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Crucial Conversations QA

The Ghost of Bosses Past

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

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

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Crucial Conversations

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

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

Sincerely,

Nonplused in Nantucket

A Dear Nonplused,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck,

Kerry Patterson

Crucial Conversations QA

Practice Makes Perfect?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Switzler

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

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Crucial Conversations

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

Sincerely,

Wanting to Change

A Dear Wanting to Change,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes

Al

Crucial Conversations QA

To Speak or Not to Speak?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

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

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Crucial Conversations

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

Signed,

Perplexed in Peoria

A Dear Perplexed,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck,

Kerry Patterson