I am left to either conclude that:

  1. There were no incidents that preceded your father’s abrupt separation that may offer clues to his motivations; or
  2. You believe there is something I could offer to help you reconnect that would operate independent of these incidents.

If #1 is correct, you have my sympathy. If his behavior was abrupt and inexplicable, I can only conclude that he is going through something that I hope will sometime come to light. However, painful as it is, you must honor his boundary. If later evidence emerges that he is engaged in some self-destructive path, you may want to intervene. But otherwise, he is making a choice and it falls to you to reconcile yourself to it.

If #2 more accurately describes the situation, my advice is very clear: work on you first, him second. If things happened that you know are connected with his new behavior, then your best approach is:

  1. Examine yourself. Invite feedback from those who are sympathetic to your father’s views. Ask them to help you see how the way you or others acted may have given him cause for offense or hurt. Look hard. Sometimes, all you need to do for someone to feel offended is nothing. Perhaps you failed to smile, failed to call, failed to reciprocate. You won’t understand his behavior until you create enough safety that he is willing to unravel his story for you.
  2. Own what you can. Do your best to brainstorm the hurtful stories he might be telling about these incidents. Then reach out one last time demonstrating your willingness to own what you can. For example, you might send a text that says “Dad, I understand you aren’t ready to talk. I accept that. I just want you to know that as I thought about Thanksgiving, I realize I spent more time talking with cousins and almost no time talking with you, even though it was the anniversary of Mom’s death. I regret that. I love you and am here to talk when you want.”
  3. Honor his boundary, but ping periodically. If after doing #1 and #2 you are met with more silence, move on. But I find it helpful to periodically send a note that messes with the story he might be telling himself. For example, after a month of silence, you might text: “Hey, Dad. I know I’m imperfect. Hoping you’ll help me see how sometime.”

I hope these ideas help you find a path that leads to reconnection at some future time.


Crucial Conversations QA

How to Keep Your Distance and Your Friends

Dear Steve,

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m trying to be safe by following the health practices outlined by the CDC, WHO, and other officials. I don’t consider myself stringent, nor lax. I feel I am somewhere in between. But apparently that’s not how others see me. My requests for distance have offended others. I try to be kind, and yet people respond in a huff as though I’m an unreasonable jerk. What should I do?

Conscientious and Confused

Dear Conscientious,

Thank you for your excellent question. I witnessed an incident between a customer and storeowner that perfectly portrays the conflict you’re describing. It started with a curse word. Which was followed by an explanation, along with more curse words. Not to be outdone, the customer retorted with an equally impressive set of curse words, coupled with, well, more curse words. The argument ended with the proprietor demanding that the customer leave his establishment—immediately!

I watched this interaction between proprietor and customer transpire in less time than it takes to microwave popcorn. Did it have to end this way? No. Did either want it to end this way? Probably not. Yet, both felt justified in his response, and might respond the same way again, if faced with a similar situation.

Unfortunately, since the arrival of the novel coronavirus and the measures people are taking to contain it, this type of interaction has become more common. It seems the precautionary measures themselves aren’t so controversial, but where and how they are applied can be. It turns out that different people have different risk-tolerance levels and different ideas of risk, which leads to opportunities for conflict.

In 2015, VitalSmarts conducted a study looking at how unconscious bias contributes to conflict, and whether it’s possible to reduce its impact. And while that particular study was about unconscious gender bias, we also have unconscious biases about health and hygiene.

We learned from that 2015 study that we can reduce the influence of unconscious bias on behavior by explicitly framing certain situations.

Framing is the act of sharing background and rationale for one’s behavior in order to dispel assumptions—or biases—about it. It’s useful for dealing with a broad or vague context where behavior can be misinterpreted. The broad context in the case of COVID-19 is the everyday interaction between people. By expressing your purpose and motive for specific health-related behaviors, you clear up unknowns that might otherwise allow unconscious bias to generate misunderstanding.

While there are different frames you could use, let me offer two that might be particularly useful in the event you decline to shake someone’s hand, ask a guest to cough into their arm, invite someone to remain on the porch, or follow some other COVID-related health practice.

The Behavioral Frame: With a behavioral frame, you signal to others what you intend to do, and then you proceed to do it. This frame helps remove the surprise that often accompanies unanticipated actions. Instead of leaving the person to their own potentially inaccurate interpretation of your actions, you provide context up front. For example, the cursing cousins we started with might have had a more fruitful exchange had one led with, “Just so you know, we’re wiping down all the counters and doorknobs after anybody touches them to ensure these common areas stay germ-free. So, I’m going to disinfect this display case after you’re done looking.”

The Value Frame: The value frame highlights the “why” of your actions. While your values are readily apparent to you, they typically aren’t to others. So, help them understand what your actions mean to you and how they relate to less obvious values. As with the retail altercation described above, we often resort to this frame after a situation has escalated, which can have the effect of a guilt trip. Instead, try leading with it. It might sound something like, “It might seem excessive to you, but I’m taking extra precaution to keep the area and myself sanitized because I have a three-year-old-daughter who’s in the high-risk category.”

As you find yourself in these types of situations in the days and weeks to come, remember you don’t have to choose between keeping yourself safe and keeping friends. Choose both. Use a behavior frame, a value frame, or both to help yourself and others avoid rash judgements and conflict.

Good luck,