Crucial Conversations QA

The Boss is a Bully

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My boss is out of control. He fabricates facts to support his personal agenda. He applies or ignores corporate policies at his whim. He makes blatant displays of favoritism–punishing some employees severely while overlooking others who do the exact same thing. He accuses employees falsely, and then creates evidence if needed to support his claims.

He has taken the Crucial Conversations class and uses it as a means of attack. He starts with “This is a crucial conversation,” and then follows with a litany of insults and accusations, omitting any attempt to make things feel safe.

Our institution has no sanctioned course of action where a supervisor can present a complaint. Several have gone to his superior and gotten nowhere. How can we use Crucial Conversations skills to better remedy a situation where honesty and truth are considered a secondary priority?

Signed,

Nearly Hopeless

A Dear Nearly Hopeless,

Sounds like the crucial conversation you need to have is with yourself. The best service you could offer to yourself is to find a different job. And the best service you could offer to your organization is to hold a very candid exit interview once you’ve lined up the next job. Unfortunately, weakness at crucial conversations is not confined to direct reports. Bosses are just as inclined to avoid them at all costs.

Now, I’m making two important assumptions–but provided my assumptions are correct, the primary problem here is that your boss’s superior is AWOL from his or her job. When an employee takes the enormous risk of giving skip-level feedback (i.e., going over her boss’s head to share concerns about her boss), the manager has a special obligation to protect the employee and to respond vigorously to the concerns. Clearly that has failed here. Now, in fairness, I need to share the big assumptions I’m making. I’m assuming that:

1. You and others have made a skillful attempt to give your boss feedback about his chronic untrustworthiness.

2. You and others have been skillful in how you communicated your concerns to your boss’s boss.

If you’ve done reasonably well at both of these, then you have–in my opinion–discharged your conscience marvelously and are left only with the obligation to move yourself to a healthy work situation. I know that can be a tough decision to implement, but it should be a fairly easy one to make. As long as you stay where you are you are enabling your boss’s bad behavior by robbing him of the natural consequences of it. The natural consequence of bad leadership is the loss of good talent. But even more important, you are falling short of your obligation to place yourself in environments where you can flourish and serve best.

I wish you the best in both creating better circumstances and positively influencing your current boss through the change.

Best regards,

Joseph

Crucial Accountability QA

Holding People Accountable

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 Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a problem. Our business results are below expectations and upper management believes it’s because our supervisors are not holding their employees accountable for results. I have witnessed times when an employee does something not according to company policy and the employee’s immediate supervisor does nothing. We have had training courses galore in supervisory skill development, so I know the supervisors have been exposed to how to set expectations, how to observe and measure results, how to provide performance feedback, etc. It just seems that they do not want to confront the employees about performance problems because they don’t want to give the bad news.

The business unit vice president wants to start firing the supervisors. I don’t think that is the solution. I think we need to get our supervisors comfortable with confronting their employees about the performance issues.

Any ideas on how I can convince the Vice President?

Signed,

Conflicted in Connecticut

A Dear Conflicted,

You asked the right question. Why is it that people who’ve been trained in a specific skill don’t use it? This just happens to be the subject of twenty-five years of our research, so bear with me as I try to answer this often-asked question.

When people don’t enact a certain behavior, it’s for one of three reasons. They don’t want to do it, they don’t know how to do it, or both. When your bosses suggest that maybe they should start firing supervisors, it sounds as if they’ve made the following diagnosis: “The supervisors simply don’t WANT to do what they should do–everyone knows it isn’t fun holding employees accountable–so maybe firing a few will add an extra incentive to those who are left behind.”

This is hardly the correct solution. It’s more an act of frustration and desperation and will likely cause a whole host of new problems. It also doesn’t model what the bosses want the supervisors to do when dealing with employees who aren’t living up to their expectations. Fire them straight out of the chute? Surely there are other methods.

Here’s what we’ve generally found to be true with reluctant supervisors. Your diagnosis is right. It’s almost always an issue of perceived ability. Supervisors don’t have confidence that what they have learned will actually work when dealing with their employees. This can stem from one of several different sources. They may have only been given general directions, but don’t know exactly what to do and say. Most accountability training is long in theory and short in genuine skills. If supervisors have been given actual skills or best practices, they may not feel as if they know how to do them as of yet. Perhaps they weren’t given enough time to practice until the language was comfortable and the method was second nature.

Beyond effectiveness, you have to deal with relevancy of the training they’ve received. Did the supervisors see what they learned as something that would actually work with their people? Much of what is taught today fails this test. Those in the training look at the examples taught and think, “My people would NEVER react like that.” If the skills are out of date or out to lunch, who can blame the learners for discounting the material and not giving it a whirl at work? It’s possible that the training the supervisors had was well intended but wasn’t skill based enough, relevant enough, or long enough to create comfort.

Another common hindrance is related to social issues. If you’re asking supervisors to now hold people accountable to standards that you used to let go, who’s going to be the first to step up? Who wants to run the risk of being seen as the “tough nut” while everyone else is letting the issue slide? Who wants to look like a naive do-gooder? So people wait for others to say something before they speak up.

If this is the case, it’s important to meet as work groups, talk about the new expectations, explain the need for the new standard, and then hold people to it as a group. If you haven’t held these sessions, supervisors are going to stay mum. Nobody wants to look erratic.

What if the standard you’re asking people to keep is something you’ve asked for before, maybe even for years, but never really held people accountable to keep? You have, in effect, cried wolf, and now you expect people to believe you when the real wolf is at the door. You’ll have to make this sad truth part of your explanation to teams as you talk about the new/old standard. People are smart. They know you’ve been lax and that they’ve gotten away with poor performance. It’s part of today’s real standard, and you have to address this problem as well.

Additionally, a number of motivational factors could be influencing the supervisors’ behavior–ranging from the formal reward system to the informal actions of the big boss.

So, what’s a person to do in the face of these possibilities? You’ve got to get to all of the underlying causes. Expand your search for causes beyond simply “the supervisors don’t want to do what they’ve been told to do.” Think about what may be making it difficult for them to hold others accountable–what barriers could be removed? What motivation and ability components are coming into play here? There are bound to be several.

In any case, stick to your convictions. Conduct a quick diagnosis and then share with the bosses the various elements that are leading to the supervisors’ reluctance. Armed with a more complete picture as well as a more complex solution, they won’t feel compelled to fire people who are caught in a web of problems that are keeping them form doing what you want.

Good luck!

Kerry

Crucial Conversations QA

Wasting Time in Meetings

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,

My problem is the type of meetings my boss runs. There are few dynamics, the same items appear on the minutes, people give a 30 second report on these items, no one appears to look at the minutes from weekend to weekend, and no members of the management team challenge each other.

All members feel that the meetings as they are are a waste of time. Some make excuses for missing them, but as I am responsible for scheduling the meetings and issuing the minutes, that option is not available to me.

I do want to approach my boss about it–how can I do this without hurting his feelings and still achieve my objectives?

Signed,

Wasting Time in Meetings

A Dear Wasting Time,

Let’s start with what you know you don’t want to do–just to be sure. Here’s what you don’t want to say (even though it’s steeped in the truth): “I wonder if we could talk about our meetings. I’ve had a chance to be part of them for a while and I think I know (drum roll please) why everyone despises them and does his or her best to get out of them–even if it means having to have a root canal just to get an excuse.”

Obviously, a shot across the bow isn’t a particularly good opening position. Others have tried the less direct approach, clinging to indirect comments and humor. For instance, “Everyone who holds a good meeting please stand up. Not so fast Mr. Jones.”

The challenge is, how do you give feedback to someone who hasn’t asked for it? Twenty-five years ago when I took my first class in organizational behavior from the esteemed Bill Dyer–guru of group process–I learned something that I’ve never forgotten. He explained that when people found out that he was one of the world’s experts on group process, they’d ask: “Hey, you sat in our meeting, how did we do?” He learned through sad experience that they didn’t really want to know. He would tactfully point out an area that could use some improvement and the person asking for feedback would then thank and resent him. “It’s because we hadn’t contracted up front,” he explained. “Never give feedback unless you’ve contracted for it, up front.”

Plus, who likes constructive criticism anyway? I completely agree with Noel Coward: “I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”

Which brings us to our challenge. You want to advise someone who hasn’t asked for it, you’re going to be pointing out problems, and the information could easily feel like a cheap shot.

Rule #1 – Start with mutual purpose. If you can find a way to let your boss know that your goal is to make him more effective, who can fight with that? So contract up front by asking if you could talk about ways to improve the meetings, ways to make them more effective. Point out that you think everyone needs to take more responsibility, and that you have an idea or two on how to do that.

Rule #2 – Focus on the meeting, not on your boss. Okay, it’s your boss’s meeting, but not really. Everyone has responsibilities. Everyone needs to do what it takes to make the meetings more effective. For instance, say people take assignments, but they report back with unfulfilled commitments and a weak story and then figure they’re off the hook. That’s simply unacceptable. If someone drones on or holds a side conversation or skips agenda items, it’s everyone’s responsibility to say something. Everyone’s in the meeting. The person at the head of the table isn’t the only one who can say something. Meeting improvements belong to everyone.

This is true in real time as well. When you’re in a meeting and you see something that’s making it less effective, follow these three simple steps: (1) Point out what has you concerned. “Jim, I thought we had decided on the vacation schedule, but I see that you keep wanting to return to it.” (2) Point out what you would like to see happen instead. “I was hoping that we had resolved that issue already.” (3) To avoid being too pushy, check with the group. “Does that make sense or should we return to the schedule?” The goal here is to go public with the problem without pointing fingers or coming off as a know-it-all.

So start by sharing your feelings that the meetings are not as effective as they could be–talk about the meeting in general and an overall area or two that could be improved.

Rule #3 – Offer alternative behaviors. Saying what isn’t working is only half the job. Once you’ve pointed out the problem, offer a potential solution. Be tentative. “Maybe if we had each person report on the assignment, and then if they haven’t completed it we can talk about it as a group. When we run into a problem, we seem comfortable reporting back without having completed the assignment or having notified anyone in advance. Is this how we want to work?”

Rule #4 – Only pick one thing that your boss himself might work on. After you’ve earned the right to talk about your boss by addressing the meeting in general, you can you offer him your opinion on what he might do. When you bring up the issue, do it in a spirit of jointly brainstorming problems and solutions. This helps feedback come across as one of many good ideas instead of a personal affront.

Rule #5 – Approach the discussion with one thought in mind. Your boss is a reasonable, rational, and decent person. An idea here and there could go a long way. You’re going to jointly brainstorm. How could this possibly be threatening?

Good luck, and may all of your meetings be better than a root canal.

Kerry

Crucial Conversations QA

Speaking with a Parent

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I am in a real dilemma. My father has just turned 59 and he is showing signs of dementia. I do not know how to approach him. I am worried I will make things worse for him by bringing his attention to his health, even though I know he must be aware of his memory loss because it is so obvious. Because I have found it difficult to control my feelings and deal with the emotional pain when thinking about my father, I am worried about becoming emotional and upset when we do eventually discuss it. I want him to know more than anything that I love him dearly and will always be there for him.

Signed,

Desperate Daughter

A Dear Desperate Daughter,

Your father is lucky to have a daughter like you. He’s lucky that you love him enough to feel pain about his declining health, but also to intervene when it’s in his best interest. I hope my children will do the same.

I have a couple of thoughts for you about this situation. The first is a reality check about crucial conversations. The second is some important advice about how to succeed in this absolutely crucial conversation.

The reality check is this: being skilled at crucial conversations does not mean that a) they are easy, or b) they always lead to the outcomes you want. This conversation may well be difficult. It involves both you and your father coming to accept a reality that you may not like. He may want to deny or minimize the issue, and you may be so worried about rupturing your relationship that you’ll be tempted to let him.

The good news is that being skilled at crucial conversations helps you minimize the pain. It helps ensure that the tone and spirit of the conversation is as healthy as it can be, and that your chance of influencing the other person is as great as possible. In my own view, your current crucial conversation is all the more important because as much as anything it is a test of your love for your father. It is a measure of whether your motive in your relationship with him is more about serving his best interests or maintaining his positive feelings for you. I have an abiding belief that if it’s the former, you can find a way to have the latter, too. But if it’s the latter, you surrender the former in the bargain.

Now for the advice.

There are two things I’d advise you to keep in mind in this conversation. Both of these are predictors of your influence and success in the conversation.

1. You are more likely to succeed if you give up the need to succeed. Unless your father is in immediate physical danger, your goal in this conversation is not to convince him that you are right, but to open the topic for discussion. In fact, I’d suggest your goal not be to come to agreement about his current status as much as to come to agreement that something is happening and that you should agree to criteria for taking steps in the future. In other words, after opening the discussion, you might say, “Dad, given that your health is being affected, and that others are more likely to be aware of how bad it is than you are, can we talk about what signs we’ll watch for that indicate you need to change your living situation?” If this discussion is held before things are too acute, you may be able to keep an open dialogue going about where you are in the process. Unless things are dangerous now, focus less on how things are than on when things will need to change. Don’t worry about convincing him of your current view–just involve him in discussing scenarios.

2. Lead with facts, not stories. Your father may not agree with your story (“your memory is declining”). Your success in being persuasive depends upon your ability to share specific observations you’ve made–particularly those he may recognize. Share a series of these to help him see that it is a pattern, or he’s likely to write off the one or two you can recollect.

3. Generously express your love and discomfort while candidly expressing your concerns. As you know from reading “Crucial Conversations,” the predictor of success here is how safe your father feels with you. He’ll need to feel particularly safe when you’re talking about him adapting to a whole different lifestyle and reality. When he seems upset or worried or even defensive, step out of the content and hug and kiss him–or whatever is the way you two express affection for each other. Then collect yourself and return to the content when he’s ready. If needed, you may even want to break this up over time with agreed upon breaks in the conversation.

My thoughts and prayers are with you. It’s at times like this that we have a chance to return the love our parents gave us when we were less able. It’s the most honorable thing we can do. And your crucial conversation will be one of your first expressions of love and honor in this new phase of your relationship.

Best wishes,

Joseph

Crucial Accountability QA

Helping Others See Their Role

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been working with a supervisor on her people approach. People who report to her often describe her as “condescending and controlling.” Several other directors and I have spoken with her many times with the goal of helping her with her people skills and making her successful. I have gotten to the point of being very blunt in what the expected behavior is. We’ve offered an outside work coach. She still does not understand.

She usually blames the other person and does not see her role in this pattern of behavior. Even when I have pointed out the pattern. She states she has changed her approach by asking questions instead of directing. I get the same comments about her new approach as her old approach, even from new employees.

Any suggestions as to how else this can be addressed?

Signed,

At Wit’s End

A Dear Wit’s End,

You’re dealing with a situation similar to those that other people face regularly in different settings. The problem–there’s a pattern going on that keeps you stuck and you can’t seem to get out of it–even when you deal with the pattern. Coworkers can’t seem to get a colleague to deliver when promised; parents can’t get their son or daughter to take out the trash on Monday morning in time for the pickup–and this has been going on for five years; a salesperson over-promises and makes exaggerated claims to get the sale, even though production and marketing have repeatedly told him or her to stop. You feel you’re knocking your head against a wall–it’s painful and the wall isn’t moving.

So what do you do? Do you push harder? Persevere, cope, do workarounds, give up?

Before I offer a suggestion or two, let me pause to praise you for your perceptions and your efforts. It takes courage and patience and caring to stick in there like you have. Way to go.

Now for some suggestions:

First, as you look at your challenge, think about getting meaning in the pool. You’ve done a great job. You’ve put your meaning in the pool. You’ve had others put their data in the pool. Yet the person doesn’t get it–no change or improvement is visible. Perhaps you should change the kind of data you’re sharing. Sometimes when we put our meaning in the pool, using our best skills, the other person doesn’t get it or believe it.

Now, I’m not going to repeat all the skills you’ll need to use, but the key skill to remember is to start with the facts. These are most often observations. This approach often works well because facts are verifiable, less controversial, and safer. Sometimes the approach can be made more effective by adding anonymous survey data. It’s one thing for this supervisor to hear from you and her colleagues; it’s often more effective to see data that comes from 360-degree feedback. The data is anonymous, it comes from multiple sources, and it is data–it is seen less as opinion.

During the last twenty years, I’ve had the experience that helping different groups of people see where they’re skilled and where they need to make improvements is best done with feedback data. These groups include management, highly technical individuals, attorneys, physicians, accountants, and more. When the other person agrees to participate in a survey feedback process, there is often enough mutual purpose (both of you want the same thing and the other person is willing to improve) that the action steps that follow lead to progress–progress that can be measured. The general principle here is that meaning in the pool, surrounded by mutual purpose and mutual respect, can lead to action. Survey feedback can help the meaning in the pool move from perceived opinion to more solid data or facts.

Second, think of the acronym CPR. There are three levels of discussion you can have in a crucial conversation: Content (talk about the issue the first time it’s a problem); Pattern (when the issue keeps coming up, discuss the pattern, not just one instance); and Relationship (when the recurring issue is affecting the way you interact or work together, discuss the impact it’s having on your relationship). It sounds to me like there are some significant relationship issues here. Are you beginning to not trust that the person can manage this group well? Are you thinking that this person’s condescending and controlling style is affecting morale, productivity, and customer satisfaction? You need to tell the supervisor this and help her understand what it means to you, to coworkers, and to customers. Outline the positive consequences that will happen if she makes improvements, and the negative consequences that will happen if she doesn’t.

Finally, you need to move to action by determining who does what by when, and how you’ll follow up. I would venture a guess that if the person is unwilling or unable to make improvements, and unwilling to participant in a survey feedback process, that you should begin progressive discipline. This will help the supervisor realize why it is important to improve. The status quo should be unacceptable. The reason it is called progressive discipline is that you provide enormous clarity and feedback and provide the person with time and resources to improve. If the other person doesn’t improve, he or she should leave—the negative impact on relationships inside and outside the team and company is too severe not to act. It’s not easy, but it is essential.

Best wishes,

Al

Crucial Conversations QA

Chaotic Boss

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

After a year and a half working with a new boss, I cannot get past the pure chaos in which decisions are made. This really came home to me this last week while we were on the road and the constant changes in the schedule and lack of planning made our team look unprofessional.

The person on the team who had planned everything with the boss worked hard to keep it from happening, but that person also found the boss difficult to make decisions with–even shopping for supplies turned into nightmare trips that lasted twice as long as necessary and left our budget and our schedule in shambles. I know enough to be glad not everyone has the same faults and she has some lovely qualities, however…

What can we do to keep routine decisions with the boss from turning into chaos?
Signed,

Concerned about Chaos

A Dear Concerned,

It seems like you’ve got this pegged. You’ve identified the right person, the issues, and the conversation you need to have. Before I offer some advice, I’ll frame the issue to illustrate how some important pieces fit together.

Your challenge is like challenges faced by many of our readers, in multiple ways. First, this problem is tough because you need to talk to someone more powerful–your boss. We know that it is tough to talk to some bosses. The same challenge is faced by people needing to talk to a parent, or an in-law, or someone who is more senior, or more experienced, or more technical. The question is: how can we bring up this subject and have the outcome be positive? Second, there is a pattern. The problem has occurred in the past, multiple times even. Third, there are serious consequences. What makes it even more problematic is that the other person doesn’t seem to notice, or worse, to care.

When these three conditions exist, most people shy away from holding the conversation. Or they endure it until they act it out—through avoidance or gossip.

So what are some approaches that can help with situations like this?

First, start with heart. Some would get so annoyed with this that what they want is to have the boss stop, at any cost. So they explode, gush out their frustration, and hope for improvements. These people want a fix that gets rid of their problem–now. That comes across as selfish and short-term. If they got their motives clearer, if they focused on what they REALLY want for themselves, for colleagues, for the boss, and for relationships, they’d be more likely to take an approach that the boss saw as mutual and long-term rather than selfish and short-term. In this particular case, I think your motive is right; so you need to figure out what to say and how to say it. To help you get to more empathic approaches, consider asking the “humanizing question”: why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this? What is your boss really trying to accomplish? Why would he or she make changes like this? What is his or her purpose? What bigger purposes are important here?

Next, consider the specific conversation you need to have. It seems that your conversation is not really about supplies and shopping; it’s about how we stay on schedule and keep to our budget. The question is: How can we make commitments that will help us do this and then talk to each other so that when there’s the risk of failure, we can catch it early and work together to fix it? I think that conversation is one that most bosses are willing to have. His or her specific behavior that caused the most recent problem can be added to this conversation in a way that is safe. For example, “During the last conference you went shopping and that caused the budget to go over. Can we talk about why that happened and what we could do next time to talk it over so that our schedule and budget are kept in tact?”

Remember, holding a crucial conversation is about preparing yourself well–your heart and your content–and then sharing, exploring, and responding. This keeps you agile and caring and attentive. There are only several options for possible outcomes: Your boss can agree; in this case you move to action. She can disagree; in this case you need to listen to her reasons–it’s possible that she can add meaning you hadn’t considered, and then you can move to action understanding all of the information now available. Your boss can get emotional; if this happens, you can step out of the content and make it safe using your Crucial Conversations skills. Finally, you can get emotional; if you do, you can catch yourself, ask for a time to come back and finish holding the conversation later, and then try again.

All of these alternatives are better than doing nothing. And all of the alternatives can be responded to well if you use your dialogue skills.

In conclusion, give the boss a break and bring up the topic in a safe way. You’ll be glad you did.

Best wishes,
Al

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Criticism

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,
I’d like some help on receiving criticism. My problem is that there is one executive in my organization who finds fault with my work and I find myself immediately on the defensive. I am intimidated by her confrontational style. I do not report to her, but she has taken several opportunities to critique my performance. Sometimes I would like to say “don’t shoot the messenger,” “I didn’t create the timeline,” or “it’s not my fault that your VP doesn’t share information with you,” but I also want to learn to buck it up.

Any ideas on how not to turn into the Tasmanian Devil or the Doe in the Headlights?

Thanks,

Ready to throw in the towel

A Dear Ready,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. You’re obviously tortured with a problem many of us face and, like you, most of us wonder how much of the problem we ourselves are causing versus how much is due to the other person’s style. It’s hard to be objective when you’re in the middle of the issue and up to your neck in criticism to boot.

Let me go out on a limb here. From the way you’ve phrased the issue, my guess is that the other person is largely responsible for your negative feelings. Your willingness to learn as well as your tentative tone suggest to me that you’ve bent over backward to ensure that you aren’t acting defensive or hostile. Nobody’s perfect, but let’s assume for the purposes of this response that you’re pretty close. The other person actually acts in ways that lead you to suggest that she is “confrontive” and “intimidating.” (If you have a close confidant who watches the two of you interact, he or she will be able to give you a more objective viewpoint.)

When it comes to dealing with the other person, you have three choices: You can cope–that is, say nothing about the problem and legitimately let it go; you can carp–complain endlessly to friends and family but never really do anything; or you can confront the issue–step up to it and deal with it honestly and professionally. You don’t seem like a complainer and I think you’re tired of coping, so let’s take a look at a couple of issues you may want to address as you talk to the other person.

First, do you want to set up a meeting and talk about the overall pattern, or do you wait for something to happen again and then deal with the single instance? The more direct approach is to deal with the pattern, but it’s also riskier. If you say it’s been building for a while or been happening a lot, it raises the stakes. If the person is in a position of power, I’d probably deal with the next instance.

Second, what are the other person’s actual behaviors–those that have you bugged? You concluded that she is confrontational and intimidating. That tells me what you think, but not what she actually does. You probably shared these conclusions because such emotional terms make up sort of a social shorthand, but you’ll have to describe the actual behaviors to the other person if you expect her to know what she’s currently doing versus what you’d like her to do. The rule here is that the other person should immediately know what he or she is doing. You focus on behavior, not conclusions. Don’t describe more than a couple of behaviors that you’d like to see change. Anything more will feel like you’re piling it on. Once you’ve started the conversation and have the other person’s undivided attention, fight your desire to dump all your grievances out at once.

Third, with a person in a position of authority, you may want to ask for permission to hold a discussion where you’re giving her feedback. (It’s not exactly in your job description.) To do so, make it safe by sharing common ground. “I wonder if we could talk about something that I think would help us work together better.”

Fourth, you’ll want to find a way to soften the blow by using carefully chosen words. One of your biggest tools for doing this lies in your ability to separate intentions from outcome. This sounds something like this: “I’m don’t think you’re intending this, but on several occasions it’s felt to me as if you’re critiquing me for simply following orders or doing my best to follow a policy. You suggested that my plan was ‘stupid,’ when it wasn’t even my plan.” Note how different this sounds from: “Hey, I was just following orders!” or “Don’t shoot the messenger!” Both expressions contain a lot of hidden, unhealthy meaning. Instead try: “This is sort of hard for me. I’m doing my best to pass on what I’ve been told and I can see that it’s causing people grief. I’m wondering what I can do to ensure that the message gets heard without causing such a stir.”

When you legitimately seek feedback as opposed to giving others unsolicited feedback, it turns the tables. Instead of making others defensive (“What, I can’t have an opinion?!”) it helps them see the effects of their behavior without you sharing ugly conclusions or even bringing their behavior into question. More often than not, when you point out the spot they’re putting you in, others reflect on what they’ve just done and you can move to a healthier discussion of what you’d prefer to see in the future.

This tentative approach doesn’t mean that you should never talk about what others are doing, that’s why I suggested that you need to identify the other person’s behaviors. Eventually you may want to do just that. However, if the stakes are high, your power base is low, and you want to broach the issue with the least amount of risk, start with you, not the other person. Then transition to the full interaction, including exactly what the other person has said and done.

In any case, think out what you want to do and say, practice the interaction in your mind, pick your moment, and good luck with your crucial conversation.

Kerry