Crucial Accountability QA

Helping Others See Their Role

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

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

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Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

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

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

Any suggestions as to how else this can be addressed?

Signed,

At Wit’s End

A Dear Wit’s End,

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

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

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

Now for some suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,

Al

Crucial Conversations QA

Chaotic Boss

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

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

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

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

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

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

Concerned about Chaos

A Dear Concerned,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,
Al

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Criticism

Dear Crucial Skills,

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

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

Thanks,
Ready to throw in the towel

Dear Ready,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerry

Crucial Conversations QA

The Ghost of Bosses Past

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

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

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,
What do you do when the people who report to you seem uncomfortable in your presence?

I do my best to create an open atmosphere and yet people seem guarded. There is a lot of fake smiling and handshaking going on. Worst of all, I’m suspicious that the people who work for me aren’t sharing their honest views. Sometimes I get the feeling that they’re telling me what they think I want to hear. And yet, I can’t figure out what I’ve done to create this unhealthy tension.

Sincerely,

Nonplused in Nantucket

A Dear Nonplused,

This is a hard one to deal with from a distance but let me give it a shot. When there is a power difference—and you’re the one in the seat of power—that alone could be causing the problem. Despite the fact that you may have been on your best behavior, there are some people who are never comfortable with a boss—any boss.

Like it or not, you may be living with the “Ghost of Bosses Past.” Employees are living with the frightening memories of previous leaders who behaved in less than professional ways, so your own direct reports can’t get comfortable with you—fearing that honesty or letting down their guard will only cause problems. No matter how you choose to act, others are nervously waiting for the “other shoe to drop.”

As a consultant, I see this problem all the time. I watch an interaction between boss and subordinate. The boss is easy-going, engaging, and involving, and yet people seem uncomfortable or tense. At first I conclude that the boss is putting on an act for my benefit, and the seemingly incongruous tension is the product of previous encounters. And this can be the case. But sometimes (more often than you might imagine) I learn that the leader is always highly professional and can’t seem to overcome the actions of leaders who came before him or her.

When you’re living with ghosts, the people who work with you are not only unnecessarily nervous, but they also tend to only tell you what they think you want to hear. They defer or “kiss up” to you and this can be both annoying and costly. How do you know what’s right when the experts who report to you only feed you what they think you want to hear?

When you face hard-to-understand tension and come to believe that others are not only uptight but also deferring to you out of excessive respect for authority or even fear of past behavior, you have to first go public with the issue. Express your concerns and ask people to relax, open up, and state their honest opinions and feelings. Explain that you’re finding it difficult to make effective decisions as long as others aren’t sharing their honest views. You want to empower the people who work with you to speak their minds, particularly when they differ in opinion. The best ideas are born out of honest dialogue, where people express their frank views and jointly come to the best conclusions.

Now, asking for honest dialogue when people are already fearful of bosses may not be enough. Your direct reports may snap to mental attention and respond with: Whatever you say Boss!” I’ve seen this happen too. Asking frightened people to open up is akin to shouting “Relax!” or “Be spontaneous!” The request itself kills what you’re requesting. When you (the boss) ask people to “open up” you just might confirm others’ suspicions that you’re in charge and that they need to worry in your presence.

What’s a person to do when a direct approach may not be sufficient? Add to your request for candor the following strategies. Encourage others to disagree with an idea you’ve presented. “Okay, I think I’ve spent enough time explaining why we might want to change vendors, now let’s examine the other side. Why might this be a bad idea?” In a similar vein, call on someone to disagree. “Chris, do me a favor and play devil’s advocate. What could be wrong with the conclusion I’ve just drawn?” Model the behavior yourself. “I tell you what. I think I’ve given enough data on why we should change policies, now let me give the opposite view a turn.” Each of these strategies helps people realize that you’re looking to uncover the truth. You want to hear everything. You value differing opinions. It’s not just okay to express your views, it’s necessary and helpful.

When people do begin to open up and speak candidly, particularly if what they have to say goes counter to current thought or may even be unpopular, thank them for their candor. Watch as people begin to take risks and then bend over backward to reward them for what they found so hard to do. Express your thanks. You don’t have to agree, but let others know that you appreciate their willingness to speak honestly.

Finally, see if there is something you’re doing that encourages people to defer to you. You may not realize that you yourself are encouraging deference in subtle ways. For instance, you ask for feedback, but quietly flinch when someone finally says something. If you’re sending mixed messages, people heed your nonverbals more than your actual words, and they don’t feel safe expressing their opinions.

To find out what role, if any, you’re playing, ask a friend who sees you in action to give you candid feedback. Are you part of the problem? You may learn that your only problem is “ghosts”—that you’re as good as you think. But then again, you may learn that despite your best intentions, you’re doing things that encourage fear.

One final hint: if the friend you ask to give you honest feedback starts to stammer or break into a sweat, take it from me, you’re a big part of the problem.

Good luck,

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Conversations QA

Practice Makes Perfect?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

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

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,
I am the first to admit that I do not well during crucial conversations– especially if the person I am having the conversation with gets angry. I immediately go silent. Then I hold my true feelings inside until I can’t stand it any longer and I let my own stories out, usually causing more problems and hurt feelings. I know I need to make it safe and talk about facts, but lack the courage to do so. I want to stop this behavior, so I need to know if there is any kind of exercise I can do to change my behavior. Waiting for the next crucial conversation is just not working.

Sincerely,

Wanting to Change

A Dear Wanting to Change,

Let me begin with an old academic framework. When people want to improve, they move along a continuum from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence. In plain English, this means people can go from being unskilled and not knowing it to being skilled and not having to think about it. You feel that you’re lacking some skills and know it. That recognition is progress–way to go! Now, how do you get to the point of putting the skills you’ve learned into action?

Given that long introduction, my advice is that you need more practice in a safe environment. You seem very motivated and very much aware. Motivation and awareness are the first steps, but they are not enough. What you need to work on now is your ability. Using the skills to prepare for or evaluate the crucial conversations you may face is a good place to start. Try writing a script for how you will start a crucial conversation before approaching it. Focus on the skills that will make it safe for you to share your views.

One point we’ve learned through years of training is that it’s very hard to improve your skill in significant and sustainable ways by yourself. You can grit your teeth, read, think, and plan and improve in many of your conversations. But to really get better, find a “coach”–a friend you trust to help you recognize how you’re doing with the skills. Over the years, I’ve made a distinction between “friend” and “accomplice.” A friend is someone who helps you; an accomplice is someone who helps you get in trouble. You need a friend: a buddy, a family member, a colleague at work, etc. Review your script with this person and have him or her point out places where safety still seems at risk or where you or others are likely to move to silence or violence. Discuss a previous conversation and have your coach help you explore what went wrong and see where you could have improved on these skills. Even practice role-playing a conversation with this person. Plan an approach that will help you step up to the conversation.

Another thing we’ve found helpful in learning transference is that often, people learn by teaching. Those who teach learn the content and the skills much better than those who don’t. Share a concept that you want to understand better with a family member, friend, or coworker. Teach someone about a principle or skill that you’d really like to improve in.

Finally, you have to keep the concepts on your radar screen if they are to become meaningful. Spend time on this each week—keep the concepts in your mind, notice opportunities to apply the skills, and take time to practice or rehearse.

When we have both the motivation and the ability, and then we see the opportunities, we are much more likely to face our crucial conversations and deal with them well. And the good news? Tens of thousands of people are doing this very thing everyday and improving their results and their relationships in the process.

Best wishes

Al

Crucial Conversations QA

To Speak or Not to Speak?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

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

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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,
Sometimes I look at the possibility of holding a crucial conversation and wonder if it’s really worth it. I know that the other person isn’t likely to change and that he or she may become upset with me–maybe even try to get even with me–so overall it looks too risky to speak up. So here’s my question: Do you believe that a crucial conversation is always the best idea, despite the potential risks, or are there some situations in which it is unwise?

Signed,

Perplexed in Peoria

A Dear Perplexed,

Let me start with a short answer, and then I’ll beef it up some: No, you shouldn’t always hold a crucial conversation.

There are people with whom your possibilities for a positive outcome are bleak. There are people who are nearly impossible to approach with anything even close to candid feedback. They become woefully defensive when you talk about their choice of socks. There are people who become defensive and vindictive, no matter how skillfully you talk to them. They’re eagerly waiting for you to step across some imaginary social line–and when you do, they’ll gleefully sting, dump, or fire you. There are people who are so emotionally off-kilter that they need to be wrapped in a blanket and shipped off to a team of full-time therapists–and even then I wouldn’t approach them until they’ve been certified “fit for public interaction.”

At the other end of the risk continuum, you face circumstances that are so bad that not speaking yields the worst possible results. Nothing the other person can do to you could make matters worse. Silence is killing you. So, you should speak up and hope the other person is able to hear your point of view, and that you’ll better understand him or her. Your relationship is already so bad it can’t get worse and you’re willing to risk a parting of the ways. You can’t afford not to speak.

Unfortunately, most of the interpersonal problems you face fall somewhere in between “never approach” and “never avoid.” Your crystal ball isn’t all that clear. You think the other person might respond poorly. But then again, maybe not. The problem isn’t exactly killing you, but it sure would be nice if you could make it disappear. You weigh the possible costs and the benefits and come up with a question mark.

So what’s a person to do? Here are some factors to consider when peering into the unknown.

As you think of the possible results of speaking your mind, are you inflating the likelihood of negative outcomes? Are you conjuring up the worst possible result imaginable and then treating it as a certainty even though it may be only a slight possibility? Try to objectively consider what really will happen. Talk with someone who isn’t so close to the problem and see if he or she shares your same bleak view. Don’t let fear taint your logic.

Are you imagining a scenario where you speak up–but when you do you aren’t exactly on your best behavior? You’ve been holding your grievance inside for awhile and have a history of waiting until you’re upset, so when you do speak your mind, you aren’t exactly skilled and respectful. The truth is you don’t have to be on your worst behavior. You don’t have to hold your opinions and feelings until they ferment into a deadly brew. Try to imagine the scene unfolding as you do your best to bring your crucial conversations skills into play. If you weren’t snippy or self-righteous or arrogant–or whatever you traditionally do wrong when you’re upset–how might the interaction unfold?
What would happen if you actually practiced and improved your crucial conversations skills? Sometimes others become prickly or upset, not because they are inordinately defensive, but because your personal style of influence is imperfect. True, others may not be all that easy to approach, but you have to ask yourself, what if someone truly skilled stepped up to the conversation? If skills might make a difference, practice using them.

Finally, you can always take a strategic delay. Start into the conversation with the most tentative of terms “I’m not sure I’m seeing this right and would like to hear your view on the matter.” Then share your observations. If the other person starts to go ballistic, back off. You haven’t planted a flag. You haven’t cut off your path of retreat. Speak oh-so tentatively and live to talk another day.

And remember, most of us live with the certainty of our existing bad results rather than face the uncertainty of speaking our mind. With the right skills, this can all change.

Good luck,

Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: A Lesson From the Maya

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

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

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Kerrying On

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Today’s thought comes by way of my neighbor Dr. Alan Christensen, a professor of Maya history and language. At one point in his life he had been a dentist, but he tired of the “grind” and went back to school to study his first love—the Maya. It is this part of his life that I find most fascinating.

For those of you who don’t have the benefit of living close to someone who knows more about the Maya than you and I know about our hometowns, let me share a fact or two. The Maya are the indigenous people still living in Mesoamerica. Over six million of them make their homes in a region that runs from the Yucatan peninsula down through Central America. Around four thousand years ago the Maya developed astronomy, a calendrical system, and hieroglyphic writing. In fact, they developed one of only five phonetic writing systems known to the world. During their golden age, the Maya were more advanced than almost all of the civilizations of their time.

The story that caught my attention goes back a few years to when Dr. Christensen was helping create a Maya dictionary. One evening as he closed up his work in the mountains of Guatemala, he realized that he needed to descend to his base camp before it grew too dark. This was a dangerous area known for, among other things, packs of wild dogs that could bring your life to a gruesome end. As Dr. Christensen hurried along an animal trail down the mountain side he stumbled upon a small Maya village. It consisted of a few huts surrounding a central courtyard. In front of one of the huts stood a bench. This would be the home of the village chief. Seated on the bench were most of the men from the village, engaged in casual conversation.

Alan, of course, was anxious to talk with the gentlemen about how to get to his camp before something bad happened to him. He slowly approached the bench and, in his best Mayan, introduced himself. The village elders, in turn, introduced themselves. With the Maya, introductions to outsiders are designed to inform people of each others’ background. Alan introduced himself, where he was from, and what he was doing. He then spoke of his father and mother and where they were from what they did—back through the generations, as far as he could remember. Each of the village elders did the same. This introduction took more than an hour as the sun continued to set and the dangers increased.

When I asked Alan why he didn’t just blurt out his question so he could quickly move on, he explained that it was inconceivable to do so. You couldn’t talk without following the introduction ritual. To the Maya it was beyond the pale to converse with someone without knowing his or her heritage. I had experienced the shorter version of this ritual while living in Brazil. You would never talk to a Brazilian without first greeting him or her and then asking about the family—”y a família?” To leave out the family would be inconsiderate and uncouth. The Maya took it a step further. You had to earn the right to talk to new acquaintances by first familiarizing each other with your entire family history. How could you possible consider discussing anything until you knew something about one another?

Now for the business connection. In addition to the skills taught in our book Crucial Conversations, my partners and I are polishing some new material that deals with the special subset of conversations where others have failed to live up to a promise. More specifically, this new material addresses the questions, “What do you say to someone who has let you down? And how do you say it in a way that solves the problem without hurting the relationship?” Let me suggest that many problem-solving discussions, no matter how well done, go poorly because the existing relationship between the parties is shallow and tortured. It’s hard to talk about performance gaps when you have no relationship with the other person save for the occasional problem-solving discussion.

For instance, a person walks up to you and asks: “Do you have a second?” and the hair stands up on the back of your neck because you know that this is going to be about something you didn’t do or didn’t do right. You don’t ever hear from this person unless something has gone wrong. The Maya won’t even exchange simple pleasantries until they share histories. We, on the other hand, sometimes step up to near strangers and take them to task. Talk about your cultural differences.

Let’s take our cue from the Maya—as well as the best leaders we’ve studied over the years. Get to know people—certainly the people who report to you. This sounds almost trivial but it needs to be said. Developing a genuine relationship makes a huge difference in your ability to talk to others about problems. In fact, three separate studies conducted by my colleagues at VitalSmarts revealed that the single best predictor of satisfaction with supervision is frequency of interaction. If you don’t interact very often and you’re the boss, people don’t like it. With time and distance, others come to mistrust you. On the other hand, meet and talk often, and satisfaction improves.

Unfortunately, it’s getting increasingly difficult to interact. Most of us are pressed for time. Many of us work in “virtual” teams. We rely heavily on electronic connections such as voicemail and e-mail. We’re either out of our office or plugged into something electronic or staring at a computer. Genuine human interaction is becoming much harder to come by. In some companies, casual conversation is growing extinct.

So, go out of your way to create face-to-face interactions. And when you do interact, feel free to let down your business persona and connect at a personal level. Get to know others as people before you know them as employees. This may sound counterintuitive, but the very first leadership study I ever conducted revealed something rather astonishing. When those who were viewed by senior managers as the company’s top performers were kind enough to show me around their work area, they introduced me to their direct reports. They bragged about them. They shared interesting tidbits about their hobbies, work expertise, and children. “Kelvin’s son is at the Naval Academy.” They had obviously talked about a whole host of topics and developed a personal relationship. Poor performers, in contrast, walked around their work areas and routinely showed me the machines and products. They’d often walk right past their people as if they weren’t even there.

Now, back to problem solving. If you don’t interact with others very often, and if you don’t talk casually and personably when you do, you typically don’t have enough of a bank account to draw upon when talking about problems. When you do confront others, they’ll only hear your position; they’ll never see you, the person. Every interaction will be strained and tainted with suspicion and resistance.

As far as your family is concerned, if you don’t take a break from your busy schedules and take your teenage daughter to lunch or a ball game or movie—with no purpose other than hanging out together—your ability to have a broader influence by holding crucial conversations becomes severely limited. In fact, when it comes to friends and loved ones (probably coworkers as well), I’m willing to postulate that each relationship has a tipping point. I’m not sure where it is, but I’m relatively certain about what it is.

Here’s what I have in mind. When the problem-solving discussions you have with your teenagers or other loved ones reach a certain percentage of your total interactions (say over half), your relationship changes. You move from father or mother or friend to gatekeeper or guard. All conversations are now suspect, no matter your intentions. You start to talk about something pleasant—but the other person is waiting for the other shoe to drop. The chemistry changes. Your relationship changes. You’ve passed the tipping point.

I have a friend who traveled almost every week of his career. He’d come home on Friday evenings tired and upset. He had worked hard and long and wanted a certain kind of home to be awaiting him. He wanted the home he had grown up viewing on TV in the 50s where mom and kids awaited his arrival in perfect order and peaceful bliss. But when he came home the house was never clean enough for him. The kids were never well behaved enough. He shared his concerns with me. He didn’t know where to turn. He didn’t like being so unhappy.

Later I learned from my wife that his wife and kids had completely discounted him. All week long they marched to the beat of their own drummer—one that was much less demanding and far more joyful. And then on Friday afternoons they would prepare for the assault of the curmudgeon. They would run around and straighten things while they bad-mouthed the ogre who was soon to cross the threshold. No longer was he a part of the “team.” No longer did he wield much influence. He had been reduced to a shallow caricature and he didn’t even know it.

Was this terrible reaction the result of his standards which were too high or unrealistic? Maybe. My bet is that it was due to something else. He had passed the tipping point. He didn’t have enough casual time where he laughed and played and even acted silly. He didn’t have enough hanging-out time. And he was certainly far too stingy with his praise. By becoming the self-appointed person in charge of holding the weak accountable, he had traded a relationship for a stewardship. He passed the tipping point and tried to run a police state where he was the keeper of all that was good and sacred and everyone else was the enemy.

I’ve seen the corporate version of this issue dozens of times. The most common example occurs every time a fairly highly placed leader from headquarters or the district offices makes a monthly or quarterly inspection of a plant or branch office. When senior managers use these visits solely to sniff out problems, offer unsolicited advice, and find and punish the guilty, it’s not long until they are resented, vilified, and discounted.

Local leaders typically deal with routine and painful visits in predictable ways. They pay little or no heed to the visiting dignitaries’ advice, bad-mouth their deplorable leadership style, assign them derisive nicknames, and otherwise show them enormous disrespect. You can’t routinely walk into a place, pile on the criticism, let the on-site folks know that you’re swifter, smarter, and better, and expect to have a relationship—or much of an effect, for that matter. When your visits turn genuine inquiry into inquisition, you haven’t merely passed the tipping point—you’ve reached the point of no return.

Granted, there are times when the person you’re dealing with is continually doing the wrong thing. You have to talk about a lot of unpleasant issues. It’s your responsibility. Nevertheless, you still have to worry about the tipping point. The more problems the person creates, the more you need to meet under different and healthier circumstances and the more you’ll have to choose your battles carefully. Otherwise, prepare to pay the price.

Now, I realize that the idea of a relationship tipping point is a bit extreme, but somehow it feels right. And I don’t want to lose my less audacious and more applicable point here—the one Dr. Christensen’s visit to a Maya village so aptly taught me. All discussions are made richer when they’re between two people who know something about each other beyond their titles. Problem-solving discussions are far more effective when you’ve taken time to create a social bank account. Maybe you don’t have to know the other person’s life history, but knowing more than his or her name and the problem that has brought you face-to-face can go a long way toward setting a healthy problem-solving climate.