Crucial Conversations QA

Control Freak Coworker

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

We have a secretary to a director who is a control freak. She comes across as very efficient to management, but she won’t allow the rest of us to do our jobs without meddling. This slows me and others down a lot.

Those of us who have attempted to confront her about this situation just end up on her “black list” and are then treated with contempt, making our working relationships even more miserable.

Some have considered going to her boss, but she is very careful to come across as the epitome of perfection to him. Because of that, I think many are wary of saying anything to their managers or the director for fear of payback. What is the best approach for us to take to resolve this situation?


Stumped and Miserable

A Dear Stumped,

The first thing that might be keeping you stuck is your “story.”

One of the best predictors of success in a crucial confrontation is not your skills, but your story. It’s a difficult thing to stand apart from the story we tell and look at it dispassionately. But those who have the most control over their emotions, their actions, and their lives are those who can poke at, laugh at, observe, and change their own stories.

The first skill we teach for “Master My Stories” is learning to separate fact from story. The “facts” in your situation may be that this woman asks for a lot of information, offers criticisms, or requests to be involved in things that you wouldn’t expect her to.

The “story” you’re telling yourself is that she’s doing this because of a character flaw–she’s a “control freak.” You also see her as duplicitous–pretending to be one thing to senior management while coming across to the rest of you as another. Furthermore, your story characterizes her as petty and vengeful–someone who puts you on her “black list” if you challenge her.

This is a classic villain story. The danger in telling these kinds of stories is that it justifies us in doing almost anything in return. If we feel weak, it justifies our inaction–“How could anyone confront someone so rotten?” If we feel strong, it justifies our retribution–“She deserves what we’re doing to her!”

Something else I notice about your story is the way it portrays you and others. You are in the “victim” role here. What’s happening is not your fault. Some of you have even tried to confront this person–and been punished for it. All you want is to do your jobs well, and you have to deal with this annoying person who drags down your efficiency.

Now, please let me apologize if I sound like I’m trying to justify her and pick on you. I’m not. My guess is that she does have some unhelpful habits. But your influence with her will forever be limited not by her defensiveness but by the stories you’re telling about her and you. So long as you see her as a villain, you will “act out” that view of her in ways that make her feel unsafe with you. So long as you see yourself as an innocent victim, you will continue to be blind to the role you’re playing in limiting your effectiveness with her.

Those who are best at crucial confrontations work hard to change their victim and villain stories. They assault these stories vigorously until they reshape them to show how a reasonable, rational, and decent person might do what this other person is doing.

For example, “Perhaps she believes her greatest value is to stay informed for her boss.” (Structural Motivation) “Perhaps no one has ever respectfully shared with her the consequences of her requests in a way that would help her see how she is hurting rather than helping her boss.” (Social Ability) “Perhaps she thinks her current methods are the only way to be effective.” (Personal Ability) Brainstorming different possible sources of influence will help you better understand why people do what they do. And the better you understand others’ behavior, the more effective you’ll be at influencing it.

The second thing that might be keeping you stuck flows from the first. If she has “blacklisted” people in the past, it’s possible she did so because she’s an arrogant control-freak who is abusing her position to avoid self-examination. It’s also possible that those who confronted her were ineffective at “making it safe” for her because they saw her as a villain.

If the latter may have some truth to it, then you may be able to succeed with her by making it safe. Help her to understand your respect for her and the positive motives behind your desire to talk. Then share the natural consequences of her current actions in a way that she will care about. Demonstrate enough commitment to her interests to explore ways to help her please her boss while avoiding behavior that hinders your efficiency.

If she feels safe enough with you, she’ll be willing to listen. And if you see her as a reasonable, rational, and decent person, you have some chance of making her feel safe with you.

Good luck! And thank you for your question. It helped me once again examine the stories I tell myself about people I am trying to influence well.


Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Gift

Kerry Patterson

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


Kerrying On

Listen to Kerrying On via iTunes

It’s Valentine’s Day, 1968 and my mother is holding a heart-shaped box. She abruptly opens the cardboard container to reveal a pathetic looking array of chocolates—one piece partially gnawed—the rest untouched.

“You see this present?” my mother scowls. “Your dad gave it to me today.”

I’m not sure where she’s going with this, so I flash her a noncommittal smile—hoping that she’ll soon reveal why she looks like she wants to kick something.

“I want you to learn from this debacle. You’re going to be marrying soon, right? So here’s the point. Never, ever, ever give your wife a tacky present like this!”

Dad is sitting on the couch not ten feet away, pretending to read a TV Guide while his wife of twenty-eight years continues to bad-mouth him.

“What’s wrong with the present?” I ask.

“You have to ask?” she continues.

“I always heard that it was the thought that was supposed to count”—hoping to help my Dad snatch a scrap of dignity from what appeared to be the beginning of a public tongue lashing.

“Exactly!” Mom continues. “Your father gave it no thought whatsoever. First, I’m trying to cut back on sweets, so candy is a bad idea. Second, as far as candy goes, this stuff is ghastly. The dog wouldn’t eat it. You see those teeth marks? The dog spit it out. Third, your dad got this junk for free. He ordered fifty cases of motor oil at work, and as a prize the supplier gave him this box of chocolates.”

“It was twenty-five cases,” dad corrects her, as if clarifying this point is going to bolster his cause.

Mom continues, “Valentine’s Day is time for people to express their affection to the love of their life. That calls for thought. You can’t ask your secretary to run out and buy a silk scarf or dash into a convenience store at the last minute and buy a car deodorant or, worst of all, offer your loved one something you were given as a free prize and expect her to think: ‘How thoughtful!’

“You can’t be thoughtful without actually thinking. That means you have to pull your head out of the Gunsmoke reruns that you guys are connected to like some form of electronic IV and actually think about your loved one. You must ask yourself, ‘What would she think is lovely and thoughtful?’ If you buy her some last-minute, tacky little thing, you’ll be giving her one more reminder of the unsettling fact that she’s married to a guy who only thinks about her when the lights go down in the bedroom.”

“Please don’t continue that train of thought!” I mumble to myself as I silently proffer a prayer to be struck deaf.

“Do you see what I got him?” she asks as she pulls out a small box. “Your Dad has been asking for something to hold his tie clasps and cufflinks. I made this for him.”

And sure enough, it looked like Mom actually had made the box she was caressing. I’m not exactly sure what you call the contraption, but it appeared as if she had knitted Dad a shiny metal box out of steel wool.

“For a month I thought about what to get for him. And then for another month I made this all by myself.”

Mom continues to rant while I wonder (1) when will she finish with this diatribe? (One that she’s obviously been storing up for quite some time), and (2) Do you actually have to think about another person in order to be viewed as thoughtful?

Mom eventually stopped her inflammatory object lesson and huffed her way into the kitchen where she promptly prepared a lovely tuna casserole pressed into the shape of a heart. And as you’ve probably already guessed, I missed the point of what she had to say. At the time I didn’t think I missed the point, but I did.

I realized that I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to Mom’s advice two years later when I bought my wife of seven months a birthday present. I thought about the gift a lot. I looked in stores and pored through catalogs and I saved every penny I could squirrel away. Finally I found the perfect gift. It was an eight-track, quadraphonic tape player complete with speakers. It was exactly what I wanted. I coveted it. I prayed for it. I had to have it. So I bought it for her.

“What’s this?” my wife asked as she unwrapped the gift.

“It’s a quadraphonic eight-track, complete with speakers,” I squealed with the same enthusiasm I would have offered had I purchased her something that she actually wanted.

“I know what it is,” she countered. “But you don’t really think it’s my birthday present do you? You wanted this, but because it’ll play music that we’ll both listen to, you’ve convinced yourself that it’s actually a present for me. The truth is it’s for you. And you figured I wouldn’t have the nerve to call you on your little trick. Well, you were wrong.”


At first I denied her accusation. Me—thoughtless and selfish? What was she thinking? Now that I have the advantage of thirty-five years of hindsight, I can admit that I had been a tad insensitive. I knew she didn’t care one iota about anything quadraphonic. I had turned into my father despite my mother’s vehement warning. The present wasn’t a free box of chocolates, but it was selfish and thoughtless nevertheless.

So, how long do you actually have to think about something to be judged as genuinely thoughtful? Here are ten signs that you may have thought too little, too late. (I’m writing this mostly to guys. Yes, it could be that it’s a woman who has been thoughtless, but I’m not ready to accept that alternate universe as of yet.)

Your Gift May Be Thoughtless, Selfish, and Last Minute If:

1. The “flourish” attached to the ribbon consists of an ice scraper and a Slim Jim.

2. The contents are made of “Genuine Swiss Cho-Ko-Late”

3. It comes with either a scope or a shoulder holster.

4. In some magical way, it’s supposed to make it easier to clean the bathroom.

5. It can only be purchased in a six pack.

6. It’s supposed to be worn and is just slightly larger than a tea coaster.

7. It’s a ticket to an event that is advertised as some kind of “o-rama”

8. It comes in two colors: khaki and camouflage.

9. It’s a poem (that’s good), but a limerick (that’s bad) starting with: “There once was a hot babe from Ohio. . .”

10. The label says: “This purchase helps fund Girl Scouts world wide.”

Just as Euclid informed King Ptolemy that there was “No royal road to geometry,” it would seem that there is also no royal road to offering a thoughtful gift. Nothing short of actually thinking about what the other person might want (cleverly communicating your love and devotion) will ever imply that you’ve been thoughtful. And, by the way, buying your way there never works. It may assuage your guilt, but spending a lot of money in and of itself will never say “how thoughtful.”

So, what’s a person to do? And does it really matter? With any one gift, it’s probably no big deal. Everyone should be entitled the occasional brain embolism where they buy their fiancé a Chia Pet or Clapper. But in the aggregate, what you purchase—particularly the thought behind it—communicates volumes. My business partners and I have written two books about how to communicate when the chips are down, and now I write about how to communicate (nonverbally and from a distance no less) when the chips aren’t down—when you’re supposed to be on your best behavior. The key, of course, is that you communicate your thoughtfulness by thinking about the gift a lot. As you’re thinking, here are some clues.

If you can buy something that has to be ordered several weeks in advance, that’s a good thing. If it’s special, one-of-a-kind, and reasonably priced, this too is good. Clever helps. Something fitted uniquely to one of your loved one’s finer character traits is always a home run. Romantic, but not begging for an intimate encounter, is always a plus. Handmade is good (unless it’s a hand-written coupon offering X number of hours of your “dyno-love”—making it both self-serving and last minute). In short, an ideal gift would say: “I thought about it for a long time, I searched high and low for something I knew you’d really like, I bought it, here its is, and it’s for you and you alone.”

And what did I get my wife this year you ask? One thing’s for sure—it didn’t come with the purchase of fifty cases of motor oil. I don’t have that kind of a job.

Crucial Accountability QA

The Silent Minority

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Crucial Skills,

How do you confront someone’s wrong behavior when nobody else has ever brought it up? To make matters worse, how to you bring it up when the person has been continually promoted in spite of this behavior? How could you convince someone to change when they’ve been rewarded for years in spite of what they’re doing?


All Alone

A Dear All Alone,

Yuck! It’s never fun to feel like you have to pay for generations of neglect by those who should have been better leaders. And yet, that’s life, isn’t it? Our research suggests that 10 percent of people in most companies are having the crucial confrontations for the other 90 percent. The good news is that by having them, you are also benefiting yourself!

Here are three thoughts to consider when dealing with someone no one else has confronted.

1. “Is It Just Me?”

Before stepping up to the crucial confrontation, be sure to use the “Choose If” skill. Ask yourself whether you are the only one who seems concerned about the person’s behavior. If you are, then perhaps you have unrealistic or idiosyncratic expectations. And you just need to change your expectations. If, on the other hand, others are clearly concerned–as expressed in gossip, unexplained transfers of the problem person, etc.–then you’ve got a real issue here. Perhaps you should confront it.

2. Master Your Story

This is a tricky one. Often you find yourself feeling incensed at this person’s horrific behavior and just wish you could unload all your frustration on him or her for this long-term inconsideration. If you feel this way, slow down a bit. You need to realize that this is not someone who is intentionally acting up and enjoying every minute of a free ride. Other people are as responsible for this person’s misbehavior or performance as the person is. They have enabled it for years and this person may honestly believe he or she is doing just fine. Change your story by acknowledging some of the social influences that have brought you to this situation–and you’ll feel a bit more respectful of the person you’re about to confront. For example, an African American manager we know of confronted a colleague about racist behavior very respectfully because she realized this was behavior other colleagues had allowed to go on for fifteen years. This made her more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until she gave him a chance to change.

3. Be Aware of the Story this Person May Tell about YOU

Most of us don’t want to believe we have a problem. We’ll do anything to make the bearer of bad news out to be the real problem rather than revise our view of ourselves. In the circumstances you’ve outlined, you’re especially vulnerable because you appear to disagree with everyone else in the company! When you share this negative feedback, avoid becoming the “villain” by doing two things:

a) Make it especially safe. Express respect and share your positive intentions thoroughly.

b) Don’t bear the burden of history. Start in the present. If you confront the whole historical set of problems and violations, you’ll almost inevitably end up the villain. And you’ll take more responsibility than you need to. Instead start in the present. Confront the “content” issue first–an immediate example of the behavior concerning you. See if you can come to agreement about the consequences of this behavior and its impropriety. If so, you’ve made progress. If future violations occur, you can move to the pattern and relationship confrontations later.

I admire you for raising the concern and wish you the best as you become the first true friend this person has had in years in your organization.

Warm regards,


Crucial Accountability QA

The Silent Spouse

Dear Crucial Skills,

Whenever my husband and I get into a conversation that he doesn’t want to continue, he will resort to saying something like, “You always have to have things your way,” and will refuse to continue the conversation. This always leaves issues unresolved and interferes with other areas of our life. How can I get around this?


Dear Unresolved,

When we teach Crucial Conversations Training and ask for the kinds of challenges people are facing, this issue comes up in several ways. Some talk about being married to a mime. Others comment that their spouse seems to have a completely different idea about the number of words needed to discuss a tough topic–particularly at home. Still others share that their spouse will talk about everything and anything except what really matters–then retreat into silence.

This issue is so common and so tough that we’ve addressed it at some length in both “crucial” books in the “Yeah, But . . .” chapters. In Crucial Conversations, it’s “Yeah, but my spouse is the person you talked about earlier. You know, I try to hold a meaningful discussion, I try to work through an important issue, and he or she simply withdraws. What can I do?” In Crucial Confrontations, there are two: “Yeah, but my spouse never wants to talk about anything. I experience a problem with him, and he tells me not to worry or not now or I’ve got it all wrong, or he just turns back to the TV set and says he’ll get back to me later. But he never does.” “Yeah, but I keep bringing up the same problems over and over, and my spouse and children continue in their old ways. It makes me feel like a nag, and I don’t want to be a nag.” There are more detailed answers in the books than I can provide here, but let me tackle a couple of points.

First and foremost, we need to start with heart. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself the questions that will help you get to mutual purpose. “What do I REALLY want for me? For the other person? For our relationship?” This question helps you fine-tune your motive and helps move your intentions from possibly self-centered and short-term to mutual and long-term. This also helps you make sure that when you share what you’re thinking you are starting from a safe place rather than leading with emotions and accusations.

Key, however, to solving this issue is getting to the right conversation. In Crucial Confrontations, we describe a process to help you choose between Content, Pattern, and Relationship discussions.

In relationships that are stressed, talking about content is not going to work. Content issues could include not cleaning the garage, not coming home on time, spending too much money, etc. What you’ve described in your question is clearly pattern and relationship. The problem is a pattern. It is recurring. It’s affecting your relationship in many ways. So I’d suggest you talk about talking. It might sound something like this: “Could we talk about how we communicate? I’d like to understand how we each view how we talk together and what we both want. Last time we talked you said that I was trying to get my way, and I don’t want to come across that way. I want to talk things out so we both agree if we can. Would that be okay?” If he agrees, he might ask, “Okay, where do we start?” You might then respond, “I’ve noticed that when an issue is important, we start talking and if we see things differently, you cut off the conversation just when I want to talk more. Can you help me understand what’s going on?”

Of course, there is no one set of scripts that work. The important part is that you have put the right issues on the table–pattern and relationship–and you are sincerely interested in understanding where your spouse is coming from. If you make it safe enough, you can also be candid in what you observe about your spouse’s behaviors and how those impact you. This is give and take. This is dialogue.

Crucial conversations are interactions about high-stakes, emotional issues that two people see differently. Remember that you can talk them out, or act them out. The challenge here is to talk about the right issue.

Best wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Are We Really Empowered?

Dear Crucial Skills,

In my organization, I keep hearing that senior management does not empower middle management and that middle management does not empower the front line workers.

How can Crucial Conversations help every level feel more empowered?


Seeking Power

Dear Seeking Power,

When the empowerment movement became popular in the mid 80s, the results were mixed. The intent was to allow individuals who were closest to information to take part in decision making.

The rationale was simple enough–just because you’re at the top of the organization doesn’t mean you have the information you need to make informed decisions and just because you’re at the bottom doesn’t mean you don’t have the information. In most organizations, this meant that many of the decisions that had formerly been made by mangers or supervisors would now be made by people somewhere down the chain.

The reason the empowerment movement experienced mixed results was because it was frequently misunderstood. Hourly employees were often erroneously informed that now they would take part in most, if not all, of the decisions. In their minds, they weren’t empowered unless they were granted permission to make all decisions, or at least play a big role in them. This, of course, was untrue and caused a lot of people to feel disappointed, even betrayed.

The solution to problems with empowerment often lies in clarifying expectations. The goal of empowerment is not to lower decision making, but to allow individuals who have access to the most complete and accurate information to use it to make informed choices–where choices are an option. It’s important to make this distinction because even if you have a great deal of information, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a choice.

For example, when it comes to deciding what to do at work, much of what we do comes in the form of a command. We have no choice. The marketplace sets the price, the customer sets the delivery date, the government sets the safety standard, etc. Even the president of a company receives much of his or her work in the form of a command. That’s just how things are.

Even when someone within your organization does get to make a choice, it doesn’t mean that you personally get to decide. The greater the number of people affected by a decision, the more difficult it would be to involve all of them in making the choice. For example, when deciding where to move a new office that houses 200 people, you aren’t going to bring all 200 into a room and talk until everyone agrees. All are affected, all have a huge stake, and yet involving everyone is simply too unwieldy. That’s why we have a representative government. We don’t make laws by consensus; we select a handful of people to make the choice for us. Within corporations, we make many decisions by consulting with people, and then allowing a much smaller group–often a committee–to actually make the choice.

Problems arise with the consulting process when we ask people for their input (consulting with them) but they think that they have the final say. They think the decision will be made by consensus. You’re in a consulting mode, and others think they’re actually deciding. Avoid this common mistake by (1) clarifying that you’re consulting with people and (2) identifying who will eventually make the final choice. This lets people know that they themselves won’t be making the final choice as well as who they need to talk to if they want to be heard.

The role of healthy dialogue in decision making should be clear. Talk openly about who is making key decisions and why. If you’re being given a mandate over which you have no control, clarify that the decision has been made and it’s your job to decide how to do it. If you do have a choice and you think many people need to be involved, then consult with them and let them know exactly what you’re doing.

Finally, when everyone needs to come to a shared decision (when you’re making a decision by consensus), clarify that you won’t move on until everyone is in agreement. This is where dialogue is most important. Everyone needs to have a say. You have to make it safe for those who disagree to speak openly, while the group is still talking about the issue. Encourage dissenting views. Play devil’s advocate. Call on people who haven’t said much to ensure that they get a chance to speak. Make it clear that there is no room for pretending to agree, waiting for the meeting to disburse, and then trying to undo the decision by talking to people one-on-one. Bring the group together and stick with the issue until everyone willingly supports the choice. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets their first choice, but that they will support whatever decision is made, as if it were their first choice.

Now, let’s move to a gray area. When members of one level of the organization complain that members from the level above them don’t empower them, it’s time to talk about who makes what choices and why. One group thinks they have adequate information and skill to make certain choices, but aren’t being giving the opportunity to choose. They feel unnecessarily constrained or micromanaged. This plays itself out in a variety of forms. For instance, they only have decision authority over a small dollar figure. They need signatures from two levels above them–from people who have less information and only slow things down on matters that feel routine. Those who are doing the constraining obviously feel the need to do so. They fear that if they don’t weigh in with their point of view, people will make poor choices.

So, how do you decide who’s right and who’s wrong?

Once again, it’s time for open dialogue. As a team, list the decisions you routinely make and who makes them–including approvals, budgets, policies, and signatures. Then decide as a group if the decision is being made by the right person or persons and by the right method. Take on the decisions that you think are being handled poorly. Where do you feel as if you are unduly constrained and why? Are there places where you feel the opposite–abandoned and given too much responsibility–given your skill set and access to information? Finally, make sure you discuss areas where you feel second guessed. You’re given authority but if things don’t go right, people are all over you. When does this happen and why?

As you can see, when it comes to empowerment, there’s plenty of room for holding crucial conversations. But before you say a word, make sure you’ve thought through the issues I’ve just described.

Good Luck!

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Conversations QA

Revisiting the Past

Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

My current job is being eliminated, and unless I find another position in the company, I could be facing a layoff after twenty-two years with the company. The job I would really like to have reports to a manager I used to work for and with whom I didn’t get along.

The manager and I never resolved our differences. I am intimidated by this person. I seem to say and do things that set him off–certainly without intention. I want this person to understand that I have a great deal of respect for his intellect, for his accomplishments, and for his leadership. But I do not want to come across as a brown-noser, and certainly, I would like for him to consider me as a serious contender for the vacant position in his group.

Any suggestions that you might have for me in terms of my approach with this manager would be greatly appreciated.


Very Anxious

A Dear Very Anxious,

I couldn’t think of a better example of a situation where a crucial conversation must be held. Congratulations on recognizing it. So often we fool ourselves into thinking we’re coping with avoiding a crucial conversation, while we act in ways that perpetuate and even deepen the problem. You are right on target in believing that a failure to address the relationship problem will affect the outcome.

In truth, this crucial conversation is somewhat easier than many others. The reason is that your goal is just to find out what you were doing wrong in the past relationship. It’s always helpful to examine your own role in relationship problems, but when your very motivation for a crucial conversation is–as you said–to find out what you say and do that “sets him off”–you’re in a great place. You’ve applied the “Master My Stories” principle marvelously.

Second comment before some advice: To paraphrase the objective you described, your goal is to be honest and not pathetic. You have two “contrasting” challenges: 1) You want to discredit the story you think he holds about your view of him and help him see how you truly see him (you respect his intellect and leadership); 2) you want to express interest in the job, but without seeming like you’re pretending the relationship was fine.

I set up these “contrasting” statements because they help you design the opening lines of the crucial conversation. Your goal in these first lines is to “Make It Safe.” You’ll do it by helping him understand what your intentions are and aren’t, and what your view of him is and isn’t. By ensuring mutual purpose and mutual respect in this way, you’ll help him feel safe, and you’ll safeguard his accurate perception of your intentions.

For example: “Thanks for making some time. I’d like to throw my hat in the ring for this job. And yet in doing so I worry about a couple of misperceptions. I worry, for example, that based on some of the tension in our past working relationship you might think I don’t support you. I want you to know I have a high regard for your intellect and leadership. I also worry that in saying this now, I will be seen as disingenuous.”

That’s the opener–you’ve clarified your intentions and your respect while avoiding misperception of either. Now, we’ll open the main topic:

“I want to acknowledge that things weren’t always smooth between us, and in some ways I’m confused about why. My goal in this conversation is to get feedback from you about what I was doing that didn’t work for you and see if there’s a way to make it work better in the future. If there isn’t, I would not want the job–or to saddle you with me! If there is, I would welcome the chance to work with you.”

Here you’ve clarified the topic, and also avoided his perception that you’re begging or masking by being clear that you won’t accept the position at any price–both for your benefit and his.

The spirit of your question is so mature that I truly believe you’ll be able to get through this conversation.

Best of luck in your crucial conversation, and in your career.


Crucial Conversations QA

Workplace Violence

Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

What do you recommend as a first step when an irate employee comes into a supervisor/manager’s office and begins to shout out a complaint and demand immediate action?


Under Attack

A Dear Under Attack:

When I was asked if I’d be willing to answer a new question that had come in, I remember thinking, “I hope it’s something like the following:”

– I have a colleague who splits infinitives. How can I deal with this?

– Last week I asked my son to study ten hours and he only studied nine. How can I hold him accountable?

– My computer is eight months old and I need a new one. How can I get my boss to support my work needs?

But no luck. I get to answer this tough one. A serious one indeed.

When we do our training sessions, we show videos where a colleague, boss, or family member flies off the handle. Some participants say, “That’s way over the top. That would never happen here.” And we can understand that. Other participants, however, raise their hands and with energy say, “Oh, I’ve seen much worse.” I bring this up to suggest that many people do face situations like the one represented in the question.

So here is a response as first steps:

1. First, make sure you are safe. This means physically safe. There are too many incidents of workplace attacks in the news. How do you ensure your safety? Immediately make sure that there are other people visible. Make sure your door is open. Step into the hall to be close or visible to other people. You can often sense in the situation how much your physical safety is risk, but not always. Don’t take any chances.

2. Instead of jumping in to resolve the concern and running the risk of escalating the situation, address the other person’s emotions directly: “I can see this is a serious matter to you. When you talk that loudly, it becomes uncomfortable for both of us. I’d appreciate it if you could lower your voice. I want to listen to you and understand what you want, but I want it to be safer for both of us. Can we take a two-minute break?” This gives you both a chance to calm down and prepare for a more productive conversation. It also gives you the opportunity to make sure the situation is safe–to open the door, get someone’s attention, etc.

3. Find out what is making the situation so “unsafe” for the other person that he or she is shouting. If you explore others’ reasons, you might be able to help understand the data that’s driving their story and fueling their emotions. Once you understand their stories and their data, you’ll know where to begin in resolving their concerns.

4. If these kinds of behaviors are a pattern for the other person, you can not only mention that (“This is the third time you’ve come in upset and shouting. Please calm down”), you can also get an agreement about what is acceptable behavior the next time he or she has an issue to bring up. Clarifying this expectation and coaching the person will help him or her understand what behavior is unacceptable and what he or she should do instead.

I think it’s fair to talk about and then move toward progressive discipline if this kind of behavior is not eliminated.

In summary, make sure you are safe, make sure the other person knows you want it to be safe for both of you, and then deal with the issues that the person is bringing to your attention. Finally, and importantly, deal with his or her behavior and what needs to improve.

Best wishes,

Al Switzler