Crucial Accountability QA

Talking to Your Children

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can your materials help a mother of a ten-year-old respond appropriately when her child speaks disrespectfully? I know this is usually not your focus, but maybe you can offer some direction.


A Dear Mom,

You’re right that our research and consulting work has not involved children. As social scientists we prefer to work with rats, pigeons, and sophomores. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that our most taxing, passionate, and rewarding applications of Crucial Skills have been in our own homes. All told, my coauthors and I have helped rear twenty-three children. And many of these have long since gotten over what we did in rearing them! So I’d be happy to share some reflections on your question.

First, I believe that the most important life skill we can teach our children is, without question, the capacity to hold crucial conversations. If they leave our homes equipped to deal in a healthy way with the inevitable interpersonal challenges of life, they will be physically, financially, and emotionally better off than with any other single skill set we could bless them with.

So, Tip #1: When dealing with a child who speaks disrespectfully, remember that the most important outcome of this conversation is not just extinguishing unacceptable behavior, but teaching the child how to influence behavior in a healthy way. You’ll teach this by modeling how to have a good crucial conversation. So, Start with Heart. Be clear coming in that the quality of the conversation is as important to you as the quality of the result.

Tip #2: Hold the right conversation. Most parents make the mistake of dealing with disrespectful behavior at the same time they’re solving some other problem. Say, for example, your ten-year-old wants to have a slumber party at a friend’s house where you believe there will be insufficient supervision. You say no and explain your reasons. She calls you an “overprotective witch.” And you holler back, “Okay smart-mouth, now in addition to missing the party you can miss out on playing with friends for the next week!”

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, the obvious problem is that you lost your temper and made this a power issue by imposing consequences. Your daughter will likely conclude from this that the problem was not her disrespectful behavior; it was that she disagreed with you. Wrong lesson. But the less obvious and equally important problem is that you failed to hold the right conversation. When her disrespectful behavior became the issue, you should have set aside the discussion about the slumber party and opened up this “relationship” discussion. For example, “Honey, I can see you aren’t happy about my decision for the slumber party. And I’m willing to talk to you about that. But something more important just happened. You called me a name. I want to talk about that for a minute because it’s very important that when we disagree we do so in a way that doesn’t create a bigger problem . . .” Do you see the difference? In this example we’re clearly changing topics.

What parents (myself included) often do when a new problem emerges is to “act out” rather than “talk out” the new problem. We get ticked off because of the misbehavior and rather than talking about it we let our upset emotions drive how we respond to the original topic (the sleepover in this case). So, if you choose to deal with disrespectful behavior, don’t do it while solving another problem—be sure to distinguish that conversation from the conversation about the issue at hand. Even better, if you already know your child has a pattern of disrespectful behavior toward you, don’t wait for another incident to occur. Set aside a specific time to talk about this pattern of behavior—that helps you remove the emotion of the moment and do a better job of it.

Tip #3 tells you how to describe the problem you want to discuss. Start with the facts. Try to remember three or four specific examples of the behavior you’re trying to describe. Avoid the temptation to lump them all together in an insulting description like, “I’m tired of you treating me like trash.” Instead begin with, “The last three times you didn’t like a decision I made, you threw something down, ran to your room, and slammed the door. Then you didn’t speak to me for a few hours.” Stick with the facts and strip out any judgmental language you might be tempted to add.

Step #4: Finally, the biggest challenge in dealing with disrespectful behavior is helping children care about it in the first place. Don’t try to make them care by threatening them. Instead, think carefully about the natural consequences of disrespectful behavior. In a respectful tone, teach your children what happens in the real world when they speak disrespectfully to others. Help them see how the world will work better for them if they avoid this behavior. Then—and this is tricky—try to make your home operate this same way.

For example, you may ask your child what happens when she is rude to a friend. Help her see how disrespectful behavior hurts relationships and even makes people less willing to help her when she needs it. Explain that in order to prepare her to have a successful life, you won’t allow disrespectful behavior to slide by either. When she is disrespectful to you, you will not be as supportive of some of her special requests. Now let’s say the next day she is rude again. Then later that evening she wheedles and begs you to give her a ride to the movie with a friend—you must not rob her of the chance to experience the natural consequences of her actions. You must follow through. Otherwise she learns that the real world does not work as you said it does. The “real world” to her is one where her mother makes up consequences then can be manipulated into compromising on them.

Now I know that this is an awfully short response for a complex question, but I have great confidence that if you keep in mind that the quality of your crucial confrontations with your child is the most important gift you will give him or her, you will continue to improve in the most important conversations of your life.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

A Boss's Drinking Problem

Ron McMillan

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

A friend has an office director with a clear cut drinking problem. The drinking has, at times, interfered with the director’s ability to carry out his work to his full potential. The problem is also becoming apparent to people in the field. This frustrates and worries the office staff. My friend does not report directly to the director; there is an intermediate boss. Who, if anyone, should confront the office director? And how?


Just Wondering

A Dear Wondering,

This is a tough situation. Let me see if I can offer some broad guidance—keeping your friend’s vulnerability in mind. If I were speaking to your friend, here’s the advice I would give:

First, because of the chain of command, I would recommend that your friend have a crucial conversation with his or her own boss or an HR professional. Often an organization will train HR professionals in how to deal with this sort of situation, and all you will need to do is provide the facts. Then the situation is out of your hands. However, if you’re in a smaller organization, you may have to pursue the course a little further.

In approaching this initial conversation, it’s important to first separate facts from stories—don’t assume the director has a drinking problem; don’t make judgments. Rather, identify the specific behaviors that are problematic and the outcomes that are hurtful (I don’t have any of the actual facts, so please allow me to invent some for the sake of example): “On our last major project, the director was unable to come in on several mornings, and my team missed an important deadline. This has happened four times in the last three months—typically on Monday mornings. On several other occasions, the director has returned from lunch disoriented, with the smell of liquor on his breath.”

Once you’ve shared your facts, it is then appropriate to tentatively share your story and ask for the other person’s input (“Several people have brought up these same issues, and we’re starting to suspect a serious drinking problem—which is making our work less effective. I’m wondering if we can address the issue and find a way to resolve it. What are your thoughts?”). If your boss or the HR professional agrees, now the conversation should be about how he or she should confront the director. If he or she disagrees, or refuses to confront the director, you should consider whether or not you should request a meeting with the director. I would encourage you to answer the questions “What do I really want?” and “How can I create safety for the director?”

The person speaking to the director should start with a mutual purpose in mind—one that would help him understand why he’d want to have this conversation. You could begin with, “I wonder if I could talk to you about some things I’ve observed that are undermining your effectiveness?” The director should be interested if someone is aware of a barrier to his success. You could also reinforce mutual purpose with a statement declaring intent: “My reason for talking with you is to be of help. I’m not trying to tell you what to do or be disloyal.”

The conversation should then start the same way the first conversation began—with the facts. Start with a description of the problem and try to clarify why it is a problem. Focus on the director’s behavior and the natural consequences of his behavior that he would care about; for example, how is it affecting major stakeholders, including customers, coworkers, etc.?

The biggest problem in this situation is whether or not the director will acknowledge a drinking problem that is affecting his work. Perhaps speaking up will help him see that his problem is not hidden; but if it doesn’t, the only solution is to escalate the problem to those the director reports to.

If you take this step, make sure you are very familiar with the organization’s processes for remediation of tough problems like this—and make sure you are safeguarding your own career and interests as you do so.

As I said, this is a tough situation; however, I think these ideas will increase the probability of success for the individual and for the organization.

Best wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

When Cultures Clash

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

Our city has been struggling with a diversity initiative, and we’ve been going through the Crucial Conversations training to help address issues that keep our employees from working together because of cultural misunderstandings.

It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to the terms “silence” and “violence” used in the training. It seems to be a matter of interpretation. For example, several people from different ethnic backgrounds say that being expressive and emotional is part of their cultural communication style–and yet people from other cultural backgrounds see this strong way of advocating as “violence” in crucial conversations language.

How do you address these differences in the way people define “silence” and “violence” when conversations are happening between people of different cultures?

Culture Clash

A Dear Culture Clash,

You raise a very important question—and one we’ve thought a great deal about since we’ve worked with these skills literally everywhere from Israeli software companies and Kenyan slums to Malaysian factories and Wall Street investment banks. Here is our considered response.

Your twin responsibilities in a crucial conversation are: 1) to maintain safety; and 2) to engage in and encourage the free flow of meaning. All of the skills in Crucial Conversations are designed to accomplish these two tasks. Maintaining safety is hard enough when two people come from the same culture. It becomes even more complex when people come from a different culture. The reason is that people from different cultures tell themselves different “stories” about the behavior of others. Using active hand gestures while I speak might be seen as passion in one culture and coercion in another.

For example, I once worked with an Israeli software company who was acting as a vendor to an American telecom company. There were frequent crucial conversations breakdowns as a consequence of the widely different communication patterns used by the Israelis and the Americans. The Israelis were comfortable with relatively louder volume and more vigorous body language. The Midwestern Americans were intimidated and offended by this behavior. The story they told themselves about the behavior was that it was disrespectful and coercive.

How do you solve this problem? First, by holding the right conversation. Don’t just talk about “content” (key issues you need to address). If you are aware that there could be cultural differences, you should pause occasionally and talk about those differences. Talk about your differing patterns of behavior. Ask people how you are coming across. Encourage them to give you feedback about behaviors that might make it difficult for them to engage with you around crucial topics. Ask them what various patterns of behavior on their part mean to them.

Second, when you are digging into crucial conversations about content, watch for signs that the conversation is not working. Watch for marked changes in others’ behavior or facial expressions. If, for example, they are usually expressive but become silent, you can bet that safety might be at risk. They may be interpreting your behavior as violent when you intend it as something much different. Or, if they become louder than usual, again this is a sign that safety could be at risk and you should step out of the conversation and talk about the conversation. Again, ask for feedback about how you’re coming across—either now or later when it might be safer.

Working across cultures requires the same two sets of regular conversations that working to build any sort of strong relationship requires. The first is healthy crucial conversations about key issues (content or relationship). The second is regular crucial conversations about how to correctly interpret your differing behaviors (pattern).

The reason for the first kind of conversation is obvious. But the need for the second is less so. Many people fail to help their colleagues or loved ones correctly interpret the intent and meaning behind their own behaviors. They leave them open to be interpreted in the worst way possible—often with disastrous consequences.

If you want to work well across cultures, don’t just talk issues, talk behaviors—what they mean and don’t mean–and what works for the both of you.

Thanks for raising an important issue. And best wishes in the vital work you’re doing to bring greater unity and productivity into our wonderfully diverse world,


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