Crucial Accountability QA

Lending Money

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

How do I ask my former sister-in-law for money that she owes me?

My former sister-in-law is a high powered attorney in NY. Her son and my son are the same age and are good friends. I suggested to her they attend camp together for the summer and she asked that I go ahead and register both boys and also pay the registration fee, which I did. She said she would follow up with payment. A month later she still had not reimbursed me, so I sent her an e-mail reminding her. Still no response.

We are not very close and I have never really felt that she respected me. How do I confront her without getting hostile?

Signed,

Repo Woman

A Dear Repo Woman,

Your last two sentences say it all. It was appropriate for you to include all that you did in that final brief paragraph. You first disclose that you believe she doesn’t respect you. Then you add that your challenge is to confront without hostility. My first point is that these two issues are inextricably connected. You will be hostile to the degree that you a) believe she doesn’t respect you; b) believe her disrespect of you actually means something about you; and c) use a & b to assemble a story that has her avoiding repaying you because she is intentionally trying to stick it to you.

In other words, your hostility will be driven by the story you’re telling yourself about her and her behavior and not by the behavior itself.

You first must work on your story. Some options you have are to find a way to tell a story that:

• Has her feeling some degree of respect for you. (Hint: what are three pieces of evidence an objective outsider would give you to demonstrate that she holds you in some level of esteem? For example, she allows/encourages her son to spend significant amounts of time with your son.)

• Makes you less dependent on her feelings about you. (Hint: Why does it matter that she doesn’t totally respect you? Who cares? What stories do you tell about yourself that make you suspect she shouldn’t respect you? Are these stories true?)

• Explains why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would not have repaid you. (Hint: it’s a small amount and she’s forgetful; you’ve done something to bug her in the past and this is her way of needling you; she’s strapped for cash living her lavish, lawyerly lifestyle; etc.)

What I’m suggesting is that you provoke, assault, soften, and challenge your story about her, about your relationship, and about what’s going on. At the end of the day the only way you can avoid being hostile is to stop feeling hostile. And the only way to stop feeling hostile is to master your story.

Now, how do you hold this conversation? Person to person. You have now exceeded the utility of e-mail and will only get into trouble by taking this next step electronically. Call her up.

Now that you’ve got her on the phone (or in person), hold the right conversation. This is a pattern issue. Talk about the pattern, not the money. Describe the gap between what you expected and what you are getting in a way that illustrates the pattern of neglect. As you “describe the gap” be sure to create safety–don’t attribute bad motive–and affirm your basic respect for her:

“Two months ago you asked me to sign your son up with mine for summer camp. I was so glad you agreed because your son and mine have such a special relationship. At that time you asked me to cover the deposit and promised to pay me back soon. After a month lapsed and I didn’t get the deposit from you I sent an e-mail. When I covered the deposit, I expected you’d pay it back soon so I wouldn’t have to ask because I don’t want to have the burden of nagging. What’s up?”

Hopefully you can see in this sample script my attempt to show respect, clarify my concern, and open up the right conversation–not just one about the money, but one about a pattern of her not keeping the commitment and pushing the problem onto you.

You may also want to build a little more safety by demonstrating that you are not attributing bad motive about her failure to repay:

“When you didn’t respond I wondered if maybe you didn’t get my e-mail. Or perhaps you’re short on cash in the short term. If there are any issues I’m happy to try to work this out in some reasonable way. What’s up?”

When you demonstrate your willingness to attribute good motive, or to show understanding for challenges the other person faces, you aren’t letting her off the hook. You’re simply making it safe for her to open up about what she’s facing. Then with full information about what’s going on, you can agree on a solution that suits you both.

Good luck!

Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Dealing with Harassment

If you’re experiencing racial slurs, enduring sexual harassment, or are a daily witness to other degrading behaviors at work, don’t settle, sue, or quit. Fix the silly but commonly held belief that your only choice is between taking it and quitting. Joseph Grenny offers three helpful steps for dealing with the problem. He suggests adopting a “three strikes and you’re out” approach:

1. Strike One: On the first offense, speak up immediately and ask the other person to commit to stop. Don’t be subtle-–be direct. Make it private and make it polite.

2. Strike Two: Don’t confront the same problem twice. The first time you confront it, you’re asking for a commitment to stop. If after making the commitment, the person continues, you now have to confront the new problem-–the person’s failure to keep the commitment. This is a bigger problem than the repeated behavior. Privately, politely, and immediately point out the failure. Ask why it happened, and attempt to get a commitment to change. Let the person know that if he or she breaks this commitment you will lose confidence that talking is sufficient. Tell the person that you plan to explore other options for correcting this situation.

3. Strike Three: Know your options. If the bad behavior happens again, it’s time to escalate. You’ve tried to talk things out without success. Report the behavior to HR, or use other channels to prosecute your rights. Be clear on HR, legal, and other policies you have working in your favor in case the behavior happens again.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Dealing with Deference

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Kerrying On

In my last article, I suggested that employees frequently defer to their boss’s suggestions even if they disagree with an idea or, worse still, if they think the idea is positively moronic. Employees withhold their objections to these ridiculous ideas for obvious reasons. They want to be polite. They try their best to be nice. And then, of course, there’s the ever-popular reason: they want to continue making their house payments.

To show how this insane transformation might happen, let me share a personal experience. In this example, the big boss in the corner office of the company I was working for at the time called and asked if it would be okay if he took home the wood scraps lying outside the carpenters’ shop. Winter was coming on and he wanted to use the scraps for fireplace kindling.

Two hours later I received a phone call from the boss’s wife thanking me for the lovely wood that was just delivered to her home. How did loose scrap transmute into lovely wood? As the big boss’s request traveled down the chain of command to the employees who were supposed to pick up the scrap, the tentative request was first distorted into a dumb idea and then transformed into a command. At the insistence of their immediate supervisor, employees measured the boss’s fireplace, and instead of sending over the discarded scrap wood, cut expensive oak planks to size, banded the wood, and transported it to the boss’s home. That winter the boss burned over two thousand dollars worth of lumber.

As you might suspect, the people who actually cut up the expensive planks complained that the boss was misusing resources and bad-mouthed him behind his back. The boss had no idea any of this was going on. He had merely asked if he could pick up the scrap and was thrilled with the wood.

My partners and I observe deference to authority in virtually every company we study, people continue to complain about it, and it comes up big in almost every corporate survey we administer.

With this in mind, here are four cues to help you recognize deference, as well as some dos and don’ts for dealing with it.

1. A Pause Should Give You Pause. You’ve just shared an idea with a direct report who thinks it’s sort of stupid, but he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings or get canned. So he thinks, “Hmm, how can I let the boss know that I’m not all that keen on this idea?” He pauses to think of exactly what to say. Of course, his brain is moving at light speed as he conjures a script that’ll save his hide, so it’s not as if there’s a five minute break in the flow. Nevertheless, there is a two-second pause as your nervous direct report searches for just the right words.

DO: Now, if you’re a caring, sensitive, high self-monitor, you immediately recognize the pause as a warning sign. You think to yourself, “Oh oh, there’s a pause. This brief gap in the conversation actually means something. My bet is that he’s thinking of a way to let me down gently.”

DON’T: On the other hand, if you’re like most people, you desperately want your idea to be implemented, so you’re not looking for signs of disapproval. You’re looking to make your argument quickly, articulately, and with as much enthusiasm as possible. So you completely miss the two-second pause and don’t back off one iota.

2. Faint Praise Should Hit You Like a Truck. Immediately following the brief pause the other person chokes out a response. Since he’s worried about the horrific things that might happen to him if he disagrees with you, he agrees with your whacked-out suggestions—but oh-so woefully. He comes back with something like: “I don’t know,” (he pauses once again while looking distressed) “I guess your idea might maybe work. Perhaps.” This, of course, is code for: “Are you nuts? Your idea will crash like a Zamboni at the Daytona 500.”

DO: Once again the savvy individual would read the concern reflected in the new and added pause and pay special attention to the tentative language the frightened subordinate chose (“might,” “maybe,” “perhaps”). This tepid statement of approval is obviously bogus and means that the other person is afraid to speak his opposing views. Of course the most obvious hint that the person has serious doubts is reflected in his halted delivery and pathetic look of distress.

DON’T: Unfortunately, you’re so hyped on the sheer genius of your idea that you’re paying no heed to tentative language, pregnant pauses, or expressions of distress. Subtlety is lost on you. In fact, in order for you to pick up on the vibe that your direct report wants to express a concern, he will have to fire off a flare, grab you head with both his hands, stare you in the face, and shout: “Listen up, I have real concerns here! Do you hear me? Real concerns!” After all, you’re excited about your idea and are looking for people to agree with you. Consequently, you read any ambiguous clues as signs of approval.

3. Actual Words of Concern Should Be a Signal to Probe, Not to Defend. As the conversation continues, you take your subordinate’s lukewarm response as genuine acceptance and are now moving in for the close. You’re actually trying to set a follow-up time. At this point your direct report realizes that his subtle hints have gone unnoticed by the social moron he’s dealing with and that he’s going to have to say something clear, forceful, and out loud. So he says: “Actually, I’m a bit worried about your plan. I can see that you’re really excited about this idea and that you’ve given it a lot of thought, but I’m wondering if . . .”

DO: Note your subordinate’s clever words. He’s acknowledged your excitement, given you credit for thinking about your plan, and only tentatively shared his opposing views. It’s a textbook response tailored to catch your attention without making you defensive. The savvy person would read these well-spoken words as a clue to probe for more detail. After all, the person in a position of less authority has taken a risk and needs to be rewarded. At this point it makes sense to stop and thank him for his candor and seek more information.

DON’T: Unfortunately, if you’re like most of us, by this point in the conversation you’re completely committed to your idea and aren’t interested in hearing objections—no matter how well stated—so you don’t listen. Instead, you move from being enthusiastic to being argumentative. And no matter your words, what you’re really saying is that you’ve made your mind up and if the other person doesn’t agree with you you’ll keep serving up arguments until he eventually crumbles. And, oh yes—did you forget to mention—you are the boss, right?

4. Fear Should Cause You to Look at Yourself, Not to Increase Your Attack. As you step up your debate tactics, the other person starts to look frightened. His eyes are darting wildly as he looks for an exit, sweat may be forming on his forehead, and he’s preparing for a full frontal attack. And why wouldn’t he be preparing for an assault? He has this really bad idea he has to contend with, his boss is turning up the heat, and he doesn’t know what to say or do.

Once again, savvy individuals take one look at the fear in the other person’s eyes and realize that they have probably done something to create this unfavorable reaction. They also understand that it now falls on them to restore safety to the conversation. They’re in a position of power, they’ve probably caused the fear (even if they’ve been on their best behavior), and they’ll have to fix it.

DO: To restore safety (and simultaneously kill mindless deference) a skilled person would say something like: “I don’t want to force my view on you. I was just spit balling with this idea. What I really want is to come up with an idea that serves us all well. My guess is that my existing plan might cause problems with your team’s quality process and I’d love to hear any objections you might have.”

Notice how these words help restore safety by establishing mutual purpose, softening your position, inviting differing opinions, and playing devil’s advocate. This doesn’t come naturally. In fact, it requires a great deal of genetic undoing. You must fight thousands of years of programming that propels humans to increase their attack at the first sign of fear. If you want to nip deference in the bud, you have to find a way to create safety. It may look and feel unnatural to make it safe in the face of fear, but it’s exactly the right thing to do and smart people do it all the time.

In Summary

When it comes to deference to authority, take the lead from the best. Assume that as you enter every high-stakes conversation with a subordinate there’s a good chance you’ll be offered up a hefty load of deference unless you take care to create safety. And since others are likely to feel nervous about disagreeing with you directly and openly, you’ll have to pay close attention to subtle signs.

First, watch for each pause as if it were your best friend. Hesitancy will be your first warning signal. If a pause is followed by a visible drop in confidence and half-hearted support, assume that others have differing views but are holding back. Invite their opposing views. Explain that you want to hear all sides. Play devil’s advocate.

If the other person finally musters the courage to tentatively suggest an opposing view, embrace the information, don’t attack it. You can make your points later on in the discussion. For now, encourage others to clarify their opinions. Value criticism—it’s your best tool for continuous improvement. Thank the other person for his or her candor and ask for more details.

Finally, if you see fear in others’ eyes, take this as a cue not to step up your debate tactics, but as a cue to step out of the conversation and restore safety. Fight your deep-seated drive to pound your point home. Instead, establish mutual purpose. Share your good intentions. Make it safe for others to speak openly and honestly.

And then come to work in my company—as my boss. I’d love to report to a person who actually does stuff like this.

Crucial Conversations QA

Seeking an Honest Relationship

Dear Crucial Skills,

Any pointers on a conversation that should have happened many years ago?

I’m interested in asking my mother why she was so angry when we (the children) were young. When I say angry, I do mean physically abusive. I have done a lot of personal work and am almost (honestly, almost) past wanting to punish her.

The reason I’d like to do this is I have avoided an honest relationship with my mother for forty years and would like to change that. How should I approach her?

Signed,

About Time

Dear About Time,

First, the disclaimer: I am not a therapist. I am an organization development consultant. And while I feel confident offering suggestions for how to effectively communicate both at work and at home, I do not pretend to possess expertise in accommodating the challenging psychological dynamics resulting from abuse.

Second, the due diligence: But I know someone who does. My father is a veteran Marriage and Family counselor of forty years. He is also a trained psychotherapist. So to ensure that I do justice to your important question, I collaborated with him in writing this response.

Here goes.

A first challenge in this very crucial confrontation will be to clarify—and retain your grip on—your motives. There are certain goals that are both unattainable and unhelpful in this conversation. One is revenge. If your goal is to hurt your mother as you feel she hurt you, you are likely to be dissatisfied with the result. I admire your honesty in recognizing that you harbor some of this motive. That honesty will stand you in good stead in preparing and holding this conversation. A second ineffective motive will be to change your mother. While if the conversation goes well your relationship might change, the majority of the change might be in the stories you tell yourself about your mother rather than in her behavior toward you. I hope and pray that both happen, but can only suggest that the former is the likeliest outcome.

So my suggestion is that one of your motives be understanding. If that is the goal, you stand a good chance of succeeding. A second goal may be also to obtain a future adult relationship with her. She may never be the mother you always wanted, but you may be able to obtain the relationship she is capable of having—in the here and now and not one that makes up for lost time and childhood.

The second challenge will be to suspend your stories. The stories you carry today can be fixed and unchanged products of the ones you shaped in your childhood with your mother. You still see her through the eyes of a hurt and disappointed child. You still see yourself as hungry and small. Once again, your goal in this conversation must not be to convince your mother of your stories, but to come to understand hers. This new information may completely change your stories. Or it may just add context to them—and changing the dimensions a little can change the colors greatly. For example, you may see her today as villain and yourself as victim. After your crucial conversation you may still see yourself as victim—and rightly so. But the villain may have more depth and context than she does now. And that alone will change your relationship with your mother.

The third challenge will be to listen—to explore her path. You may have a compelling need to talk, to explain, to convince. If you do, check your motives. Recommit yourself to your goal of understanding rather than convincing or punishing. Ask many questions. Create safety. Try to appreciate who she was and where she is coming from. If you do this, you will not only find yourself influenced, but she will be more likely to be spontaneously open to your influence. You may find a small opening through which she will begin to wonder about your views and perspective. But perhaps not. And if she does not, you will still have succeeded if you gain insight and understanding. And you will still have the potential of creating some level of future relationship with her if that is still important to you.

You will never resolve or recover the past you didn’t have with her. But if you approach this and future crucial conversations with her well, you may possibly have a meaningful friendship in the future.

And while even that goal is not assured, I suspect you will find greater peace of mind just in the attempt.

You have my full best wishes as you contemplate this important conversation.

Joseph Grenny
Dr. Guy Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

Letting a Valued Employee Go

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

What does a manager do when a job has outgrown the employee? In this age of rapid growth, often the job a person was hired to do is no longer what the organization needs. In a large organization there may be some other positions to move someone into. In a small nonprofit there are only a few jobs and each one needs to be done well. The person is a good person, well-meaning, doing what they were hired to do, loyal to the organization–but not able to ramp up to meet new demands. This seems to happen not infrequently–at least in the nonprofits I work with.

Signed,

Apprehensive

A Dear Apprehensive,

You raise an incredibly important issue–one that strikes at the heart of many contemporary complaints. In the view of an increasing number of people, companies no longer show loyalty to their employees. Nowadays it’s all about profits. Show a minor weakness and bang!–you’re cut from the rolls. And heaven forbid that a company’s needs should change and now your skill set no longer fits the company’s need set. Bye bye.

The sensitive human inside us cries that this seemingly cavalier attitude is bad and wrong. If employees demonstrate their loyalty by giving it their best effort, then a company should be equally loyal. In fact, that was how successful companies used to recruit and maintain their loyal staff. They offered lifetime employment and received incredible loyalty in return. Shouldn’t we continue to do the same?

Let me deal with a couple of false assumptions. First, the idea that a company needs to offer lifetime employment is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. If people no longer fit and can’t be retooled to fit, they add unnecessary costs, putting everyone at risk. I once consulted with a company that was so dedicated to keeping everyone around that people constantly complained of “dead wood.” Either people had become obsolete and simply couldn’t carry their load or were burned out and WOULDN’T carry their load. In either case, people tired of carrying them on their payroll and found it very difficult to keep their costs competitive. This issue alone very nearly bankrupted the company.

Second, the assumption that companies need to provide people with a safe harbor can be patronizing and insulting. If we’re scared to death of letting people go for what we might consider to be humanitarian reasons, then we’re assuming that the person will not be able to find an equally good job and we need to care for them. In truth, in some cases being let go is the best thing that can happen to an employee. People now find a job to which their talents are better suited, they make a stronger contribution, feel better about themselves, and often are financially benefited. When I’ve seen people get let go I’ve always felt bad about the loss of the relationship but have assumed that they will land on their feet.

I know this can sound like I’m turning a blind eye to disaster, but let’s imagine that the person does find a job but with lesser pay–as is sometimes the case. Now how should we feel? Nobody wants to see a friend suffer, but creating circumstances where people are now in jobs that better suit their talents is always superior from a work perspective. And when it comes to the money, companies can ill afford to play the role of humanitarian or government services. At some point you have to return to the strict business model and ask what best serves all of your stakeholders–from other employees to customers to share owners. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Now, let’s move to the more practical side. If people do become functionally obsolete for any of a dozen different reasons, it does make sense to do your best to help them find a position either by matching them to a better job within the company or helping them retool. Frankly, most companies put more energy into trying to help people find an internal position than they do in trying to help them retool. If you want to look at the limit case, I once worked on a project with engineers and scientists who had spent their careers studying magnetics only to learn that lasers were their company’s future solution. They were then given two years to come up to speed on lasers. The company executives were so amazingly gracious because they had a fifteen year relationship with these talented scientists and were willing to invest in them and reward their loyalty. Over the long haul, it also made financial sense.

If you can neither find an internal position nor help people retool (or maybe they don’t want to retool) then it’s important that you do your best in sponsoring them outside the company. Find out how to best formulate a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference. Allow them access to your resources where possible. Provide flex time as they work their final few weeks. And finally, show them their due respect by assuming that they’ll eventually find a match and land on their feet. As long as you’re doing your level best to give your employees a chance to fit and you consistently treat them with dignity, there is no reason to feel unethical or harsh solely on the basis of the fact that you had to let someone go.

Good Luck!

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Accountability QA

Absentee Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a manager who seems to be missing in action. In all fairness to my manager, my work is independent and in a different location. Nonetheless, his communication is superficial, and he doesn’t act as if he’s genuinely interested in my performance. He’s difficult to find (always in meetings), fails to provide me with crucial information, and continually misses deadlines on information or decisions that I depend upon to do my job effectively. I decided to call him every other week to brief him on my work outlook, issues, successes, etc., but when I do he acts as though he’s in a hurry and I’m taking up his time. I truly find my work rewarding, but working for this unengaged manager is frustrating.

Signed,

Cut off

Dear Cut Off,

You face an interesting decision. Do you talk to someone who doesn’t appear to care about your job, your results, or your relationship–and by extension might not care about any of your concerns? You weigh the possibilities and wonder if the odds favor you or not. He might suddenly “feel your pain” and take corrective action of some sort. He might smile politely and do nothing. He might act upset and say it’s not his fault that you’re located in a different building and then resent you for attacking his leadership style. Hmmm. What will happen?

So the real question is: What can you do to increase the odds that the outcome will be beneficial?

Before I offer any suggestions, let me say that our own research has revealed that the single best predictor of satisfaction with leadership is frequency of interaction. The more two people interact, the greater the satisfaction. People who are directed and reviewed by individuals in different buildings, or even different states, universally dislike the arrangement. You’re not alone. People rightfully wonder: How can my boss evaluate my performance, coach me, provide me with career advice, mentor me, and sponsor me to a better position without ever seeing me in action?

Within a corporate context, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. The more accurate expression would be: out of sight, out of mind. I mention this because you may want to take a job where you won’t constantly be facing such a large barrier. No matter what you do, the distance can be daunting.

If you love the job itself and really want to stick with it, here are few things you might consider.

First, ask what’s in it for your manager to correct the problems you mentioned. He is causing you grief by not providing you with essential information, meeting deadlines, or making timely decisions. You feel your pain, but if you can’t link his relatively insensitive and unprofessional behavior to something he cares about, you’re dependent on him caring about your pain–something that currently doesn’t seem to affect him.

So, here’s what you have to ask. In what way does his poor performance affect you–and then affect him? For instance, when he doesn’t give you time-sensitive information, you have to track him down, interrupt him in meetings, leave notes with secretaries, call his boss to see if he or she can find him etc. This can’t be pleasant for him. When he doesn’t provide you with X, harming your performance in Y, this is how it affects the department–which in turn causes problem Z for him. The point here is that if you only enter the conversation with the idea of his changing for the sole purpose of making your life better, it’s harder to achieve the results you want. Link his existing bad behavior to the existing negative consequences he’s already experiencing.

Second, ask what can be done that doesn’t call for him to change his behavior. How can you manipulate the environment? The idea of talking on the phone to update him may indeed interrupt him. How about e-mail that he can read at his leisure? There are some fairly decent video conferencing solutions out there. Maybe an electronic face-to-face will work for him. How can you get his support staff to be cued to send you critical information the minute he gets it? The point here is that it’s far easier to manipulate processes and *things* than it is to change human behavior. Look at environmental solutions.

Third, if you do choose to talk to him directly about the problem, bring your best skills into play. In our book Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, we teach a step-by-step process for dealing with crucial confrontations. Here are a few tips from the book.

Be careful with your conclusions. You may believe that your boss is uncaring and unreliable (you didn’t say this, however you could easily conclude this), but this should never be your starting position. Pick one of the behaviors that has you concerned and deal with that behavior only. Don’t pile on a bunch of problems. In a similar vein, take special care not to pile on inflammatory conclusions. Trade “You’re unreliable, insensitive, and uncaring” for “Yesterday I was expecting the O’Malley workup but it didn’t come. I was wondering what happened.” Then stick to the problem of not delivering on his promises. Deal with untimely information, lack of support, and the other problems at a different time. Start small. Stick to behaviors.

Once you’ve decided which issue to deal with, carefully unbundle it. Even though you think you’ve picked one problem, it could easily have several component parts. For instance, if the problem you pick is a pattern, focus on the repeated nature of the behavior. Talk about the pattern, not a single instance. If the problem is now harming your relationship (and it sounds as if it is), then this may be the problem you want to address. Talk about the problem (say, not meeting deadlines) from the point of view of how it’s affecting how you work together. “When I don’t get what I need from you, I end up trying to track you down and I don’t want it to feel like I’m hounding you. I can see that you don’t like it and I’m starting to feel reluctant to follow up. And yet, if I don’t find a quick resolution, it affects my performance.” Pick one problem, unbundle it, and then pick the issue that matters the most. Ask: “What is the one thing I really want to see change?” and then focus on this.

Good luck as you step up to a tough situation. Prepare carefully, be on your best behavior, and hopefully you’ll start to resolve some of the problems that have you rightfully frustrated, one at a time.

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Accountability QA

Outbursts During Church Meetings

Dear Crucial Skills,

During monthly “Church Council” meetings, the norm has been for one or more outbursts to occur. More often than that not, the issue surrounds church finances or something our senior pastor has or has not done. As chairperson of the meeting, how can I best defuse volatile outbursts during meetings while still maintaining an atmosphere where church members feel safe to appropriately express concerns?

Sincerely,
Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

Whether at home, at work, or at a church meeting, sometimes we run into behaviors that we know are counterproductive. These behaviors, like “volatile outbursts,” cause the positive feelings in the room to dissipate and people to shut down. When they shut down, they don’t contribute their questions or ideas and, perhaps more importantly, their level of commitment and engagement decreases. So planning and taking action both suffer. Certainly those are outcomes that no team leader, chairperson, manager, colleague, parent, family member, etc., wants to have happen.

So, the problem is clear and unfortunately widespread. What are some solutions?

Here are some tips and skills that we learned and then shared in our book “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behaviors.” Wow—even the title seems to promise some solutions! So here we go.

Step 1: Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. In training we encourage people not to jump to conclusions about others. We don’t know why they are acting the way they are. It’s easy to mentally categorize them as “insensitive,” “bullies,” or “the last living Neanderthal relics.” We ask, “How come they don’t get it? Can’t they see the problems they are causing?” The cure for labeling other people or for telling ourselves stories that allow us to dismiss them is to ask the humanizing question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human being act like that?”

Could there be reasons that you don’t know? Often we tell ourselves that the other person is acting this way because he or she just doesn’t care about others’ feelings or is being selfish—interested only in his or her own agenda. This question helps us suspend our judgments, be more patient, and seek to understand or diagnose before we act. When we ask these kinds of questions, we don’t vilify the other person. We also don’t oversimplify. Maybe the person has stress at home, or has a constituency that is influencing him or her to “win, and accept nothing else,” or maybe, and this is pretty common, the person doesn’t have the interpersonal skills required when topics get emotional.

Step 2: Safely Describe the Gap. By “Describing the Gap” we mean describing the difference between what was expected and what was observed. You expected productive dialogue, but you instead witnessed emotional outbursts. You can make describing the gap safe by inviting the person to talk in a private setting. You can make it safe by showing in your attitude, your facial expressions, and your tone of voice that you are not frustrated or angry. You have not prejudged the person. Your intentions are to share what you’ve observed, seek to understand, and then to find a solution. It might sound like this, “In our church council meetings, we’d like a very positive climate that is candid and respectful. Last night, you raised your voice, called the decision ‘one of the most miserable in history,’ and then said, ‘Why can’t we do something smart once in a while.’ I believe that affected climate of the meeting and the involvement of the people there. Can we talk about this? I’d like to understand why you acted that way.”

Step 3: Diagnose. Now you pause and listen to diagnose the real cause behind this behavior. You’ll hear reasons why the person is acting the way he or she is acting. The reasons you hear will help you understand whether this person is being influence by motivation issues, ability barriers, or a combination of both. Here is a brief list of some of the possible responses with some annotation.

  • “Oh chill out, it’s not a big deal.” (Motivation)
  • “I know, but it’s so hard for me to control my temper around an issue I care so much about.” (Ability)
  • “Come on, that was just healthy debate.” (Motivation)
  • “John started it . . . did you see how he disregarded my data?” (Motivation)
  • “My leader told me to make sure I didn’t give an inch on this budget.” (Motivation)
  • “I know I have a problem. I’ve offended my spouse and my brother by yelling just this week. I don’t know what to do about it.” (Ability)

Step 4: Seek a solution. Without getting into the details of how to solve them (we have whole chapters devoted to this in “Crucial Confrontations”), let me suggest that you solve motivation and ability problems very differently. For motivation, you help the other person understand the consequences of the problem to self, to others, and to your organization. To solve ability problems, ask for ideas and jointly explore ability barriers.

Step 5: Get an agreement. This last bit of advice is surprisingly easy and often the core issue. Excellent performance begins with clear agreements. There are two points on this:

1) If you get a solution, determine specific steps—we teach who, does what, by when, and follow-up in the book.

2) Determine some ground rules. Often teams have clear goals on technical or business issues like due dates, budgets, and quality standards. They often don’t have agreements that are specific and clear around the more intangible aspects of working together—like cooperation, communication, initiative, or style.

I think getting an agreement about what appropriate behavior means in your church council would help the individuals involved. It might sound like this: “Each of us will be respectful and candid in our communications in the meeting. If we feel ourselves getting emotional, particularly if we get angry and raise our voices, we will pause and ask questions of the other person to get more perspective.” And so on.

Another agreement or ground rule that might help is this: “If someone loses his or her temper in the meeting, we will privately talk to the person to help coach.” These steps can help you deal with an issue that won’t go away unless it is honestly and safely addressed. This is, by the way, what a crucial confrontation is—a face-to-face accountability talk conducted with safety, respect, and candor.

Best wishes,
Al Switzler