Crucial Conversations QA

How to Save a Sinking Ship

Dear David,

I am one of several department chairs at a proprietary college. Since I have been here, we have had four people rotate in and out of the dean’s position; the most recent having been marched from the building yesterday. We have had every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy. When considering applicants for this position, the department chairs are not given the opportunity for input, in spite of the havoc the poor leadership and constant change wreaks in our working environment. Some of the department chairs feel that we should approach the college president in a united group about having a more active role in the hiring process of the next applicant, but others are afraid to speak up, or don’t feel that we would be heard even if we did. In addition, the company is in overall disarray due to poor corporate leadership, compliance issues, and significant budget problems—which translated into a campus wide turnover rate of 45% in the last year alone. In addition to myself, I suspect most of my peers are actively looking for other jobs, but until we are able to make good on our escapes, do we continue to suffer or should we try and find a way to approach our college president who is at this point feeling insecure and frustrated himself?

Signed,
Desperate

Dear Desperate,

Yowza! It sounds as if you’re earning your doctorate in disaster at Catastrophe College. I can only imagine the stress and pain this cycle has created in your life. You have my full sympathy.

Over the years, I’ve worked with several colleges and educators facing similar challenges. I think many of our crucial conversations skills can help to frame your choices.

Start with heart.
Healthy dialogue starts with your own motives. We all have multiple motives. Three you mention are: have an active role in the hiring process, reduce the havoc and poor leadership, and make good on your escape. Start With Heart means stepping back and taking a long-term and inclusive look at your priorities. Ask, “What do I really want for myself, for the college president, and for our school?” Your answer to these questions will become the North Star you navigate towards.

Weigh the risks and rewards. Speaking up will be risky. That’s clear. But not speaking up is risky too. In fact, you’ve tried not speaking up, and it has resulted in “every leadership style from overbearing micromanagement to completely oblivious apathy.” Hmmm.

A common mistake is to focus exclusively on the short-term personal risks of speaking up, while ignoring the long-term, community-wide risks of not speaking up. Paradoxically, the times when we are least likely to speak up are also the times when speaking up will make the biggest difference. I can’t tell you whether you should risk speaking up. You will need to balance the risks for yourself.

Practice empathy. If you decide to speak up, begin by looking at the world from your college president’s perspective. Practice your empathy skills. He’s probably feeling embattled. My guess is he has many bosses who are second-guessing his decisions. His job and the college’s survival are on the line. If the college fails, he may have to find a whole new career. If I were him, the last thing I’d want would be one more group that thinks it can make demands of me.

Ask permission. Don’t approach your college president with demands. You aren’t his manager, you don’t know what his board is asking of him, and you don’t have access to the information he has. Instead, begin with a statement that demonstrates Respect and Mutual Purpose. When I’m in this situation, I often begin with Mutual Purpose, and then show Respect by asking for permission to share my ideas. For example, “I want you to know you have my full support. I know you’re working extremely hard to get our college back on track, and I’d like to help. Would it be okay if I asked a few questions and shared some ideas?”

Begin with his priorities. It’s tempting to begin by sharing all the problems the turmoil has caused for you and other faculty members. But you, the faculty, and even the students are just one of the many priorities on his long list. For example, what if his board has asked him to cut costs by laying off the salaried faculty, and replacing them with contractors and adjunct faculty? If that’s the case, then sharing the faculty’s problems won’t be relevant.

Of course, the college president may not be able to share his priorities with you, because of confidentiality concerns. But it will be hard for you to be helpful, unless he can be frank about the challenges he faces.

Make a specific request. If I understand you correctly, your specific request is to have a subset of the faculty be involved in selecting the next dean. Explain the positive consequences that will stem from this involvement. Suggest how this process will help the college and help the college president. Don’t focus on how this will help you and the faculty. Take a broader, college-wide perspective.

Have a backup plan. It sounds as if you are already looking for another job. That’s good. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in this current basket. Be prepared for the college president to say he doesn’t want or need your help, and has no plans to involve you or other faculty. If that is his response, retreat gracefully, and put your backup plan into effect. Don’t burn your bridges, but plan to move on.

Again, my heart goes out to you. The proprietary college industry is in turmoil. I’m so sorry you’ve been caught up in this maelstrom.

Best of luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Along With Your Mother-in-Law

Dear Emily,

My husband and I recently moved to a new city and my in-laws decided to move near us. I often feel intimidated and inadequate around my mother-in-law. I called her one day to try and resolve a conflict concerning one of my children and I walked into a land mine. She unleashed several months of frustrations with me about my personality and how I raise my children. She questioned the success of my business and also told me my husband was in a terrible marriage. I was completely dumbfounded and responded to her in anger. My husband and father-in-law defended me and both told her she was way out of line. The two of us have not talked about what happened and my husband wants me to move on since he stood up for me. While I appreciate him standing up for me, her words are ringing in my head and I have had very little resolution. I feel even more inadequate knowing how she truly feels about me. How do I move on and be in her presence knowing she dislikes me so much?

Sincerely,
Blindsided

Dear Blindsided,

I hear the heartbreak in your question. I hear it. I believe the human spirit has an innate and deep desire for connection. For many people, our family connections are the most central. And when those connections are tenuous, hurtful, absent, or destructive, our heartbreak can be profound. So, I say, I hear you.

Your way through this relationship will be your own. I do not presuppose to be able to light that way for you. I can, as a friend, share some insights that have provided light for my path.

It is easy to presume that your story is a story of two women—you and your mother-in-law. In some ways, that is true. And, for just a time, let us step back and see what would happen to our thinking if we decided that this story, this experience, was yours alone. If we decided that this story was about you alone, and not about her, what questions might we ask? Here are some that come to mind for me:

Why does what your mother-in-law think of you matter? Why do you crave her approval? I ask that question without judgment. It is okay that her opinion matters. We are social animals. Connection to others matters. Therefore, the opinion of others matters. But what if you shifted your thinking and understood that her approval of you is hers to give, not yours to earn? Whether she gives it or not is about her, not you. How would that thinking shift your relationship with her?

Is her validation of you important enough to change yourself in order to receive it? Because changing yourself may be the only path to receiving her validation. And you may decide to change as you determine how important her validation is for you. Normally, we look at it the other way. We want other people to change. We want our mother-in-laws to recognize us for who we are and accept and love us for that. While this is a natural desire, it is also out of our control. But changing yourself, should you choose to do so, is within your control.

The question you ask (how can I be me and have her like me?) is not necessarily one of your choices. Your choice is to separate the questions: How can I be me, the me I want to be? And, what will it take in my actions for my mother-in-law to like me? If those two answers were aligned, you wouldn’t have written to us. Because they are not aligned, you need to decide which question is more important to you. If the former is more important, then go ahead and be you. If the later, then change in ways that will be pleasing to your mother-in-law. Neither choice is right or wrong—just make the choice that is right for you.

Are you holding her to a standard of perfection that is unfair? There is much more to your relationship with your mother-in-law than can be captured in a paragraph. I know that I have only the barest sketch in front of me. So, I will tread lightly. Based on what is here, I wonder . . . how much of what your mother-in-law said in that argument was a result of her own high emotions—her own frustrations and anger—rather than a permanent judgment of dislike toward you?

Because we know our own heart, it is often easy for us to see in ourselves the disconnect between what we really think and feel and what we may express in times of anger and frustration. And, we know that at times, our emotions take control, driving our actions in ways that are misaligned from our true intentions. It is much harder for us to recognize or accept that disconnect in others. After all, all we have to go on is what we have seen of them through their actions.

Do you know her heart as well as you know your own? You don’t because you can’t. It may be easy to say, “Yes, I know her heart. I have seen it through her actions and I know she dislikes me because that is what her words and actions communicate.” And that may be true. But, I would simply ask: Has there ever been a time when your words and actions (out of anger, despair, grief, or just sheer exhaustion) have been misaligned with your best self? If yes, then consider granting to others the reprieve we would give ourselves—realizing that one bad argument or even twelve negative interactions does not necessarily mean we are doomed to a state of permanent dislike.

Ten years ago, when I began training Crucial Conversations, I was surprised that the first fifty percent of the course was focused on me—on internal work I needed to do before I could open my mouth and start a conversation. In my naiveté, I often felt as a facilitator that I should “hurry through” that part of the course to get to what people had come to learn: how to talk to others. But in the last decade, I have learned that if anything, we are underselling the importance of working on ourselves first by only giving it the first fifty percent of the course.

Dig deep and know that this is your story. It is not about her. It is about you. Once you find your answers, you will be ready to begin a dialogue that has the potential to heal a relationship and has the certainty of healing you.

When you are ready to have that conversation, here are a few ideas about how to approach it:

First, apologize. Yep, that’s right. Based on the details you shared, I would consider apologizing to your mother-in-law for the things you said as you responded to her in anger. Now, the challenge with this apology is that it must be sincere and it absolutely can’t be given with the expectation of anything in return (i.e. don’t apologize as a way of hinting to her that she should apologize back to you). Your apology should be an acknowledgement, not a justification, of your behavior.

Next, express your intent in holding the conversation. What is it you really want? My hope is that your intent is to build a positive, peaceful relationship with your mother-in-law. If that is the case, say that. And mean it.

Then, check in with your mother-in-law to understand what her intent is. Does she share a similar purpose i.e., having a positive, peaceful relationship with you? If not, what type of relationship would she like to have with you?

Finally, in this first conversation back into the relationship, focus on listening, exploring, and understanding. You may even consider preparing for the conversation by generating a list of questions you can ask—judgment-free questions that focus on gaining insight into your mother-in-law. There will be time later to share your perspective, to let her know (if and when appropriate) how the conflict between you has impacted you. Instead, in this first conversation of healing, simply listen. Listening, more than any words you can say, will demonstrate your commitment to repairing your relationship.

I wish you the best of luck in this very important crucial conversation.

Emily

Kerrying On

The Wide World of Noonan Grocery

The other day, as I drove my fourteen-year-old grandson, Nate, to a local theater-in-the-round to watch a live performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, he stopped texting a friend for just long enough to learn that not only had I seen the play before, but I had also read the book and watched the movie.

“Why not just watch the movie?” Nate asked.

“Each format has certain advantages,” I explained.

“I’m not sure what that means,” Nate responded.

“Well, for instance, you just chose to text a friend rather than talk with me—even though I’m sitting right next to you.”

“But I had to take care of something before it got worse,” Nate explained.

“I’m not saying that you made the wrong communication choice, just that you made a choice and it came with advantages and disadvantages.”

“Is this due to the invention of the smart phone?” Nate asked.

“Partly,” I explained, “but having to choose between communication tools and venues has been a part of daily life for centuries. I learned this for the first time over fifty years ago when I was just about your age.”

“How’s that?” Nate asked.

And so, I spent the remainder of our car ride recounting to Nate about the time when I learned who my grandfather really was.

It all started at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in 1962 when I sat (as I had done more than 200 times before) in the room behind my grandfather’s grocery store and watched TV. Grandpa Noonan had just returned from shopping at the wholesale house and playing poker with his cronies. I had just completed an eight-hour shift where I waited on customers at Grandpa’s store while he was away.

Normally, as my Saturday job came to an end and I waited a half hour for the city bus to roll up, I watched the Wide World of Sports. I loved that program as much as anything on television. While Grandpa puttered around the store, I gave my undivided attention to Jim McKay as he hosted every sport imaginablefrom jai alai to wrist wrestling. Grandpa and I shared the same space, but we said little to each other—after all, a wrist wrestling competition was underway.

But not on this Saturday. As I turned to see what Wide World was airing, a news alert announced a shooting in Seattle. I asked Grandpa if he’d ever witnessed a similar crime. Born in 1880, my mother’s father was a contemporary of some of the Wild West characters I had seen in the movies; maybe he had been privy to a gunfight.

“As a matter of fact,” Grandpa answered, “I once saw a man gunned down in cold blood. I was riding in a boxcar as I made my way across the country to a job I had arranged for in Raymond, Washington. On this particular trip, I was traveling with Walter, an acquaintance I made when he boarded the train somewhere around Kansas City. A dodgy-looking character wearing jackboots joined us a couple days later, and that evening, a sad fellow clothed in rags climbed into the car. “Around midnight,” Gramps continued, “as I settled into a deep sleep, a loud shot rang through the boxcar. Walter and I awoke to find the man in jackboots standing over the dead body of the man in rags. He had shot the poor fellow in the chest and was beginning to rifle through his meager belongings. Fearing for our own lives, Walter and I tackled the shooter, wrestled away his gun, and constrained him until the train came to a stop early the next morning. Eventually, we waved down a railroad employee, and together we hauled the criminal to the local authorities while someone cared for the victim’s body.

“Now here’s where it gets interesting,” Grandpa continued (as if wrestling with a murderer had been boring). “We had been eye witnesses to a murder and the local law enforcement officials needed us to stick around for the trial. The crime happened in the middle of nowhere, and the whistle-stop where the train paused to take on cargo had no place to board us, so the sheriff put us up in the only free room in town—a jail cell. The cell worked out okay because we only used it for sleeping. The rest of the time, we shot pool and played cards at the nearby bar where we were served delicious meals cooked by the sheriff’s wife.”

Being eyewitnesses to a murder had turned gramps and Walter into persons of interest in a town where the arrival of the mail was a cause célèbre. As the trial unfolded, people from all around the county came to talk with the exotic out-of-towners.

Sometime, a few minutes into my Grandpa’s tragic tale, I turned off the television and listened intently as he vividly described a trial where, among other things, the accused (still in jackboots) tried to leap over a table and choke Grandpa to death for “squealing!”

That was the last time I turned on Jim McKay and his sports anthology. From that day on, while I waited for my Saturday-afternoon bus, I talked to Grandpa about the jobs he held before he met grandma and settled down. It turns out; he had worked as a professional gambler, a trapper, a butcher, and a dozen or so other occupations. This made Grandpa a veritable library of stories. As I look back, I cherish those Saturday-afternoon conversations and I don’t regret for a second having given up ABC’s premier sports program as the price of admission.

“Wow!” my grandson Nate responded as we pulled up to the theater and I brought Grandpa’s story to a close. “So you’re saying that talking to someone in person is better than watching a TV show or texting a message?”

“Actually, I’m not.” I responded.

Having recently been promoted from early baby boomer to old coot, I’m reluctant to say that old forms of communicating are inherently better than new ones.

“So what are you recommending?” Nate asked, a bit puzzled. “I’m saying that there is no single communication tool that’s perfectly suited for every form of interaction. We have to weigh the pros and cons of each tool and make good choices.”

And my response was not just lip service in order to stay in the good graces of my tech-loving grandson. Each year, the latest and greatest device will be introduced, and it, like all its predecessors in the form of devices, methods, and channels, will come with costs and benefits. So, spend time experimenting with a variety of tools and venues—both old and new. Be critical of the costs and welcoming of the benefits. Find ways to use these tools for good and see them as tools to make important personal and interpersonal connections.

And, should you, by chance, choose to talk face-to-face to an aging raconteur, you may discover (as I once did) that a TV broadcast of the Wide World of Sports isn’t always more interesting than a story told in the backroom of the Wide World of Noonan’s Grocery.

“But a TV broadcast could be more interesting than someone telling a story,” Nate added to my soap box.

“Not if Grandpa Noonan is doing the telling,” I responded.

“Or maybe you, Grandpa,” Nate added.

“Or maybe me.”

Crucial Conversations QA

Responding to Racism While On the Job

Dear David,

I work in a community hospital with culturally diverse patients and staff. Recently, a nurse told me about an upsetting experience. The nurse is African-American and was caring for a patient in a double room. He overheard a conversation between his patient’s roommate and a visitor. In a loud, strident voice, the visitor expressed his views about a situation concerning race that has been widely reported in the media. The visitor criticized the African-Americans involved and made several borderline and blatant racist comments. The nurse heard the comments and left the room without comment, but was angry. He later asked me, “What could I have said?” Several people thought that as a “professional” he acted correctly by not saying anything. I am troubled by the notion that silence is the professional approach to racism. What do you advise?

Sincerely,
Troubled
Dear Troubled,

Usually, I would say that silence is not the professional approach to racism. There is a reason we teach people to have crucial conversations—you can help put an end to evils like racism by sharing your opinion candidly and respectfully. And yet, given the setting and his role, I think your colleague handled himself in the most professional way possible.

I’ll begin with the problems that come from not speaking up. First, when you don’t speak up, you allow the bad behavior to continue. Others see your silence as acquiescence, permission, or even encouragement. We saw this when we studied parents who failed to talk to their children about alcohol and drugs. Their children assumed they had permission to drink and use.

Second, in Crucial Conversations we say, “If you don’t talk it out, you will act it out.” What we mean is that your concerns will be expressed in your behavior—often as bad behavior toward the offending person.

A few years ago, I collaborated on a research study with Dr. Joan Reede, the Dean for Diversity & Community Outreach at Harvard Medical School. We were interested in what happens when people experience an ethnic or sexist slight, but say nothing.

We identified seven categories of common slights, small offenses that most women and minority members experience at least monthly. We called these slights undiscussables because few of the women or minority members spoke up when they experienced them.

We discovered that these undiscussables destroy relationships. Even though the slight was never discussed, 96 percent of our subjects left the interaction believing the other person was a bigot. We called this study Silent Judgment to highlight this dynamic.

So, why do I think your colleague was right to keep his mouth shut despite the obvious injustice he was subjected to? Because he isn’t just a passer-by on the street. In this specific circumstance, as a nurse, he is operating in the patient-caregiver dynamic and that relationship is both unique and sacred.

First, the relationship is lopsidedly unequal. Patients feel powerless, both because they are ill and because they’ve ceded personal control to the hospital and its caregivers. As a caregiver, you awaken them in the middle of the night, you invade their personal space, and you cause them pain. Your patients are at your mercy and only hope to receive it. How bad is it? It’s so bad that most patients and family members won’t even remind a nurse to wash up, for fear of making a bad impression and exposing themselves to retaliation.

Second, because of their illnesses, patients aren’t at their best. I know that when I’m sick, I become grouchy, self-centered, and short-tempered. I hope others will give me a break!

Third, patients are involuntary visitors. They would rather be home, on a cruise ship, at a beach resort, in a ski lodge, or even back at work. They are only in the hospital because their health requires it. They may even feel like prisoners.

Fourth, patients don’t have the privacy they are used to. Instead, they share their rooms and caregivers walk in whenever they want. As a result, comments they intend and expect to be private, aren’t. And it’s not as if they can move to a private location for more sensitive conversations. They’re stuck in their beds.

For these many reasons, I think your colleague was right to stay silent when he overheard the hateful comments. By speaking up, he would likely violate the patient-caregiver boundaries—for both his patient and his patient’s roommate. And though silence may be perceived as tolerance for racism, he should place his patient above his own frustrations while on the job. Should he overhear those comments in a restaurant later that day, I would encourage him and everyone to speak up and put an end to bigotry—but unfortunately, that is not the case in the situation you describe.

And not speaking up also means he will have to deal with his frustration and anger. Remember, “If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” Acting it out would be unprofessional. It would be what patients fear most.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we’ve decided against speaking up and had to master our frustrations. The key in these situations is to step back, take a longer more inclusive view, and get your heart right.

We recommend asking yourself, “What do I really want long term for myself, for others, and for the relationship?” When your friend asks himself this question, it will help him put this incident into a broader perspective. And it will help him act on his values, rather than responding to others’ slights while serving his patients.

I hope this helps,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Connect with Someone You Resent

Dear Joseph,

How do I talk to my father after not communicating with him for four years? I feel resentful that he has not supported my two younger brothers. My mom has had to take the brunt of whatever issues they have faced: lack of motivation, dragging them through high school so they graduate, drug addiction, unemployment. They often end up on her doorstep. When one brother faced a life and death situation, I sent a plea to my father to help. He rebuffed the plea and told me I was being manipulative. I was so upset that I broke off all communication. Part of me wonders if it is even worth making the effort, because he hasn’t attempted to contact me. But I also want a relationship with my dad. How should I frame an attempt at initiating this conversation after so long?

Signed,
First Contact

Dear Contact,

You need to decide if you want a relationship with the father you have or the father you wish you had. Your torment over the past years has come from your determination for the latter rather than acceptance of the former.

Your dad is who he is. He has chosen—rightly or wrongly—to deal with his younger sons differently than you thought he should. He has been less supportive of your mother than you think he should. He sees your attempts to engage him as manipulative while you see them as moral. You believe he should make overtures to reconnect with you after you broke off contact—and he hasn’t. You want a relationship with your dad—but even more than that, you want your dad to be the way you want him to be.

He won’t.

And your insistence that he be this other person has actually made you manipulative.

Now, please don’t hear me wrong. I am not defending anything your father has done or not done. You may well be “right” about the wisdom or morality of some of his decisions. I lack information with which to make any confident judgment of my own. But I have robust insight into your connection with him from your own wonderfully honest portrayal.

So, you’ve got a decision to make. What do you really want? Do you want a relationship with the person he is today? If so, by all means reconnect. If not, then take responsibility for the sacrifice your choice demands. It means you are choosing to surrender your relationship with your father. It means you are placing higher value on distance from his weaknesses than connection to your father. That is a completely legitimate choice for you to make. I only urge you to make it decisively and accept responsibility for it.

If you choose to reconnect, you may want to begin with an apology. Examine your motives for cutting him off over the past four years. What was going on with you? What were you acting like you wanted? And if, in any way, you are less than satisfied with what you find, own up to it. Acknowledge how you’ve fallen short of the person you wanted to be in your relationship with him. This doesn’t mean you surrender any judgments you have about how he has handled things with your brothers or mother. It simply means you are willing to surrender the desire to control and reshape him into someone he doesn’t choose to be.

I wish you the best as you make this tender and profound decision. And if you choose a relationship, I wish you as precious a one with him as you and he are capable of having.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How To Leave A Job Gracefully

Dear Steve,

I’m an RN and recently took a staff position at a private pay, long-term care facility. Naturally, the expectations of the residents who can afford to live at this facility are very high and the administrator is committed to keeping them happy.

I became very concerned about the culture at this facility on my first day of orientation when it was explained that there were no chairs at the nurse’s station because of the “five-minute rule” regarding answering call lights. In an attempt to improve compliance with the rule, the chairs were removed and the staff must now complete charting and computer work standing up. As a professional who is expected to prioritize care and be accountable for my decision making process, I found this administrative move to be insulting and ridiculous. It has caused me to seriously reconsider my position with this company. Should I stay and hope things improve, or cut and run?

Sincerely,
Stay or Go?

Dear Stay or Go,

This can be a tough choice because “if you go, there could be trouble, and if you stay, it will be double” (a thank you to Mick Jones for his insight here). It’s good to realize that this new organization might not be a good cultural fit for you early on in your employment. Many people either don’t recognize the harmonic dissonance until much later or talk themselves into putting up with it—setting themselves up for a lot of potentially avoidable pain and suffering.

At the same time, there are many reasons people would choose to stay at such an organization, despite experiencing adverse circumstances: having a job in the first place, having a schedule conducive to pursuing other interests, working in a place of high reputation, or even gaining experience that allows you to further your career goals. Their net experience is overall positive so they decide to stay. And that’s ok, if they recognize that they are choosing both the positive AND negative aspects of the job.

However, by your description of the culture and your particular discomfort with how things are run, I do think that staying would set you up for the “double trouble” alluded to in the opening paragraph. I’d encourage you to consider leaving, and here’s how I’d recommend you approach this situation.

First, give the organization a chance. Now I realize this seems to counter the advice I just gave, but hang in there with me for a moment. I’d encourage you to set up a time where you can talk with your boss and confirm your assumptions about the culture and if it is the right fit for you, your skills, and your expectations. Use your very best STATE skills to address your concerns and the conclusions you’ve come to.

Start this coversation by sharing what attracted you to the organization. Do this before you outline the gaps in your expectations. As you transition the discussion to the gaps you’ve found, make sure to be specific in your observations—cite the removal of the chairs and any other facts you’ve noticed. Next, lay out your tentative conclusion to leave. Don’t apologize for it, or weaken your position here, but don’t overwhelm your manager either. Own your conclusion with phrases like, “It doesn’t feel like the right fit for me,” or, “The way I see it…,” or, “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the right fit for me.”

Many people shy away from this approach because they don’t want to come across as threatening: a kind of “change this or else I quit” type of demand. You can avoid this by ending with an inquiry. This is the point where you give the organization a chance. Put your meaning on the table and then invite your boss into the conversation with an ask like, “Before I made any decisions, I wanted to talk with you to get your take on the situation,” or “As you can see, this is really weighing on me, so I wanted to check in with you to get a sense of how you see things.” Your inquiry is an opportunity to test out your assumptions while at the same time determining the organization’s commitment to continue with the cultural patterns that have you worried. This is also the place where you can test whether or not there are other positions or places in the organization that would be a better fit. You may not have to leave the organization to find a better fit.

Now in this process, be careful not to allow yourself to be talked back into a position you don’t want. Your concern is not about unfair compensation or other concerns unrelated to the work environment. It’s about cultural fit. And, you shouldn’t settle for a resolution that is, in essence, being paid more to tolerate a bad fit. That won’t address your concern. For this to work, you need to be comfortable with the decision to leave the organization.

I think you’ll find that this approach gives the organization a chance to change if they feel that you are the exact type of employee they want. If they have no desire to shift, it at least gives them some data about how good employees perceive their culture. It also gives you the chance to exit the organization gracefully, if needed.

At the end of the day, if none of what I’ve recommended works for you, you can always try Paul’s way. “Just slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. You don’t need to be coy, Roy. Just get yourself free.”

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

Weathering Strained Holiday Relationships

The following article was first published December 1, 2015.

Dear Emily,

Every year I have the same argument with my mother and husband. Every year, my mother demands that we spend Christmas Day at her house while my husband, and father of our two children, wants to stay home. We usually go to her house. This year is no exception but we have an addition to our household. My husband’s mother has moved in with us and it will be her first Christmas with her grandchildren. Her health is failing and travel is extremely difficult for her. My mother, who lives two miles from me, knows this. After the usual badgering, I finally gathered the courage to say that we would not leave his mother alone at our house on Christmas Day. I offered to have the entire family come to our house instead, either to spend time with her on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day. My mother will not accept this and has decided to throw a temper tantrum. So, we are staying home.

My question is, how do I permanently stop this argument? It has made me hate Christmas.

Sincerely,
The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

Ah, the holidays. A season fraught with expectation, disappointment, and heartache. I vote we cancel Christmas this year! Who’s with me?

Okay, okay, I don’t actually want to cancel Christmas. I love Christmas. But reading your question did touch a place in my heart that harbors a bit of dread for the stressful holiday season and brings to mind the plaintive cry, “Why can’t we all just get along?” We all know how stressful the holiday season can be. However, your situation is not really about Christmas at all, is it? It is not even about a conversation. Your challenge is the health and well-being of a critical relationship.

The answer to the question you ask is straightforward. How do you permanently stop this argument? Stop talking to your mother. Ouch, right? But that would stop the argument. Don’t worry though, this column doesn’t end here. Instead, I am going to take a guess that your question is something more than how do I permanently stop this argument. I think your question may in fact be “How do I stop this argument in such a way that honors both my mother and me and also strengthens our relationship?” Are you starting to see how this isn’t about Christmas at all?

When you reframe the question, you start to get at the heart of what you really, really want. Yes, right now what you really, really want is for your mother to: 1) grow up and be an adult, 2) recognize that she is acting selfishly, 3) understand that you need to meet the needs of your mother-in-law and that this relationship is also important to you, and finally, 4) not make such a big deal about something that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Am I getting this right?

In Crucial Conversations, we teach people to prepare for a conversation by Starting with Heart. By getting really, really clear on what the intent is. We do this by asking ourselves, “What do I really want? For myself? For the other person? For the relationship?” The challenge with this question is most of the time our first answer is the wrong answer. We are quick to jump in with what we really want right now. It may be to win, to save face, to be right, to have our mother tell us we are right and of course we can have Christmas dinner at our house. But if you stop there, you will likely miss what it is you really want, because after all, this isn’t about Christmas.

Over the years, I have trained myself to ask the question four or five times before I settle into an answer. The internal dialogue might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, what do I really want here?”
Mini Me: “I want this argument to stop. I want to enjoy the holiday and I want my mom to recognize that it is not just about her. I am trying to balance a lot of demands.”
Me: “And why do you want that? Why is that important to you?”
Mini Me: “Because I need my mom to recognize that I have a family too and it can’t just be about her tradition and her view of what should happen.”
Me: “And why can’t it?”
Mini Me: “Because I am an adult and a mother too. I need my mom to see me as such so that we can have a meaningful relationship. I love her and I want to meet her needs. I also want her to recognize that I have grown up and that families change over time. I want to relate to her as an adult, not just as her child.”

Asking yourself, “What do I really want?” is a great start but it may not be enough. You may need to ask yourself several times to get clear on what you want and what the core issue is for you.

Related to starting with heart and asking what we really want, for ourselves, for the other person, and for the relationship, is the concept of Mutual Purpose. Again, in Crucial Conversations, we teach creating Mutual Purpose as a skill to increase the level of psychological safety within the dialogue so you can discuss any content. And, because all relationships at their heart are built by a series of conversations over time, sometimes Mutual Purpose becomes much more than a safety skill—it becomes the entire dialogue.

Creating Mutual Purpose starts by understanding what purpose we are bringing to the dialogue. In this case, we have already done that heavy lifting as we dug deep into our heart to find out what we really wanted. I really want a relationship with my mom that reflects my adulthood. I don’t want to stay stagnant in a parent-child dynamic I have outgrown.

Once we understand what purpose we are bringing, we need to understand the purpose the other person brings. What is it that my mother wants? Here again, the key will be to dig deep and not accept a surface-level answer. Human beings act in both predictable and unpredictable ways for one reason—we are trying to have our needs met. Those needs may be physical, financial, emotional, spiritual, or something else entirely. But ultimately, we are driven to act in order to meet a perceived need. So, another way of asking what your mother wants or what her purpose is, is to ask, “What need is my mother trying to meet by acting in this way? What need is met by hosting a traditional family Christmas dinner at her home?”

My guess is that you already have a pretty good idea of the answer. After all, you have known your mother all your life and have likely developed some insight about her. Think about your answer to that question of what needs your mother is trying to meet for herself by requiring everyone to show up for Christmas dinner. Got it in your head? Good. Now write it down. Done that? Good. Now tear it up and throw it away. Seriously. Don’t guess what your mother needs. Ask her. Ask her a couple of times in a couple of ways. Probe with curiosity, validation, and sensitivity. Really try to understand. So often we jump into a dialogue around purpose assuming we know (or have a pretty good guess) what the other person’s purpose is. We may be right. We may be wrong. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we will have done a disservice to him or her and to the dialogue by making the assumption.

If you want your mother to treat you as an adult, treat her like one by actively trying to understand what lies deep in her heart. What you find may surprise you. And, it will also give you the beginnings of a way forward. Once you understand her need, you can begin to see her actions within the context of that need. It doesn’t mean you will agree with those actions and it doesn’t mean that you will be eating Christmas dinner at her house or even that she will be eating it at your house. But what it does mean is that you can start to explore ideas and options to meet both of your needs.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays,
Emily