Kerrying On

Kerrying On: When Is Coercion an Acceptable Tactic?

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation with my wife, our parents, our children, and our grandchildren—a rambling group totaling sixteen people. Given that we varied in age from seven weeks to eighty-seven years, deciding what entertaining thing to do next was always a challenge. Frequently, as we engaged in a spirited discussion to make such decisions, someone would try to force his or her way onto the group.

It’s interesting to watch as people do their best to balance their personal wishes with the desires of others—and to do so in a way that is just and fair. In my case, when one or more family members stepped over the “just and fair” line and tried to coerce others, they wouldn’t make demands or threats or anything so blatantly authoritarian. Instead, they would express their views with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. The unspoken message would often be, “I care a lot about this and am willing to go to the mat if necessary, so don’t mess with me. And if you really want to be honest, I think it’s my turn to win anyway.”

Now, when someone shifted into this gentle authoritarian mode we were typically making fairly trivial choices such as, “Should we go to the beach and roast marshmallows or should we retire to the dining room and play card games?” Consequently, when someone started pushing for a rather inconsequential choice others would quickly give in and save their energy for more important debates such as, “Should we go to the farm and collect eggs before or after lunch?”

Interestingly enough, all of this polite wrangling took place within a context of also constantly forcing one’s will upon others. After all, amongst us were six children under the age of six, all hell-bent on having fun. This often included hanging off the edge of a cliff or walking precariously close to the edge of the deck of a rolling boat—where it would fall upon the nearest adult to pull the child (sometimes kicking and screaming) out of harm’s way.

Of course, no one would ever argue that forcing a child to safety is a mistake. Nobody contends that kids should learn basic survival lessons by causing themselves great harm. Nevertheless, it does raise the question: “When exactly is it okay to coerce others?” It can be appropriate with endangered kids, but how about with adults? When, if ever, is it proper to force your way on others?

I find this question interesting in light of the fact that two weeks ago I gave a speech at a military academy. For lunch my host took me to the mess hall where cadets were standing at attention behind their chairs with their food cooling on the table in front of them.

Responding to my own hunger, I wandered past the seemingly catatonic cadets toward the food line in the next room where I casually loaded my tray. When I asked where I was supposed to sit, my host took me in through the forest of trainees standing at attention and told me take the seat at the head of the center table. When I did, everyone sat down at once. The entire group had been waiting for me. Yikes!

I turn to this setting because it can be useful to explore such all-encompassing institutions when trying to understand the boundaries of influence and control. Just how far can and do we go when coercing others? And then when we do push humans to the edge, what works and what doesn’t? “Total institutions” such as prisons and mental asylums sit at the far end of the influence/control continuum. Back off a notch an you’re staring at military academies and boot camps.

To answer the question of when it’s permissible to employ such heavy-handed character development—to aggressively force one’s will upon another—let’s look at academies. How far can and should you go when “shaping” subjects who have volunteered for forceful instruction? Does the fact that subjects have volunteered make just about any method okay? More importantly, when does coercion actually work? After all, if brow-beating people into painful and embarrassing activities doesn’t really work, then you don’t have to ask the ethics questions in the first place.

I know the answer to the effectiveness question. Having graduated from Officer Candidate School (OCS) myself I can personally attest to the fact that forcing me into all sorts of personal indignities did nothing to mold me into an officer and a gentleman. For instance, having me and my fellow trainees jog with our rifles over our head in the unrelenting heat and humidity of late-summer Virginia until someone from my platoon actually dropped from heat stroke didn’t imbue us with pride and confidence. Teaching us military protocol by having us unwittingly break the rules and then screaming at us like we were brain addled criminals didn’t endear us to the hierarchy. And yes, despite the leaders’ claims to the contrary, threatening to flunk us out of OCS and into the jungles of South East Asia didn’t shape my character either. I had arrived at the training center with my character pretty much intact. What all of this stress and abuse did do was force me to question my choice to come in the first place.

These reactions aren’t merely my personal musings. Five years after finishing my own indoctrination, and while researching socialization at Stanford University, I studied the impact of boot camp on military recruits. I measured subjects the day they arrived, and then three, six, and finally twelve weeks later when they graduated. I explored over twenty variables ranging from pride in the military to confidence to self-esteem. No variables improved. One dropped dramatically: Respect for authority.

The more the recruits experienced abuse, insults, and deprivations, the more they couldn’t believe that their leaders could be so thoughtless and stupid. Although it was true that they were once excited to join the team, they now resented the entire hierarchy and everything about it. If John VanMannen’s work on pre-socialization is correct, recruits hold to these early established negative beliefs for the rest of their careers.

Here’s another study that puts coercion and deprivation into perspective. Wondering if the maltreatment typically inflicted upon officer candidates actually accomplished anything, the OCS class following mine conducted an interesting experiment. One of the platoon officers gathered his wards together and told them that he wasn’t going to order them around, abuse them, threaten them, frighten them, or cause them mental anguish in any way. Instead, he asked them to set their own goals and then left them to their own devices.

This experimental group defeated the brow-beat platoons in every athletic, military, and academic competition. More interesting still, members of the experimental platoon described the overall experience as challenging and even fun and rewarding.

So why do boot camps and academies continue with the abusive control? The argument goes like this: “How can you expect to motivate soldiers to attack the enemy at great personal risk unless they’re blindly following commands?” The obvious answer is: “You have to take complete control.” That’s people are asked to do silly, insulting, and painful things during training—so later they’ll follow orders (no matter how ridiculous they may sound) without question.

This particular logic has never been proven true. Do you think soldiers fought the Battle of the Bulge at great personal peril because they feared their leaders? Were they following their sergeants and captains blindly and without thought to what they were being asked to do? Of course not.

What does any of this have to do with you and your job or my family vacation? I share examples from near total institutions—examples of what many people would label as abusive control or even government-sanctioned bullying—as a way of highlighting that even under dire circumstances, forcing one’s will on others is not only questionable, but by most accounts highly ineffective. So why do so many of us use similar tactics at home and at work?

Which brings me to my real point. Despite the fact that most of us get upset every time we watch movie accounts of mean-spirited coercion (such as Lou Gossett Jr. stepping on Richard Gere’s back as he does pushups in the mud in An Officer and a Gentleman, or Viggo Mortensen beating up Demi Moore in GI Jane), we ourselves try to coerce others all the time. Naturally, our methods are not so brutal. We don’t physically abuse or haze people. We don’t employ bullying tactics anywhere near as blatant as we see in military academies. But we do try to coerce others without giving our tactics a second thought.

For example, watch a meeting. Often in the middle of a team discussion a glance from a person in authority announces that he or she is going to now take charge and gently force the group into compliance. The boss’s opinion isn’t carrying the day so he or she moves from egalitarian involvement to what others might experience as authoritarian control. This is not to suggest that leaders can’t make choices, but that when they move to their own decisions too quickly, without legitimately hearing from their experts and working through differences, they’re missing valuable input from their team. And if they impose their will abruptly, abusively, or out of anger, they run the risk of alienating the entire team.

From my point of view, blatant coercion isn’t one bit more inappropriate than a harsh comment or nasty stare from a person who holds the keys to your next paycheck.

Leaders aren’t the only people who employ abusive methods of control. In the absence of authority, we employ a whole host of subtle methods for imposing our will on others. For instance, we often try to take control of a discussion through our pacing—we speed up our delivery and crank up our volume. Or we cut others off in an attempt to restrict the content. Sometimes we overstate the positive elements of our arguments while highlighting the negative elements of our colleagues’ viewpoints. We misstate facts and employ every logical trick imaginable—from appealing to authority to tossing out a red herring.

If we become desperate, we might even attack others’ credibility by questioning their expertise. We may hint that they’re unworthy to offer up an opinion. If we’re really good at it, we use caustic humor—pretending to be playful when in truth we’re not playing one bit. Of course, if we’re particularly gifted, we employ sarcasm as a cutting tool. All of these methods are used not to help people share their views until everyone is heard, but to find a way to be heard ourselves—first heard and then followed.

And now for the limit case. And guess what—the big kahuna of unholy force doesn’t come from drill instructors. It’s more likely to come from family, friends, and neighbors. Unhappy with how the discussion is going, we often threaten to withdraw our love or friendship. Rather than sticking with the merits of the discussion, we hint that if we don’t get our way, the other person will no longer stay in our good graces. We then tactics ranging from the cold shoulder to social bullying. Children will declare, “I won’t be your best friend anymore.” Adults don’t say it, but they do it all the time.

How is it that people who can be so vehemently against coercion and control (when critiquing military institutions or authoritarian leaders) and yet use similarly pernicious tactics with their own work teams or families? Strangely enough, it all comes down to our beliefs. We believe that our idea is right and that if it isn’t implemented we’ll all be in trouble. We start by explaining our views, but when our points appear to fall on deaf ears we quickly move to polite and restrained coercion. It’s an acceptable method because, one, it’s subtle and nobody will notice, and two, in the end we’ll make the right choice and everyone will benefit. After all, we’re right and others are wrong. It’s similar to saving a child who is getting too close to a cliff.

Or so we think.

The solution to our propensity to employ dressed-up goon tactics lies in a change of heart. We have to willingly entertain the idea that others have legitimate points of view. Our responsibility is to be true to our ideas and speak in a way that lets our views be heard. That we know. We need to work equally hard making it safe for others to do the same. That we often forget. When we see our ideas and our preferences as starting points rather than the ultimate conclusion that everyone needs to come to we open ourselves up to the notion that others have views that we must carefully consider. We’re genuinely curious about others’ views and want to learn from them. Instead of thinking up our next argument as others talk, we’ll actually do our best to understand why others hold their beliefs. We listen with the purpose of trying to understand—and then armed with more complete and accurate information, we’ll be more able to make the best choice.

Most important of all, when we see our ideas as starting points that need to be heard and then critiqued and combined with others’ views, we don’t feel the need to coerce people any more than we feel the need to give up on our own views.

And all of this magnificent transformation hangs on one belief. We must cling to the credo that others are reasonable, rational, decent folks who need to be heard, not coerced—no matter how gentle the coercive methods. And within this simple belief lies the future of every group of people—be it your company, my family, or the Green Berets.

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Applications: Delivering Bad News

Bad news—nobody likes receiving it. Giving bad news to others can be equally troublesome, particularly when they hold you responsible for the bad news—even if you’re not. What do you do when the person on the receiving end becomes upset and starts to take it out on you, the messenger?

1. Don’t Play “What’s Wrong with Them?” Get over the fact that people blame you when they have no right to do so. To avoid responding with anger, say to yourself, “These are people under stress, and it’s my job to help them through this.” This perspective will help move you away from acting superior or defensive.

2. Share the Pain. When people hear bad news, they start responding with strong emotions and weak thinking. Acknowledge their pain. Express your honest concern. “I’m sorry, this must be a big blow for you.” When someone is upset they want sympathy, not a lecture.

3. Actively Listen. To let people know that you’re listening to their concerns, don’t jump in with quick answers or corrections to their false statements. Instead, paraphrase in your own words what they just said. Do this to ensure you know their concerns, as well as to let them know you’re trying to understand them.

4. Keep Focused. Finally, remember what you want out of each conversation. Your goal is to keep a healthy and long-term relationship, not win or disprove the other person’s point of view.

Once you’ve worked on yourself, shared your concern, actively listened, and done your best to stay focused, you’ve earned the right to share your views.

Crucial Accountability QA

Travel Woes

Dear Crucial Skills,

One late Friday afternoon while traveling on a commercial airline carrier that was completely packed (all seats sold—and I do mean all), I had the misfortune of getting a center seat. If this were not bad enough, it was summertime (and of course uncomfortably warm). The person seated immediately to my right in the aisle seat was extremely obese and a portion of that obesity was overlapping my leg from my hip to my knee. As you can imagine, after some time my leg began to sweat profusely, making me very uncomfortable. I immediately went to silence (while contemplating violence and praying that God would move that mountain). I endured this for a flight of perhaps 1 1/2 hours and never addressed the issue. Upon arrival at the destination airport, I was soaked in sweat from my hip to my knee.

How could a person address such an issue in a way to gain consideration without embarrassing or angering the other passenger?

Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue.


Uncomfortable Passenger

Dear Uncomfortable,

I was particularly interested in responding to your question because it is phrased in a way that is remarkably honest and that illustrates one of the biggest reasons we (you, I, and most other people) sometimes stink at Crucial Confrontations.

We stink because we tell ourselves ugly stories about the person we need to confront. Now, I’m probably going to be unfair to you because if we spoke together I might find that some of your word choices were not intended the way I read them. But for the sake of a teaching opportunity, I beg you to let me use the words that are there to make a valuable point, okay? Here’s the point. It’s hard enough to talk to someone about personal physical issues. But it moves from hard to impossible when in our mind we hold negative judgments about them for it. The evidence for me that you may have negative judgments comes in word choices like, “praying that God would move that mountain.” The stories we often tell ourselves when others cause us problems tend to turn them from people into things in our minds. We objectify them. At times, we even villainize them.

What I’m saying here is that the biggest reason we tend to go to silence is that we don’t care about the other people involved—we simply see them as problems to be solved. And since we don’t care about their concerns, if we do speak up we tend to do it in a way that violates safety—the foundation of effective dialogue.

Let me give a personal example. I bought some food at an airport kiosk a while back and was treated—in my view—very rudely by the person preparing it. She had a tip jar at the cash register and I was confident she expected me to pay her for the service she had rendered. I had no intention of doing so. In fact, the tip I intended to give her was a crucial confrontation—I was going to give her feedback about her behavior. But fortunately the service was slow enough for me to examine my story about her before I opened my mouth. I realized I saw her as an obnoxious, self-centered person who was taking her misery at life out on me. My intention because of this story was not to give her feedback, but to give her punishment.

Had I opened my mouth with that story driving my emotions I would have inevitably been condescending and rude. And when she reacted badly to my “feedback” I would have blamed her. In the yawning expanse of time during which I waited for my food I worked on my story. I tried to think about her day, her life, the previous customers, and even my officious food order. And something wonderful happened. I saw her as a person. And I still wanted to talk to her—but not just to give feedback, it was to serve her. And that changed everything. That’s a long way of saying “watch out.”

When someone is creating physical or emotional discomfort for you, you are at enormous risk of telling yourself a story that turns that person from a person into a thing. Which makes it more likely you’ll move to silence (after all, this kind of inconsiderate person isn’t likely to care—so why speak up?) or violence (they deserve to know how their lack of self-control inconveniences people around them—so I’ll be brutally honest).

Thanks for letting me go off on that harangue.

Final point. If there’s a conversation you need to have it’s not with the person next to you, but with the airline. The person did nothing wrong and had no option for doing anything different had you confronted him or her. The right conversation is with an airline that has not figured out how to accommodate people of different sizes without creating discomfort for them and others.

Best wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Stopping the Rumor Mill

Dear Crucial Skills,

Recently our company moved some services “offshore” BUT (proudly) we have been able to retain the jobs of all current employees. Unfortunately, there is one employee who appears extremely negative about this situation and has been sending “negative” e-mails about it. We want this attitude and negativity to stop because it seems to be influencing others.

How would this employee’s manager address the issue so that the right message is being sent? We want to send the proper message of firmness yet maintain openness within our team and organization. Whatever message we give to the individual will eventually (through the rumor mill) make it to the rest of the employees. We don’t want to say that employees are not allowed to voice their opinions; however, we want to stop the negativity. “Attitude” and “negative behavior” are hard to define and this is a high stakes issue.

Therefore, I want to be as effective as possible because I know that if the employee fails to change it could result in termination.

No More Sucker’s Choices

Dear No More,

You raise an interesting question: When does openness and honesty turn into complaining, creating rumors, being disloyal, and simply acting too negatively?

The answer lies in a mix of the other person’s intent and strategy.

First, intent: When people are genuinely concerned about a change in policy or a key decision and want to bring those concerns to the appropriate parties so they can be heard and resolved, their intent is pure. They aren’t trying to make others look bad or cause a riot or simply complain for the sake of complaining; they want to surface, discuss, and resolve a perceived problem. This is the whole idea behind dialogue. This is what you need to encourage and nurture.

My guess is that as you watch the other person in action, it is his or her intent that becomes suspect. If people continually return to the same issue, even after it’s been discussed and put to bed, then it would appear that they aren’t interested in discussing and resolving, they’re only interesting in getting exactly what they want–even if their desires simply can’t be met or would be wrong to meet.

This person’s strategy may also seem questionable. It is the strategy that you’re most likely to discuss since it translates into behavior (rather than merely thought), and it’s behavior that you can hold others accountable to.

Let’s assume that the person genuinely desires to discuss the issue in a healthy way. What is the best method or strategy for doing so? Using e-mails is hardly appropriate. If someone wants to use e-mail as a means of setting up a face-to-face meeting, that’s perfectly fine; but you can hardly discuss heated and controversial topics through e-mail.

Also, sending out messages to a lot of people (in effect, complaining about issues behind the decision makers’ backs) is not a healthy action and needs to be curtailed. In the spirit of honest dialogue, people need to take their concerns directly to the appropriate parties. This is the confrontation the person’s boss needs to hold.

I would start with the assumption that the other person doesn’t realize that what he or she is currently doing is both ineffective and problematic. Begin the conversation by clarifying the best method for dealing with the issues this person has. Explain that it has come to your attention that he or she is concerned with what is going on. You’re glad that he or she is willing to vocalize these concerns, and you’d like to help come up with a method that would be more effective. Point out that the concerns need to be brought to the right parties, and talked about face-to-face and openly, and that you’d be glad to help set up just such a meeting. If you are the appropriate party to discuss the issues with, invite this person to discuss them with you.

Now here’s where it gets dicey. Explain that sending out e-mails to several people who can’t resolve the problem, or sending messages that don’t lead to healthy discussions only creates frustration and resentment. Make it clear that doing so again would be inappropriate and that you’re counting on this person to come to you directly the next time he or she has an issue. Explain that you’re assuming that he or she was unaware that sending out general complaints to several people is neither the best way nor an acceptable method for solving problems, and that doing so again would constitute a break of protocol.

Finally, move to a healthy discussion of the person’s concerns. Make it safe for him or her to share worries and why they exist. If this person has issues and doubts, it’s likely that others do as well and you need to hear and address them whenever you can.

A parting thought–you’ll notice that I never use the word “negativity.” Although it might feel as if the person is being too negative, this is just a vague enough concept that it isn’t likely to inform as much as it is likely to inflame. The other person is sure to conclude that you have chosen to label his or her legitimate concerns as “negative,” and that will feel manipulative and unfair.

Good Luck!

Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: By Any Other Name

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

During this last month I did a couple of things I haven’t done before. I went to comedy club with my friends (a first for me) and I had a colonoscopy (also a first). One was a frightening and painful experience, and the other was the colonoscopy.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I accidentally wandered into a racy club only to be shocked by a raunchy comedian. This awful experience came as a painful surprise because I had taken precautions to avoid any embarrassment. I only went to the club because I had been invited by a friend who had promised that the place was “family friendly.” Each comedian was warned in advance that the material couldn’t be the least bit blue. After all, the local community simply wouldn’t put up with such shenanigans.

In fact, one comedian who had previously strayed from the wholesome formula by throwing in his normal off-color jokes learned to keep it clean the hard way. Every single person in the audience left before he was fifteen minutes into his routine. He was then banned from the club and wasn’t paid a penny for his trouble. “Don’t worry,” my friend encouraged me, “the material will be squeaky clean.”

Encouraged by the description of the venue, I invited a group of friends to be my guests for the evening. We would be finishing a video shoot on a Thursday afternoon and a group of the actors that I had hired would join me, my son, and several work colleagues for an evening of fun. That was the plan.

As each performer, including the featured comedian, started into his or her routine, it became clear to me that many of them would honor the “clean-cut clause” in this contract by walking up to the outer edge of clean material and dipping a toe into a pool of filth as many times as they could without “offending the audience.” This pernicious tactic set off all kinds of alarms in my comfort center.

You know what it’s like. You’re watching a TV show and the characters start making inappropriate sexual references while you’re sitting next to your mother-in-law or grandchildren. You squirm with every innuendo and wonder just how long the show will continue down this awkward path. Should you switch channels in the middle of the program and risk looking like a prude or will the episode return to safe ground if you just wait another few seconds?

Of course, when you’re seated in a comedy club you can’t channel surf out of the dangerous waters and into the safe harbor of the Disney Channel. If you feel offended, you’re going to have to stand up and leave—which is what I did. After about ten minutes of on-the-edge horror I actually did get up and step out of the room for a while as a way of escaping the tension, but when I returned it only got worse. The featured comedian moved from blue material to racist, sexist, and otherwise insensitive jokes.

Here’s where it became confusing to me. The club had been labeled “family friendly” because no blue material was permitted (or so they promised), but apparently there were no rules against making fun of the Pope or Jews or Indians or Middle Easterners or anyone else for that matter. Nope, that stuff was okay.

Of course, the disturbing belief that you can say whatever insulting and prejudicial thing you want in the name of comedy isn’t unique to our local club. Apparently, when it comes to humor, there’s a whole new set of rules about what you can say with impunity. Stand on a stage and it would seem that within our society you have permission to say things that you would never dream of saying at work—things that would get you fired in a New-York minute. You can say things that you wouldn’t dream of saying to your best friends on a fishing trip. You can say things that you wouldn’t say if you were fall-down drunk. That’s right, call it comedy and somehow thoughts that no decent human being would ever express aloud are now okay to shout to a crowd.

We pull off this all-too-transparent hypocrisy by using clever stories and labels to justify the most bizarre of behaviors. Something that would be called bigoted at work is called clever or edgy or even art when spoken from a stage. Something that would be labeled sexist or racist in most domains is called comedy and then somehow it’s okay. Of course, assigning the behavior a new label changes nothing. The underlying thoughts, the vicious and insulting characterizations, remain unsavory no matter what you call them. With apologies to William Shakespeare, a skunk cabbage by any other name stinks just the same.

I know that this kind of “perfuming the pig” happens all the time. It’s not unique to comedy clubs. You can’t watch a standup comedian or sitcom on network TV without realizing that although blue material is prohibited by the FCC, politically incorrect material is actually encouraged over the airwaves. And should audience members dare groan or hiss over a particularly bigoted and insensitive line, the comedian then makes fun of the audience for being out of touch or prudish or stupid.

As I drove two of the actors who’d been my guests to their hotel later that evening, I asked them what they thought about the material. Here were two African-American actors who the comedian had actually singled out of the audience and used as a platform for bringing up what I thought were insulting racist stereotypes—in both directions. Both actors said they had been offended. One went on to argue that any material that divides rather than unifies the audience is simply wrong.

She was right. It turns out that not only is it wrong to be divisive, but (and here’s the good news) you don’t have to do so in order to be funny. I’m reminded of one Sunday evening in1964 when I lay on the floor in front of my neighbor’s TV set and for the very first time watched Bill Cosby perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. I laughed myself to tears as Mr. Cosby told of what it was like in kindergarten—sharing the common experience of trying to wield a huge pencil as you wrote on paper that was so cheap that it still had wood chips in it. Here was a person who came from a very different background tickling my funny bone as he took me and the rest of the viewing audience down a memory lane that was common to us all—nothing blue, nothing bigoted, nothing sexist. And wow was he funny.

I think it’s time we all took a stand. Okay, I’ll take a stand. If what you’re about to say could get you fired at work, is likely to insult someone, or could perpetrate an ugly and insulting stereotype, don’t say it anywhere. Don’t say it to your coworkers around the water cooler. Don’t say it to your friends in the back of a fishing boat. And for crying out loud, don’t say it on stage or in front of the cameras where your chance to do damage only increases—and then try to weasel off the hook by calling it comedy.

Equally important, don’t put up with politically incorrect conversations or comedy material. Don’t give a listening ear to those who routinely offend. Of course, here’s where it gets awkward. It’s not easy to let others know that you don’t appreciate their insensitive jokes. You don’t want to be hostile or insulting, that’s part of what you’re trying to condemn.

Actually, in person, it is fairly easy to let people know your stance. Simply don’t laugh when someone tells a joke that makes fun of a race or group of people or religion. Should someone start their foray into the world of the politically incorrect by saying: “I know I’m not supposed to make fun of ________, but…” don’t let them continue. Cut them off with a smile and say, “You know what, I’d rather you not finish that sentence.” Taking cheap shots is never the right thing to do, and trying to excuse yourself by pointing out that you know it’s incorrect doesn’t give you permission to plow on ahead.

However, be careful not to hold a public performance review by chastising the offending party in front of his or her friends or coworkers. Simply don’t laugh—and then deftly change the subject. Next, during a private moment, point out at you don’t appreciate those kinds of jokes and would prefer that he or she not tell them to you. When describing the problem, don’t be self-righteous or attacking, simply explain that it makes you feel uncomfortable and leave it at that.

When it comes to the media, turn the channel. If you’re at a club, get up and leave if you can without creating a ruckus. Take time to talk with people afterward. I held a meeting at work the very next day and we talked as a group about the inappropriate nature of the material. I apologized for having exposed them to such tripe. I also spoke with and apologized to my son and the actors.

Finally, I e-mailed the club owner. I pointed out that I love good clean comedy and that for me that includes material which isn’t bigoted, sexist, or off-color. I explained that I wouldn’t return to his club until he changed his definition of “family friendly” to include sensitivity to not only blue material, but material that slurs any group of people or beliefs. That means when it comes to entertaining me, the comedians will have to work harder to find material that is unifying, not dividing. No longer can they count on the shock value of harsh, bigoted, and insulting words.

So there you have it. I learned a lot from that tension-filled show the other night. Despite years of tradition to the contrary, building a stage doesn’t give anyone permission to speak the unspeakable. Building a stage carries with it the responsibility of honoring the public trust. In a similar vein, calling a bad behavior something else in order to get away with it doesn’t improve the behavior in the slightest. At the end of every performance, people should walk away feeling better about the world, not feeling as if they need to take a shower.

Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting Illegal Behavior

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My life partner recently got into trouble with the law. He has been charged, and is currently awaiting trial. Luckily, he doesn’t have to await trial behind bars. The problem is, I can see that he is starting some of the same activities that put him in trouble to begin with, and I’m not sure how to tell him about the bad choices he is making.

Since he has been charged with this crime, I have tried to be as supportive as possible. I try to offer advice and suggestions but I don’t want to push too much. He is a very strong willed, opinionated person and whenever I try to approach the topic of the poor choices he is making with his behavior, he immediately becomes defensive and raises his voice. Even when I try to assure him my intentions are to help him avoid being put behind bars for a very long time, it still becomes a shouting match.

How do you hold a crucial conversation with someone who immediately turns to becoming defensive, and refuses to accept the idea that he might not be making the right choices?

Bailed Out

A Dear Bailed Out,

You are facing one of the toughest interpersonal challenges I can imagine. The challenge of holding a crucial confrontation with someone who is caught up in self-destructive behavior is always daunting. When it is your life partner, the added emotional complexity can often blind you to the right approach.

My advice to you will come in increasing order of personal challenge. And yet my personal belief is it will come in increasing order of value. The final piece of advice I believe to be both the most challenging to practice and the most important to use.

First, you must ensure you are holding the right conversation. In general, I would suggest that if a person’s defensiveness is getting in the way of resolving a specific problem (i.e., his illegal behavior), you should cease talking about the illegal behavior until you can come to agreement about how the two of you will behave during your conversations about tough issues. This isn’t easy. It draws on all the skills we describe in “Crucial Confrontations.” But it is the first thing you need to address. If and when you succeed in coming to such an agreement, you must be vigilant about holding each other accountable when one of you breaks the agreement. Do so with safety. But do so consistently.

Second, and far more importantly, the defensiveness issue is relatively trivial right now. You have a far more important conversation you must hold–and that is one about your relationship. And the first conversation you must hold is with yourself. If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again with someone else, it is often because there is a conversation you are avoiding with yourself. If your loved one is repeatedly involved in illegal behavior and is not motivated enough by natural legal consequences to reform, then you have a tough decision to make. He has already demonstrated to you that he will continue to make these choices. You have already registered your disapproval of the choices. That conversation is over. The new conversation is about whether you are willing to continue the relationship in spite of this behavior.

Now stay with me here. I am not trying to say that you should always leave this person. What I am saying is that you should not stay with him while pretending you don’t know he is committed to his current lifestyle. If you do you simply burn up the goodwill in your relationship by trying to nag him out of it. He has made his choice. Now you must make yours. Are you willing to continue your relationship even in the apparently likely circumstance that this behavior will continue–forever? If not, then you have a conversation you must hold with him. If so, then stop repeating to him things he already knows and has chosen to ignore.

Finally, let’s talk about the conversation with him. Coincidentally, it is about the relationship–but for different reasons. In this conversation you must think about the best way to influence him. Let’s talk about the most fundamental principle for influencing others.

The biggest influence challenge you face is that your loved one is immature. The essence of maturity is the ability to subordinate a short-term value to a longer-term one. In a very important sense your life partner lacks this capacity. So what is your responsibility to him if you love him? If this behavior is truly self-destructive (e.g., serious drug abuse) and not trivial (e.g., serial parking ticket violations), then you must ask yourself if your continued relationship is actually insulating him from the full range of natural consequences that might induce him to reconsider his values.

People do what they do because of the consequences they anticipate will follow their actions. And when those who love someone protect them from some portion of those consequences, they become unwitting accomplices in the bad behavior. How might you be protecting him? By continuing the relationship. When someone behaves badly the natural consequences include legal, financial and social losses. He’s clearly going to experience legal and financial consequences. And if those around him protect him from the social consequences by continuing the same kind of relationship with him he’d have were he not engaged in this behavior, he is less likely to change. Your challenge might not be that you lack influence. It might be that you are exerting influence that is keeping him stuck in his behavior.

The most important–and most difficult–piece of advice I offer you is to consider the natural consequences of your continued relationship with him on his behavior. Will the continuance of this relationship lead to more reflection and growth? Or will it perpetuate the very thing that is hurting your life partner?

You have my prayers and best wishes as you make this all important judgment.


Crucial Accountability QA

Overly Zealous Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve recently promoted a person to be my assistant who is a very capable, gung-ho type. He has plunged himself into his new responsibilities with an inordinate zeal and is now micromanaging folks who are not his direct reports. He has an advisory role with them but no line authority. He also has a habit of moving ahead on things without informing me, sometimes in areas that I would prefer that we do nothing.

I know he is doing all this to please me. I’m sure that in his own mind he is doing everything he can to be helpful and make my life easier. Unfortunately, it is making me uneasy about several things. I feel as if he is exercising prerogatives that belong to me. I’d like to get him to defer to me more, but I do not want to dampen his enthusiasm or make him feel that he is not appreciated. He does bring a dimension to our work that makes us all better. What do you recommend?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Dear Too Much,

Congratulations on having such a lovely problem. Working with a person who is trying his best, taking initiative, anxious to please, and inclined to take action is a pleasant break from the traditional challenge of getting people to embrace any one of these desirable characteristics. Of course, what has you worried is that your direct report often demonstrates too much of a good thing. Showing concern, when taken to the extreme, transmutes into micromanaging. Taking initiative mutates into overstepping his bounds. Taking charge ends up feeling like stealing away important parts of your job. So, as you rightfully ask, how do you have him demonstrate the “right amount” of each of these positive qualities? Equally important, how to you talk to him without killing his enthusiasm?

First, don’t take an indirect route.

You’ll be tempted to start your conversation with a big “Yeah but.” “I love your enthusiasm, but it’s not working for me.” “I’m glad you’re taking initiative, but you’re showing too much.” When you take this two-step approach you first give (love the . . .) and then immediately take away (hate the . . .). This technique can feel too much like “sandwiching”: “That’s a cool new tie, but did you have to embezzle from the company? Nice shoes.” People hate this thinly-veiled technique.

So, don’t mix praise with problem solving. When you mix the good and the bad, people never hear the praise. Besides, sandwiching kills subsequent instances of genuine praise as people wait for the other shoe to drop. Go strait for the problem. People appreciate a direct approach.

Don’t succumb to your temptation to talk about “too much of a good thing.”

You have a number of different challenges here and you might want to discuss them all. Worse still, you might want to sneak them all under the single title of: “You’re trying too hard” or “You’re too enthusiastic.” This approach rarely works. First, there are too many separate problems in your example to put them under a single banner. Second, you can’t talk about “too much of a good thing” without either discouraging or insulting the other person. Everyone knows that too much of any thing is bad. That’s why it’s too much. What the other person needs is advice on recognizing the boundaries. What is the right amount of the specific quality and when do you know you’ve stepped over the line?

Besides, telling people, “I appreciate _______, but it’s too much,” often comes across as patronizing. Beneath the surface of a “too much” message lies the hidden statement: “Yeah, you’re enthusiastic, but so is a puppy dog.” Nobody likes to be told that they’re a naive rookie who is trying too hard. It’s humiliating.

Do pick one problem and focus on it alone.

To avoid sneaking up on the problem or piling on too much material, pick one specific problem at a time and talk about it and nothing more. As I suggested earlier, all of the elements you identified don’t fall under a single category. For instance, micromanaging people who don’t report to him and taking too much responsibility himself are likely to be very different problems that stem from very different root causes.

So, take a look at your list of laments, and pick the one area that has you concerned the most. Then identify the last incident or two where this problem came to your attention and focus on these incidents. To quote from a friend who I once worked with on a massive and wide-sweeping problem: “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” So start small. For example, consider the problem with your direct report making decisions and implementing them without conferring with you. Point out the last time this happened. Explain that you would prefer to have been involved and why.

Remember, the biggest key to handling your problem is to work on the instances early on and use them as opportunities to clarify roles and responsibilities. Also, take time to praise the person when he does demonstrate a quality without crossing some line. This helps clarify the lines as well. In fact, try to offer up far more praise than anything.

Finally, as you do work your way into healthy discussions where you’re outlining exactly what you expect, as your direct report asks for more clarity, feel free to answer questions by explaining both what you do and don’t want. Take care to describe specific behaviors that are both recognizable and replicable. But remember, don’t pile too much on all at once and don’t unilaterally step up to a discussion with a big list in hand. It’ll be both overwhelming and discouraging.

Good Luck!