Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Advocate for Your Needs With Your Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I love my wife dearly and enjoy spending our dinners and late nights together after our long work days and putting the kids to sleep. However, I have learned after careful experimenting, over a few weeks now, that my wife has endless spunk, energy, and interest in telling me what is on her mind—mostly work-related issues—and literally falls ill once I begin to share mine. For multiple nights, I have listened to her speak with zest for over an hour and then when I attempt to share a thought, she says she is too tired, it is too late, remembers a sale, a forgotten chore or task, gets pains, needs a drink, a sweater, etc. So, I let my thoughts slide. But, in due time, she finds her way back to sharing what’s on her mind. Once again, I’ll listen and try again to share a thought of my own and like clockwork, on comes the pain, tiredness, thirst, and anything to end it—until she starts back on her own thoughts. How would you handle it?

Signed,
Shunned

Dear Shunned,

I’ve got good news. While some conversations have a low likelihood of success and a high likelihood of turmoil, I predict good things for yours. Here’s why:

  • You “love your wife dearly.” The fact that your disappointment has not turned into disconnection gives you the kind of emotional climate within which she might be able to open up with you.
  • You are catching it relatively early. Many people put off addressing issues until they are good and mad. Or they wait until the patterns—and their reactions to them—are so entrenched that mutual stories and justifications get deeply ingrained. You say you have been experimenting for “a few weeks.” Good for you!
  • You have facts and frequency. You have good, concrete examples to share with her so she can understand the topic you are raising, and that seem to be circumspect about describing the frequency of the behavior without exaggeration.

The mistake you’re making is that you continue to address content rather than pattern. In other words, you’re attempting to open up conversations about your own thoughts and feelings but not addressing your real concern: the fact that she diverts the conversation when you make these attempts. That is the crucial conversation you need to hold.

The predictor of your success is your ability to come from a place of love, courage, and curiosity. Love—in that you see the goodness in your wife. Courage—in that you are willing to advocate for your own needs as strongly as you respond to hers. Curiosity—in that you have no idea why she is doing what she is doing. Surrender any stories, speculation, and judgments you may have, and enter the conversation like a caring scientist—wanting to understand her behavior without personalizing it.

You might get it going as follows, “Sweetheart, I have noticed something in our conversations over the past few weeks that I’m really curious about. It involves how you respond when I begin to talk about some of my thoughts and feelings. When you feel comfortable doing so, I’d like to describe what I’ve seen and try to understand if there is something going on for you—or that you see in me—when this happens. When can we do that?”

Notice how I ended the invitation. I am trying to give her enough information that she doesn’t feel blind-sided. But I’m also assuming the very pattern you describe might emerge as you offer this invitation. That’s why I’m suggesting ending it with a request for an appointment, not an immediate demand. Hopefully, that gives her enough emotional flexibility to time it according to her needs.

If she fails to respond, I suggest you make two more attempts using largely the same script—so she sees that this is important enough to you that you are willing to lovingly, courageously, and curiously advocate for your need to have the conversation.

If, after the third attempt, she similarly fails to respond, you have a decision to make. You need to take responsibility for your own needs. If being able to share equally in conversation is important to you, you will need to move the conversation to the relationship level. This means that you need to let her know that this affects you to such a degree that you must find a way to address it. Be open to options she suggests. Perhaps she would prefer to do so with the help of a counselor, at a different time of day, in a different setting. But be sure to let her know that this is important enough that you want to find a way to discuss it.

I am almost as curious as you are about what is going on. I suspect when you create enough safety and demonstrate enough sincerity in desiring the conversation, you will learn something important that will help you better connect with your wonderful wife.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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

How to Help Others Get Along

Dear Steve,

My husband and twenty-eight-year-old stepson get into arguments that are emotionally hurtful to both of them. They don’t listen to each other, and just yell, blame, and berate each other. In the past, I have stayed out of it and let them “duke it out.” But I don’t like how it makes me feel or the spirit of contention it brings to our home. I don’t think I would let them physically duke it out and I think the emotional damage is as harmful as a physical fight. What can I do as a bystander to help them address their difference of opinion in a healthier way? Should I address it during the heat of the moment or try to teach them skills when the emotions aren’t so raw? Or maybe a combination? Please help.

Stuck in the Middle

Dear Stuck,

A popular tenet of the Kaizen method teaches that it is better to have the wrong solution to the right problem, than the right solution to the wrong problem.

One of my very early clients began every interaction with this oft-quoted phrase. Over time, I began to mature in my problem-solving approach. In the beginning, I believed that as long as I had the right solution, everything would work itself out. Later, I realized that in order to get to the right solution, I had to make sure I started with the right problem. I’ve since discovered that having the right timing for the right solution is also important. Sounds like you’re trying to figure out that third element.

I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to watch the conditions of respect and civility erode right in front of you. Like you, most choose to stay out of it—and it’s not usually a case of bystander apathy. Usually, these are well-intentioned individuals who suffer from bystander agony. They’d like to step in and stop the mayhem, but just aren’t sure how to do so. It turns out, it’s only slightly more painful to be involved directly in a conflict than to watch it happen.

So, when and how to intervene? To explore that, let’s take a look at a story I received permission to share with you. It comes from one of my co-workers, Dax, who found himself in a very similar situation to your husband and stepson. Read on to see how Dax broke out of the cycle that caused his family pain.

“Almost 15 years ago, when I was young, my father and I fought constantly. Both of us were bullheaded, aggressive, and had no time for anyone else’s opinions.

This went on my entire childhood and progressively got worse. We reached the point where we actively avoided each other, or risked an all-out war.

One day, my dad came home with a book someone gave him at work. It was called Crucial Conversations. He asked me if I would read it with him.

We spent the next few weeks sitting down and reading the book together, chapter by chapter. After finishing each chapter, we discussed what we read.

Our daily battles suddenly turned into crucial conversations. When we started getting heated, we asked each other, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational person do or say what you just said?’ We laid out the facts rather than told ourselves a story about what we thought the other had said.

After just a few months, we went from actively avoiding each other, to having a real relationship not strained by misconceptions and hurtful words.

At present, our relationship is stronger than ever and we rely on each other equally for guidance with our day-to-day crucial moments.”

So, what should we learn from Dax’s story? Upon first read, it’s easy to see how two people benefitted from a solution that appeared to resolve their problems. But there’s also a subtler lesson. There was a third party, a not so apathetic or agony-ridden bystander who intervened—a co-worker gave Dax’s dad a book. That book turned out to be the right solution for the right problem delivered at the right time.

So often, our efforts fall short because we deliver our solution at the wrong time. We miss, or misinterpret, when the teachable moment is. This coworker didn’t try to offer the solution in the middle of a heated argument. He or she shared a solution in a moment removed from conflict. My personal bias is to let conflict play out unless it’s leading to serious and/or long-term relationship damage, in which case it’s okay to step-in. But just because you’ve paused the interaction doesn’t mean that’s the most teachable moment for those directly involved in the conflict. Remember, emotions are chemical while thoughts are electrical. You’re likely much further ahead in your crucial conversations thought process than either of the chemically-overpowered individuals you’d like to coach. Be patient. It takes time for the effects of the chemicals to subside so the brain can think clearly again. Look for a time when the person or persons can be reflective and open to suggestion.

Once you’ve found the right time, here are some ideas on how to get the best response.

I’ve found it to be overwhelming when I’ve been handed a book that contains the solution to my problem. I’d like to get some relief, but don’t want to wade through an entire book to figure out what I should do. So, don’t yield to the temptation to dump whole chapters or highlighted passages without any direction. I’ve found it helpful to point people to a specific idea or skill. You can use a book to do so, but take a little time to help them navigate the content. This way they experience the value of the content along with any tips or insights you have about application opportunities.

In these situations, it’s also helpful to work out a Mutual Purpose. Many of you who’ve found yourself in this situation are probably thinking, “but that’s the problem—we have no mutual purpose!” The beauty of mutual purpose is you don’t have to agree in order to experience it. The whole approach to finding mutual purpose is by creating an interim purpose. “Let’s see if we can jointly come up with a solution to our conversation process challenges because we don’t seem to have mutual purpose in regard to the topic that’s causing conflict.” It helps people experience what having a mutual purpose feels like—the shift from what “I” really want to what “we” really want.

I’m going to close with another over-quoted, yet applicable adage: it takes a village. Or in this case, it takes one well-intentioned bystander to offer the right solution in the teachable moment. I hope you can find this with the relationships you value most. Good luck, and stay focused on what you really want.

Best,
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

Why “Brutal Honesty” Isn’t Honest At All

Dear Justin,

I get a little tired of dancing around issues. People want me to beat around the bush or butter them up before I come down hard on them. It’s not my problem if they don’t want to hear the truth. I’m just someone who tells it like it is, and sometimes that’s tough for people.

Brutally Honest

Dear Brutally Honest,

Sometimes, it seems easiest to say what you’re thinking and feeling instead of filtering your thoughts and comments. But, as honest as you think you are, I’m guessing your current delivery isn’t actually as honest as it could be. I believe you’re holding back some honesty in an effort to be a little “brutal,” as you stated. I’ll give a little advice here to help you be even more honest—incredibly honest. But not in the way you might think.

1. Your beliefs about something are not the same thing as ultimate truth. I’ve heard dozens of people say, “I just tell it how it is.” They say this as if the way they see things is the same as “how it is.” This fundamental misbelief is where we go wrong. I’m going to encourage you to be crystal clear on “how it is” by separating facts from stories. Make sure you completely understand what the other person said, or what he or she did, that has you concerned. Consider: what did he or she say? What are some of the behaviors he or she exhibited? How many episodes where there? Is there documentation of the situation that supports your concern? Just because you feel very strongly about your opinions doesn’t make them facts. The more you focus on facts—what you saw, heard, observed—the more influential you’ll be in the conversation.

2. Share your opinions as opinions, not as facts. When it’s time to talk, don’t overstate your opinions. Have you ever watched a political debate? Inevitably, during these events you’ll hear one, or both sides, say something to the effect of, “Actually, Representative Hale, the fact of the matter is . . . ” and then they proceed to share their opinion, view, or perspective on the topic. Why do they do that? Because they want to make their opinions seem like facts. They want to add more weight to their views to coerce people into agreeing with them by giving their opinions the façade of fact. You and I do this as well. Try the following:

  • Instead of saying, “Fact of the matter is . . . ” try, “It seems to me . . . “
  • Instead of saying, “You never . . . ” try, “The last three times . . . “
  • Instead of saying, “You don’t have any clue about . . . ” try, “I’m starting to think that . . . “

It’s not false uncertainty when we’re talking opinions. Facts are certain. Stories and opinions can be changed and molded.

3. Realize honesty is not what you think it is. As you mentioned, it’s common for us to feel like we can’t be “too honest” for fear it will hurt people’s feelings. This idea comes from a misunderstanding about what it means to be honest. Being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean, or “letting off steam.” Showing those emotions has nothing to do with honesty, but for some reason, we equate them with each other. Being more honest is about being more clear, more specific, more sincere, and more authentic. So, you DON’T have to raise your voice to increase your honesty. You DO need to be more effective at stating the observable facts of the situation and your honest perspective about those facts. My model for starting even the toughest conversations is this:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story (opinion)
  • Ask for others’ perspectives

If you do these steps effectively, there is no limit to how honest you can be . . . only a limit to how brutal you can be.

Take Care,
Justin
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

How to Speak Up For Your Morals and Values

Dear Joseph,

I work in Information Technology and our company was recently bought. Several members of the parent company came in to bring our network up to their standards. Me, two of my coworkers, and five employees from the new company worked together all weekend and late into the night. I was the only female in the group. Throughout the entire weekend, people from the new company made crude, sexual jokes about each other and dropped prolific f-bombs. How can I make it known that I don’t appreciate their humor (or lack thereof) without risking the ability to work with them in the future?

New Normal

Dear New Normal,

I sympathize with your plight. It is profoundly difficult to be the lone voice of morality. I have struggled as well in novel circumstances to find a way to express my discomfort and speak up to advocate for my rights or needs.

I will assume a few things for the sake of my response: 1) that your two coworkers have not historically behaved in this way; 2) that you will have ongoing face-to-face contact with the five from the parent company.

You’ve got a couple of options for how to respond. The first is to take formal action. If a) the nature of the comments and b) your impression of the character of the individuals is such that you think a healthy adjustment from them is unlikely, you may want to take this route. In any event, I think it would be wise for you to have a consultative conversation with your HR department so you know your rights and options in that regard.

If, on the other hand, you believe there’s a reasonable chance that a crucial conversation might both change their behavior and offer a future relationship, here’s how I’d suggest you approach it:

1. Document. Gathering the facts is the homework required for crucial conversations. Make a list of the specific “jokes,” comments, and language you found offensive.

2. Write it twice. It sounds as though your goal is not to confront a specific person, but to communicate a new boundary. If so, I’d suggest you do it in writing. Writing lets them know there is a paper trail—which will give a feeling of accountability. It also lets them save face as they can absorb the information in the protection of their cubicle. When holding a crucial conversation in written form, I’ve found it helpful to write it twice before sharing. First, for facts. And second, for safety. Write the note the first time to simply lay out the facts. Give examples of all of the behavior you found loathsome. Be comprehensive so everyone who played a part knows they are involved. Then re-write the note in a way that adds “emotional safety.” Share your intentions (to create a good working relationship) and your respect (any honest expressions of regard for their professional abilities). But do so without watering down your expectations.

3. Ask for commitment. Let them know you can understand they may be used to different work norms and that you are asking for change. But let them know this is a firm expectation. Ask them to reply to let you know if you have their commitment to this standard.

4. Expect weirdness. There are no two ways about it: It will feel awkward the next time you see them. Let that happen. Don’t try to soften it. Simply be professional and courteous and let it wear off. It will.

5. Hold the boundary. Now that you are on notice that this behavior can happen, and they are on notice that you won’t tolerate it, you must hold your boundary. If they relapse into it, confront it immediately. Decide ahead of time on the script you’ll use and practice it until it feels familiar and comfortable to you. For example, you might say, “You just dropped an f-bomb. Do you recall my request that you refrain from that kind of unprofessional language?” Once again, expect weirdness. When people are unwilling to own their misbehavior, they attempt to shift the blame on others—especially those who are calling them out. If this happens, consider making a formal complaint.

Unfortunately, this is the way the world works. The burden for positive change typically falls on those who are most affected, and least responsible, for dismal realities. I hope these suggestions give you a path toward the workplace you deserve.

Warmly,
Joseph

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

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

How to Make Crucial Conversations Training Stick

Dear Joseph,

My company offers Crucial Conversations Training and it is mandatory for management. In spite of having gone through the training, some of my staff refuse to “play by the rules” as it were. What advice do you have for me? I am far from a perfect communicator, but I am absolutely sold on the principles of Crucial Conversations and try to practice them as much as possible.

Signed,
Make it Stick

Dear Make it Stick,

I wish EVERY SINGLE PERSON we work with would ask this question! The VitalSmarts mission is not to “train the world” but to “change the world.” Our fondest hope is that those whose lives we have the privilege of touching are tangibly better off for our efforts. VitalSmarts is not a training company, it is an “influence” company.

So, here’s how you influence real, profound, and sustainable behavior change. If you’re serious about making crucial conversations skills the norm in your team, here is what you must do:

1. Advertise it. If I were to arrive in your organization, how long would it take before I would know that you have strong expectations of how I’ll deal with crucial conversations? Days? Weeks? Months? If you’re serious about instituting a cultural norm, you should advertise it from my first interaction with you. For example, a wonderful organization called NextJump based in New York City invites potential hires to participate in a day of hands-on activities with other candidates. Veteran employees watch the prospects to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Then, they give them feedback—very direct feedback. You might be told, for example, that you seem insecure or arrogant. You are also encouraged to offer feedback to others. NextJump’s goal is to let you know from day one that they are all about truth. You start your job having already received feedback about things you can improve in yourself. If you care about it, advertise it from your first interaction.

2. Ritualize it. Most organizations have espoused values—the ones on the wall. They also have a second set of values—their real values. The real ones are those that govern how people actually get their work done. These real values are the only ones that matter. They show up in how people plan, organize, and execute their work. If you want to make crucial conversations skills live in your organization, you must build practice rituals into the fabric of your work. For example, a company called Decurion begins and ends every meeting with a Check-in and a Check-out. These are opportunities for everyone to share those things that often go undiscussed: personal concerns, emotional distractions, and feedback for others. Employees at Decurion know that addressing emotionally sensitive issues is normal because it is planned into the very fabric of work.

3. Demand it. Let’s face it, few people relish the vulnerability involved in dealing with crucial conversations. Most of us have to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally before one of these taxing moments. That’s why so many of us avoid them. You will never become an organization that turns healthy communication into a norm unless you hold people accountable for doing so. Bridgewater is the world’s most successful hedge fund manager. You will not succeed at Bridgewater unless you show a proclivity for “touching people’s nerves.” Leaders at Bridgewater believe that ego is the most pernicious virus in a healthy social system. If you tend to procrastinate, bypass, or soft-pedal your crucial conversations, your colleagues will let you know. If you want to develop a culture of accountability, be sure everyone is—first and foremost—held accountable for holding others accountable!

4. Cue it. VitalSmarts has worked with thousands of organizations worldwide over the past thirty years. Those who are most effective at creating a culture of crucial conversations competence, let their walls do much of their work. They post principles, quotes, and models in places that prompt awareness of concepts at crucial moments. For example, ideas are embedded in emails about upcoming performance reviews, in conference rooms, or in group work spaces. These both show the organization’s commitment to the skills, and serve as timely reminders.

5. Normalize it. I came to a humbling conclusion recently. VitalSmarts is on the brink of celebrating two million people trained across the world—and I’m proud of our achievement. But, I’ve concluded that while training is an accelerant of change, it is not the most important one. The best predictor of habit formation is not literacy but frequency. It isn’t about how much you know, it’s about how often you use it.

I came to this conclusion by observing a group of convicted criminals and homeless people who formed an organization called The Other Side Academy (TOSA) two years ago. These 70 TOSA students run businesses to support themselves while trying to change their lives. None have any sophisticated communication skills—but they have built the most robust culture of accountability I have ever witnessed. And they’ve done it primarily through daily and hourly practice. Students are taught to simply call out anything they see that they think is wrong. It is deeply uncomfortable at the beginning. But as they see that their peers are doing the same, they begin to engage. Within a matter of days, hardened criminals who would previously have defined accountability as “ratting”, are enforcing standards of integrity that would be the envy of the best run organizations in the world. If you want to change the culture, accelerate normalization of the new behavior by demanding frequency, not elegance.

Thanks for your question. I wish you the best as you work to turn training into real and meaningful change.

Warmly,
Joseph

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

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