Crucial Conversations QA

To Speak or Not to Speak?

Kerry Patterson

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


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?


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

Kerry Patterson

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


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.

Crucial Accountability QA

Off the Hook

Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband and I have a communication problem…he doesn’t know how to use a phone. Really–he refuses to call me or answer my calls when his plans change. After work, he will indulge in a cocktail and become “involved in conversation” which leads him to “lose track of time.” This creates hostility between us–especially when I am depending on him to pick up our daughter or simply be home at a normal time. We have discussed this from both views–I ask how he would feel if he was depending on me to perform a specific task and I casually showed up some 4-12 hours late. (Yes, 12 hours–or more!)

The problem is that I feel I am taking second place or lower to what is most important to him. He answers calls from his friends/coworkers, but not from me. (I caught him talking on his cell IN THE SHOWER to them one day!!)

I am disturbed by his lack of respect and courtesy. He, of course, says he has a lot of respect for me, but I am not seeing any. Any suggestions??

Hung Up

Dear Hung Up,

As I receive questions like yours I am touched; the frustration and the desire to improve things are very clear. Based only on the facts you’ve provided, I offer the following advice that I hope you and others may find useful.

The first issue is finding the right conversation to hold. In your note, you clearly cover all three categories of possible conversations: Content, Pattern, and Relationship. “Content” is the immediate issue–failing to call, losing track of time, not picking up your daughter, or not coming home on time. “Pattern” is the recurrence of any of these a second or third time. “Relationship” deals with how this issue is affecting your trust and your feelings of being respected.

Any of these conversations is an option, but it seems that given the nature of the issues, “relationship” is the place to start . . . courtesy and respect.

Before you speak, you need to get your motives right by asking what you really want for your husband, for yourself, and for the relationship. When you really want to share and understand and help improve the relationship rather than badger, make him feel guilty, or vent, the conversation is more likely to be productive because your good intentions will be clear. You should also know what you’d like to see him commit to and what you’ll ask to make sure you get his perspective. Then you are ready to begin. Here’s how a script might go, with some annotation:

“I’d like to talk to you about how we are doing as a couple. Would that be okay?” (permission statement)

“I don’t want to either or us to argue or get defensive. I’d like to share what I see, and hear what you see, because I’d like our relationship to get better.” (A skill called “Contrasting”)

“During the last couple of weeks you have forgotten to pick up our daughter on two occasions, and you’ve come home several times after 6:30 when you said you’d be home shortly after 4:30. I’m beginning to feel that I can’t trust you to keep your word. It makes me feel like you don’t respect me. I don’t want to feel that way. Can we talk about this? How do you see it?” (“STATE”–another Crucial Conversations skill)

In this particular case, you should be ready to move to action by documenting who does what by when, and agreeing on how you’ll follow up. This may seem extreme in a marriage relationship, but increasing the odds of keeping commitments begins with clear expectations about specific behaviors both of you will work on. Clear expectations will ensure that both of you are working together to make progress.

Best wishes


Crucial Conversations QA

Silently Suffering

Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,
Work at the office has been piling up! Like a lot of companies in this economy, we are asked to take on more responsibility as a result of other people being laid off. I am now working over 60 hours a week, and I don’t have time for my family. How can I communicate my situation to reduce my workload and not risk losing my job too? I fear that I will be perceived as “not a team player” or a “weak performer.” How do I avoid the sucker’s choice?

Silently Suffering

A Dear Suffering,

I often ask groups “What are some significant issues that you are dealing with poorly or avoiding altogether?” The number one response to this question is a resounding “I have too much on my plate, and I don’t know how to bring it up without sounding like I am whining or I’m not a team player.”

This problem has two parts–too much work and no way to bring the subject up. However, years of experience have taught me that if you don’t talk it out, you act it out. Your stress levels rise along with your blood pressure, you develop a bad view of those around you (including the so-called villains at the top), your sense of corporate loyalty decreases, you lose focus at home on personal matters, you have less time for exercise and personal development, and you become increasingly reliant on comfort foods, complaining, and other stress-relieving activities to make sense of your life.

Help yourself get through the clever stories that you may be using to justify your own silence or violence by asking the following questions:

– “Am I pretending not to notice my role in this situation?” The role that most people don’t admit to is being passive or silent. Not speaking up is part of the problem. It is a huge problem. So whatever stories you’re telling yourself about why you can’t speak up need to be examined closely.

– “Why would reasonable, rational, decent human beings do this?” Clever, pervasive stories about all management not listening or only being in it for the dollar may have some truth as applied to some individuals. These stories are almost never accurate when applied to management in general. In fact, most managers want to hear what will help the organization in terms of quality, cost, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction.

– “What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?” What you want is a good thing–work/life balance. You care a lot about productivity, quality, being a team player, and so on. And you care about you personal well-being as well as your family. Prepare now, and then speak up.

Finally, prepare what you’ll do and say to “Make It Safe.” Get an appointment in a setting that is private. Create and practice a permission statement with contrasting, such as “I’d like to talk about an issue that deals with productivity and satisfaction. What I don’t want is this conversation to be seen only as my issue. I’d like to talk about ways that we can discuss resources, job stress, and work/life balance, by looking at it from a company perspective and the employee perspective. Would that be okay?”

Create and practice STATE-ing your path. Lead with the facts–with observations. “During the last three months, since the restructuring, I’m working 60 hours a week, and I’m feeling my work/life balance is stressed. I also feel like it’s hard to talk about without seeming like I’m not a team player. I’m wondering how you see this issue.”

Find a friend or colleague and really practice. The scripts I’ve suggested may be way off target for your challenges. After you’ve prepared, find a friend and practice. He or she can make suggestions for improvements. He or she can react in various ways and you can practice your responses. With a little practice, you’ll be more able and confident to step up to this crucial conversation.

And remember, when you do step up, if it gets too tense or emotional, keep the conditions safe by saying something such as “I didn’t want this to get emotional. I took a risk to bring up a tough topic. I was trying to find ways to deal with a problem that is bigger than me and it’s not going well. I’d like to stop here and think some more about it. Would that be okay?” You can always repeat your purpose and ask for a delay. “Delaying” isn’t “avoiding” if you think about, prepare some more, and make another attempt. Avoiding and withdrawing occur when you give up and let silence win.

So go get ‘em. And best wishes.


Crucial Conversations QA

Should I Fake It?

Joseph Grenny 

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

You talk a lot about “Making It Safe” by helping people know you respect them. What if you don’t? My manager is manipulative and deceitful, and I despise her. So, how do you respect people you don’t respect?

Should I Fake It?

A Dear Fake It,

Should you fake it? No. Dialogue is about “the free flow of meaning.” This includes your genuine feelings, perceptions, and experiences. No faking allowed. Fortunately, when this seems impossible, help is available.

Take a deep breath because what I’m about to say may cause you to hyperventilate.

SOMETIMES WE RESENT MOST THE THINGS WE RESEMBLE MOST. That’s right, sometimes we feel an extra dose of loathing for those who do things that we ourselves also do–but haven’t quite owned up to. You’ve probably felt this before when you’ve found yourself having an inexplicably strong negative emotional reaction to another person almost from the outset of meeting them.

Let’s say that this person is constantly drawing attention to herself. And where it would usually just make you smirk, for some reason in this person it drives you bonkers. You feel an extra helping of revulsion and impatience when this person does what she does.

Often, resentment is evidence that somehow you see yourself this same way–and just haven’t owned up to it.

How does all this apply to your boss? Put delicately, if your boss’s manipulative and deceitful behavior is causing you an overwhelming and insurmountable amount of disgust, it may be a sign that in some area of your life you are manipulative and deceitful and haven’t wanted to deal with it. When you deal with this, something interesting will happen. Your feelings toward your boss will soften. They won’t go away. You will still be bothered by her behavior. But you won’t be consumed with it because now you will see her as a person kind of like you. At this point, you’re only seeing her as different from yourself to protect yourself–so that you heap additional negative feelings on her to distract you from something you haven’t addressed in yourself.

Let me share a quick example of how this works. I learned this idea in part from a woman who was intensely disgusted with a male colleague who would stare at her in suggestive ways. After this had gone on for months, she finally decided to have the crucial conversation with him. Unfortunately, she was so incensed at him that she knew there was no way this conversation could go well. She spent some time examining her feelings toward him and found herself curious at why they were so intense.

So she asked herself an interesting question. “How am I just like him?” Almost immediately she was confronted with a very uncomfortable awakening. She had developed a persistent habit herself of checking people out. She was also fairly free with her close friends at commenting in bawdy terms on what she noticed in these scamming moments. When she owned up to her own practices, and realized in a pretty significant way she resembled her colleague, her feelings toward him softened. While she still wanted his behavior to stop, she felt more civil toward him, and, therefore, more capable of communicating a modicum of respect in the conversation.

If you can get past this, then consider whether you can approach your boss at least thinking about respect. We call this “potential respect.” Just let the person know that you don’t want things to feel the way they do now and that you really want to have a respectful and enjoyable relationship. That very desire can communicate a regard for the person that allows you to open up the conversation.

You might say to your boss, “Susan, I’m sure you’ve felt less than supported by me at times in the past. I think our relationship isn’t as comfortable and effective as either of us wants it to be. I really want to be one-hundred percent supportive of you and feel whole-hearted in how I work for you. And I don’t right now. I wonder if I could talk to you about some concerns I have. I believe if we could discuss and resolve this it could help me to give one-hundred percent the way I’d like to–and help me to feel better about you as well. Would that be okay?”

Do you see it? Any attempt to be both honest and respectful is sure to come out better than one that is neither. If you can come to see how you resemble your boss, you will resent her a little less. And if you resent her a little less, you may be able to communicate a desire to respect her in a way that makes her feel safe. From there, you can have a much better crucial conversation about what’s getting in the way.

Good luck!