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

Kerrying On

Sam’s Gift

Gifts come in all shapes, types, and sizes. Some arrive with the sounds and excitement of the holiday season and some do not. Some are beautifully packaged while others aren’t bundled at all because they’re completely intangible. Still others are not only intangible, but when they’re given away, the giver doesn’t even know he’s shared a gift. Imagine that—giving someone a present without knowing you’ve done so. Sounds odd, right? But you’ve done it yourself. Probably lots of times.

My first encounter with such a mysterious exchange took place in September of 1958 when I entered my seventh grade homeroom class for the first time and sat down next to Sam Baker. When our homeroom teacher called for the nomination of classroom officers, Sam raised his hand and eagerly nominated himself for the position of president. I was surprised. What kind of knucklehead nominates himself? Apparently Sam did, but to no benefit. He eventually lost to the immensely affable Caroline Stimpson.

A few minutes later, our teacher wrote his full name (Louie T. Lallas) on the chalkboard. Suspecting that it might be on the final, Dorothy Newman asked Mr. Lallas what the T stood for. Before the seasoned educator could bark his standard answer, “Tough!”, Sam shouted, “Tub-of-lard!”

The earth stood still. Insulting a teacher—and in front of the class—was unthinkable. Since he was mostly kidding (Mr. Lallas wasn’t the least bit tubish), Sam only had to suffer two days of detention. Nevertheless, he still had broken the granddaddy of all rules. He had disrespected an authority figure.

I immediately liked him.

Enough so that it was Sam who accompanied me a few weeks later when the two of us decided to take up tennis. We had become fast friends, and on this particular day, we were on our way to see if the tennis court located behind the Stimpson mansion was open to the public. Rumor had it that the venerable Dr. Stimpson generously allowed the unwashed masses to play on his private court as long as his family members weren’t using it. Sam and I were hoping the rumor was true and the court was open.

The two of us made a curious looking pair as we walked down Garden Street that day. Sam’s outfit included a snappy-looking racket and matching sweater and shorts. I wore frayed cut-off jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt while carrying a warped wooden racket that once belonged to my grandfather—a racket that had been strung—not with shiny nylon—but with gnarled catgut. Mom assured me that no cats had been harmed in the construction of grandpa’s racket because the strings were made of (get this) sheep intestines. Like that made me feel better. One look at me and you’d have guessed Sam had invited a vagrant to play tennis with him.

As luck would have it, the Stimpson court was free so the two of us merrily hacked away until I saw the back door of the Stimpson’s lavish manor slowly open. Had we been characters in a movie, the background music would have turned ominous. In one quick move, out stepped Caroline, our homeroom class president and the youngest daughter of the good doctor Stimpson. I feared she was about to order us off the grounds and instinctively turned to flee when Sam smiled confidently and told me to wait.

“Hey, guys!” Caroline warmly greeted us. “Would you like to come inside for some lemonade?” I couldn’t believe it. The castle doors were opening.

When we walked into the Stimpson home, it was like entering a lavish movie set. Caroline escorted us into a room that showcased a spectacular hand-carved Brazilian rosewood pool table. Several hundred gilt-tooled, 19th-century, literary masterpieces lined the walls. I was speechless.

Caroline broke the silence by asking a maid dressed in a French embroidered pinafore apron to serve us lemonade. It turns out the “maid” was actually Caroline’s older sister, but we didn’t know it at the time. In any case, I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit into a world of posh tennis ensembles while wearing tattered cut-off jeans and a Mad Magazine T-shirt that had the phrase printed across the front: What, Me Worry?

I had seen swanky estates similar to the Stimpson’s before, but had never imagined what they might look like inside. The Stimpson home was remarkable. It was a place suitable for the Vanderbilts and Kennedys; a place for keen political debate; a place, I figured, I’d never lay eyes on again.

“What did you think of that?” Sam asked as we returned to the court. “It’s probably the coolest house in town.”

“It wasn’t a house,” I replied. “We live in houses. Caroline lives in a mansion.”

“Well, get over it,” Sam added. “One day, I’m going to own a place just like it.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Two years from now, when it’s offered, I’ll be taking Latin while you’re taking woodshop. And you know why that is?”

“Because you’re more interested in dead Italians than I am,” I replied.

“No,” Sam continued. “I’ll be studying Latin to prepare myself to go to law school so I can get a job with a big law firm, work my way to the top, and one day buy a beautiful home for my family—maybe even the Stimpson’s place.”

“You can do that? I asked.

“Yup,” Sam answered, “And so can you.”

“Just by taking Latin?”

It had never occurred to me that if I combined well-established plans with the right education and hard work, I could improve my station in life. For my first six years of schooling, my buddies and I had blindly stuck to a foreordained path that would eventually lead to a horrible education (i.e., we thought studying was for nerds) followed by a life of living hand-to-mouth. It was a cherished neighborhood tradition.

Sam, from his view farther up the hill, saw what he wanted from life and was in hot pursuit of a law degree. Better still, his vision and self-assurance were infectious. His brash belief that he could achieve anything he worked to accomplish altered my view of what was attainable—even to a scruffy kid carrying borrowed sheep intestines.

Sam moved to Alaska at the end of that school year, but not before he caused a substantial shift in my worldview. He didn’t lecture me, ridicule my mistakes, mock my naiveté, or act the least bit superior. Instead, Sam gave me the greatest of all gifts—the gift of hope. If the fun-loving kid who nominated himself for class president and daringly called a teacher a “tub-of-lard” could apply himself and become somebody, I could become somebody. No doubt Sam is unaware of the gift he gave me that autumn day on Garden Street. It wasn’t a holiday offering, it wasn’t tangible, and it certainly wasn’t wrapped. Nevertheless, when a new world opened its doors to me, it was Sam’s gift of hope that gave me the courage to cross the threshold.

Gratias Sam. Multas Gratias.

Crucial Conversations QA

The Gift of Forgiveness

The following article was first published on December 13, 2011.

Dear Crucial Skills,

When my grandmother became very ill, my dad and his four siblings struggled to come to an agreement about what was best for their mother. My aunt (the oldest sibling) became very controlling and everyone had a difficult time staying in dialogue with her, including my dad who is exceptional at mastering his stories and building mutual respect and mutual purpose.

This conflict has now ruptured relationships such that after more than thirty years of tradition, we are cancelling my grandma’s family Christmas party. I would like to see my dad and his siblings forgive each other and focus on the needs of my grandmother, who is obviously affected the most. How can I help my family overcome past fights and come together for the holidays?

Signed,
Facilitating Forgiveness

Dear Facilitating Forgiveness,

I was thinking about your question last week while I took my morning run in the National Mall in Washington, DC. As I ran past the wonderful new Martin Luther King memorial, I screeched to a halt in front of a granite inscription that read, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I’ve ruminated ever since on the implications of that powerful concept for your situation. Here are some thoughts I hope will help:

1. Patience is the most genuine expression of love. The first thing to keep in mind is that you cannot force forgiveness. You can’t compel other people to soften their hearts, examine their own faults, or modify their judgments of others. You have to wait until they want to.

Allowing them to go through the process of challenging their own emotions is an authentic expression of your love for them. It reflects your willingness to patiently wait for the family unity you crave so they can go through the natural process of human growth. Attempting to force the process is more likely to create resistance than reform. Watch—but wait—for signs that others feel some of the loss you feel, then make gentle attempts to help them move forward.

2. Forgiveness is the natural result of a new story. We can’t feel differently toward others until we think differently about them—and ourselves. Forgiveness is difficult because we stay stuck in the story we’ve told ourselves about what happened. As long as we maintain a picture of others’ villainy and our own virtue, we feel morally justified in our anger or frustration. We take delight in the suffering we hope the other person is feeling from our withheld affection because we perversely imagine they deserve to suffer or that the suffering is a learning experience. “Perhaps,” we reason, “this mutual misery will help them see the error of their ways and become a better human being. I’m a wonderful person for helping them have this life-changing experience!”

Until we intentionally examine our own faults and others’ virtues, we feel no need to forgive. The instant we begin this painful but wonderful process, the icy feelings inside us begin to melt. If we continue that process to its natural end, feelings of forgiveness are inevitable. Changing your story is the key to changing your feelings. Don’t try to get others to forgive. Instead, help them to challenge their stories. Forgiveness will follow.

3. We’ll challenge what we think when we change what we want. Given that challenging our stories is a painful process, why would anyone do so? We do it when our motives change. That’s why the first principle of Crucial Conversations is Start with Heart. When your motives change, your behavior follows naturally. People who resist forgiving are sometimes stuck in self-justifying stories—stories that protect them from the pain of reexamining their view of themselves and others. Sadly, the primary motivator that drags our story into the light is the acute experience of the pain of a lost relationship.

Now, I know your question wasn’t about helping yourself forgive, but about facilitating that process in others. So how can we use the principles I outlined above to influence others to forgive? First, don’t rush them. That just distracts them from experiencing the pain that could motivate them to change. Second, acknowledge their pain. Affirm the parts of their story you agree with and the hurt they legitimately feel. Third, invite motivation. Let them know you miss the family gatherings and guess they do, too. Tell them you think there is a way back to the former intimacy if they are open to discussion. Then be patient again. Periodically reaffirm the invitation, but don’t badger. When they’re ready, they’ll let you know.

One of two things might happen if you are patient and supportive. First, your family members may just bury the past and reconnect without resolving anything. Perhaps this is an acceptable compromise if all are happy with it. Second, they may respond to your invitation to help. If they take the second route, this will be your big opportunity for a crucial conversation. I’d suggest you invite them to share their story, then request the chance to share a different view of things. Be clear up front that your intent is to help them see what happened differently so they can feel differently, and gain their consent for this process before you dive into it. If they seem resistant, withdraw and assure them you aren’t trying to force your view on them. If they are going to change their minds, they will have to invite your influence in doing so.

Our judgments or demands of others won’t drive out their stories—just like hate cannot drive out hate and darkness cannot drive out darkness—only love and light can do that. While I don’t think there is any special brilliance in these modest suggestions, I hope you discern the heart of them—patience, love, and an appeal to what they really want is the only path to helping people reappraise their stories and reconnect with loved ones.

Happy holidays and peace to you and yours,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?

Dear David,

I’m in my sixties, and it bothers me when I hear people in the office using what I consider to be foul language, most often the “F-word”. This happens when they are on the phone having personal conversations and sometimes in internal office meetings. This language seems ingrained in the younger employees, and I doubt they have any idea it can be offensive. I have mentioned this to Human Resources, but they have more pressing concerns. Have we moved to the point where the “F-bomb” is just an accepted part of speech, even in the business environment?

Signed,
Seeking Decorum

Dear Seeking,

What a wonderful question! You prompted me to dig into the science of swearing. Thanks, I think . . . Here is a bit of what I’ve learned:

First, norms differ depending on context and industry. Words that fit in the pool hall are unacceptable in church. Language that is okay on the construction site isn’t okay in the front office or with customers. Your colleagues who use profanity on the phone with their friends may not be mindful that they are still at work. Informal contexts including, perhaps, your internal office meetings also allow for more language leeway. And certainly our work environments have become more informal—in office design, decoration, clothing, hours, and language.

Second, speech evolves. Even the most offensive words tend to lose their power over time. Words that begin as verbal assaults that hurt, shock, and break taboos become less shocking with repetition. Profanity becomes street talk and enters the mainstream. Finally, profane words become commonplace—they lose their profanity. This evolution is seen in words such as bloody, blazes, and bull, which were considered vile in the 1800’s but are toothless today.

So where is the F-word on this progression? The Parents Television Council measured the frequency of different profane words used on TV shows. Their data showed a 2,409 percent increase in the F-word (bleeped, of course) over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. If they measured F-word frequency again this year, I bet they’d find it has increased another 2,000 percent or more. It’s a word we now hear routinely.

Third, swear words can and have been categorized. The main categories are related to: religion, parentage, body parts and bodily functions, sex, and defamation of groups. Over the last fifty years or so, the curses and obscenities related to the first four of these categories, including the F-word, have lost much of their power to shock and offend. But the final category, which includes racist, homophobic, and other group-based slanders have become increasingly taboo. I guess I’ll call this progress. At least we are reserving our greatest social sanctions for words that actually hurt and defame other people.

Fourth, using swear words and obscenities is a perk of power.
In our society, swearing is more acceptable for bosses than subordinates; for men than women; and for adults than children. Think of it this way: swearing is likely to offend people. Can you afford to offend the people who will hear you? High status people are more likely to answer, yes.

Okay, enough with the science. While it certainly helps to understand the state of swearing in our culture, it doesn’t mean you are simply a victim without any power to influence your own workplace. What can you do when you find people’s language offensive? Really, you have two choices. You can either tolerate it, or you can speak up.

Tolerating: If you decide to tolerate the language, you will have to put your resentment behind you. The risk is that you will feel like a victim, and your annoyance will show on your face and in your blood pressure. Instead, decide that the offensive word means nothing to you—that it’s no longer offensive. The word has already lost its meaning to your colleagues who are using it. They don’t intend to offend you when they use it, so don’t take offense.

Speaking Up: Even though the F-word is everywhere and has lost much of its power to shock, you are still well within your rights to ask your colleagues to avoid it. But you need to make your request in a way that doesn’t offend them. Remember, the word means nothing to them, so your request may sound prudish or condescending. Begin with a contrast statement that clarifies you are NOT accusing them of being insensitive, rude, or obnoxious. Then make your request. It might sound something like this:

“In meetings and when you’re on the phone, you often use the F-word, and I can’t help but hear it. I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I don’t think it fits in our work environment. Would you mind making the effort to avoid it at work?”

Please let me know what you decide to try and how it works for you.

Best,
David

Kerrying On

You’re Not A Good Enough Actor

In the early 1980s, I slowly transitioned from teaching MBA classes to designing corporate training programs. Surprisingly, with this change in focus, my design partners and I soon found ourselves in, of all places, Hollywood—not the glamorous version that produces dazzling movies, but the not-so-glamorous version that produces industrial videos.

Here’s what took us to Tinsel Town. Our typical training design project consisted of following around top-performing leaders and watching how they handled challenges such as missed deadlines. From these observations, we extracted behavioral tactics (best practices) that we could teach to other leaders. The down-side being that merely talking in a training session about these valuable tactics required trainers to be gifted at describing behaviors and trainees to be talented at turning abstractions into action. Instead, we opted to demonstrate the skills on video—which took us to Hollywood.

As you might suspect, this demand to produce and direct mini-movies of leaders in action called for a huge change in the lives of training designers. My colleagues and I knew a fair amount about social science theory and practice but little about video production. Okay, we knew nothing about video production.

With time and coaching, we eventually figured out how to develop video snippets that could be used in our training but, sadly, not ones that suited everybody. Our acting team appeared a bit too white-collar. To balance out the mix, we needed to find an actor who could embody someone who was used to getting his hands dirty at work (for clients who did just that). One evening, after watching the sitcom Alf on TV, it struck me that John LaMotta, the talented actor who played the role of Alf’s neighbor Trevor Ochmonek, would be perfect for the part of a heavy-duty production worker. I called him, sent him a script, and picked him up at the airport a few weeks later to join our acting troupe as we began work on a new video project.

The next morning, I directed the first rehearsal. When it came time for John to—in his own words—“make magic,” he stormed onto the set. The situation was simple. John portrayed a gruff-looking production worker whose co-worker had failed to deliver materials to him on time—causing him problems. John’s job was to resolve the issue. To keep the scene fresh, I gave John no direction except to deliver his lines in a way that felt comfortable to him. I wanted John to calmly describe the problem in a respectful and professional way, but would he interpret the scene in that manner? Time would tell.

With the shout of “Action!” John walked onto the set, hit his mark, and delivered his opening line: “You said you’d have product to me by noon, but it never arrived. What happened?” Note: the script we had written contained no inflammatory words, insults, threats, or attacks—just a simple description of the problem followed by a diagnostic question. John delivered the correct words—no problem there—but he said them with such force and disgust that the other actor nearly melted.

“Cut!” I shouted as I leaped into the set and explained to John that he sounded furious and needed to try the scene anew but without the acrimony. Once again, I didn’t tell John how to interpret the script because I had been taught that if you over-direct, or worse still, show actors the delivery you want, they tend to mimic your performance and you lose their unique interpretation.

This time, John walked onto the set with his arms folded, slowly circled the other actor, shook his head in utter disgust, and delivered his line in a deadly whisper. It was chilling. For the third take, John poked the fellow with his massive index finger. Thump, thump, thump. It hurt just watching. Next, John sneered at the other actor so malignantly that it caused a camera operator to flinch.

For another five takes, John found five new ways to accost his coworker while I patiently waited for him to deliver an opening line that would lead to a respectful discussion. Each time, John expressed the same neutral words we had written but with new punitive body twitches, facial tics, and voice fluctuations that turned what should have been a professional, problem-solving conversation into an attack.

Finally, I gave up. I broke the rule of offering minimum direction by telling John that the fellow who had let him down was his good friend and that John was curious as to why his coworker hadn’t delivered the goods on time.

“He’s my friend, and I’m curious?” John repeated. “Yup,” I answered.

Then John delivered the lines perfectly—clearly, correctly, and full of respect.

This experience affected every scene I’ve directed from that day forward. It has also influenced how my partners and I teach how to deal with disappointments, infractions, and bad behavior. No matter how talented an actor you believe you are, if you choose to talk to others about infractions while retaining negative thoughts about how they fowled-up, your harsh judgments invariably creep into your body and facial movements. You can try to be nice, but some part of you (seemingly of its own accord) tenses up and you look upset. First a strained smile, then a contortion of the muscles in your neck, then a tapping foot, then a vein madly pulsing in your forehead—all implying a threat—all reflecting your underlying negative judgment. If you were playing poker, you’d call these revealing reactions “tells”—slight body movements or facial expressions that give away your underlying emotion (in John’s case, disappointment and anger).

John taught us that if you desire to respectfully deal with people who have let you down or behaved badly, you can’t focus solely on managing the “tells” that so readily take over your body. It’s insufficient. As soon as you fix one tell, another one replaces it. So you have to work on your underlying thinking by replacing harsh judgments with genuine curiosity. If not, no matter how nice or “professionally” you think you’re behaving, or how under control you feel, your body is emitting signals that plainly reveal your underlying disappointment, disrespect, and disgust.

So, start problem-solving discussions with sincere respect for the individual who has taken a misstep. Take care to maintain a healthy curiosity regarding the circumstances. If you assume the best—not the worst—of others, the correct body language (from a relaxed jaw to a pleasant tone) will naturally follow. In short, don’t condemn others in your heart and then try to mask your harsh judgments one “tell” at a time. You’re not a good enough actor to pull it off. John certainly wasn’t—and the same is true for the rest of us.

Crucial Conversations QA

Feasting with Unruly Relatives

The following article was first published on November 17, 2010.

Dear Crucial Skills,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I have found myself caught in a sucker’s choice with my family. My wife and I have made it a tradition to travel to my parents’ home seven hours away for Thanksgiving. This year, my parents informed me that my sister will also stay there. My sister is a drug addict and has been in and out of jail for thirty years. Every time she gets out, she claims to clean up her life and my parents roll out the red carpet to help her. When she returns to her destructive patterns, they turn a blind eye.

For years, this has caused all kinds of problems between my parents and five siblings. I would love to keep my tradition of spending Thanksgiving with my parents, but I don’t feel comfortable staying in the same home with my sister. It’s a rural area so there are no hotels or other arrangements available.

I see only two options: either continue with the tradition and hate the experience (which could also be potentially dangerous), or forgo the tradition and hurt my relationship with my parents. I can’t find a win-win here. Please help.

Signed,
Stuck

Dear Stuck,

If you’ll give me some latitude, I’m going to wax philosophical and share my perspective on the purpose of life. My goal is not to persuade you that my view of life is right, but simply to share one perspective that gives context to my suggestions.

In my view, life is about achieving intimacy with those we’re inseparably connected to. Family is first and foremost in that category.

Now, how is that relevant to my dialogue with you? Because I walk in your shoes. I have dear ones who also struggle with addiction. Some of the most searing pain of my life has been watching them destroy months of progress—only to land once again in jail or on the street. Almost equally painful is watching those who care about them behave in ways that positively enable their self-destruction. It’s agonizing. And my natural reflexes toggle between an overwhelming urge to either take control of the situation or to distance myself from it.

And yet, neither impulse is consistent with my view of the purpose of my life, which is to develop the character to achieve intimacy with imperfect people. When I try to take control or distance myself from my struggling loved ones, I find that my life is the poorer and my character weakens.

When I find myself in your shoes, the question now becomes, how can I remain close in a way that exerts positive influence on those who are the most troubled?

Enough with the philosophy. So what about your situation?

First of all, you made a reference to danger. If by that you mean you might take children into a situation when your sister is using, I would decline and explain this concern to your parents. And when doing so, cleanse yourself of any intention of using this decision as a threat to get them to exclude your sister. Simply explain that you can appreciate their desire to include your sister—and hope it is a good experience for them and her—but that your children give you other considerations. You may even want to make a call on Thanksgiving Day and wish your parents and sister well so they don’t misinterpret the decision.

If you choose to participate in the Thanksgiving tradition, there are a couple of crucial conversations you’ll need to have:

1. Motives. You need to change your motives. This year may not be about peace and harmony in the home. It may be filled with uncertainty and awkwardness, but it might still be meaningful. In fact, it could be more meaningful than many others. Your goal will not be to fix your sister or to correct your parents. It will be to improve your relationships with all of them—to try to achieve greater intimacy. Doing so may increase your positive influence in the future in all their lives.

2. Boundaries. You can’t control your sister or your parents, but you can control yourself. Decide in advance what kinds of situations may play out. Then ask yourself, “If what I really want is to be a positive influence on my sister and my parents, how will I respond?” Don’t wait until the resentment of the moment hits to make this decision. Think it through in advance.

Then discuss these boundary conditions with your parents. Let them know you love them and want to be part of this holiday, and that you have your own view of how to deal with some of the potential challenges. You don’t ask that they agree with you, you just want to explain your intentions so they can understand your motives in case you behave in a way they find jarring.

For example, if your sister uses, you may choose to leave or you may call the police. Before you arrive, discuss these boundaries with your parents and see if you can come to terms on them. If you disagree in important ways, you may elect not to participate. If that is the case, do not announce that decision in a punishing way. Don’t use your decision as a way of provoking your parents to concede to you on these points. Honor their right to disagree. Affirm them. Express your love. Ask if it’s okay if you arrange another visit with them when things are simpler.

If after working through these two conversations you find yourself at the family gathering, be as good as your word. Take small steps to show love to your sister. Expose yourself to the discomfort of possible disappointment or rejection. You may well find, in some future situation, that your improved relationship with her puts you in a position of influence to help her take a steadier step toward sobriety. It may be one step forward and two steps back (it certainly has been with some of those I love).

While these situations are complex and difficult, I can tell you that this Thanksgiving, one of the blessings I will feel most intensely is the intimacy I now have with one who looked the most helpless for the longest time.

I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous. If I’ve misunderstood your situation or imposed my own views inappropriately, please forgive me and don’t let my imperfection drive distance between you and me.

Sincerely,
Joseph