Tag Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Speaking Up To The Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m trying to follow the chain of command in our organization when presenting ideas and suggestions, but the ideas seem to stop at my boss and never get to the people who would benefit from the suggestion or idea. My boss doesn’t like conflict or change, believes that getting along is more important than addressing issues that might cause conflict, and doesn’t see the value in sharing feedback unless it is to tell people they are doing a good job. How can I motivate my boss to take action on ideas presented to him to improve our organization?


Trying to Address Change

Dear Searching,

You are not alone in feeling stuck in this situation. Many would agree that influencing or motivating upward is a tough challenge. It’s tough to speak to leadership about behaviors that are negatively impacting the quality of work or the quality of work life. It’s tough to speak up about ineffective systems or stifling bureaucracy. It’s tough to tell your boss that you have more on your plate than you can do without feeling like a whiner. It’s tough to speak up when your boss overtly or subtly makes it clear that he or she does not appreciate you speaking up. And a key word here is boss—the person who can impact your ability to make your mortgage payment next month. So, it’s tough. I know that. I’d like to share some advice I’ve formulated over the years.

1. Frame the challenge in the best possible way. This is, of course, a variation on the crucial conversations principles: Master My Stories and Make It Safe. Start by asking yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person (yes, your boss) act this way?” Why is he not passing ideas on or not encouraging or inviting others to speak up? What would make it safe enough for him and yourself to have this conversation? Make sure that you clarify Mutual Purpose and are prepared to be very respectful when you bring up the issue. You want to make sure you come across as curious and helpful rather than frustrated and judgmental. Also, don’t speculate and focus on the possible negative outcomes. We often exaggerate possible negative consequences and underplay the positives. That strategy causes us to vote for staying silent—thus voting for the status quo.

2. Talk about the right issue. In tough situations, we are often tempted to bring up a simple, easy topic and not the real one. In your particular case, the easy issue is that you made a suggestion and it wasn’t passed on. The real issue is that your boss has a pattern of not passing on ideas and that means that you and your colleagues face the same problems at work week after week. The real issue may be that you see yourself and others becoming disengaged and thinking that nothing can be done to change the situation. As a part of your preparation, you’ll want to do a consequence search. What are the consequences of the boss’s behavior? Who is being impacted? Teammates, other departments, customers, you? How? When you find the consequences, you are prepared to talk about the tougher issue.

3. Make sure it’s safe, then talk. Not all times and situations will be equally safe for your boss. Of course, the first goal is to make it safe by mastering your clever stories and getting your motives and emotions right before you open your mouth. When you meet with your boss, if your face is saying that you’ve held court in your head and found him or her guilty before your mouth says anything, the boss will hear the first message. Also, you should consider other factors that create safety. You don’t want an audience. Privacy makes this conversation safer. You will also want to choose a good time. You will know if there are better times—some people are more receptive and have fewer work demands or stresses during certain times of the day or week. And when you talk, start with an observation and question, not a conclusion and emotion. It’s always hard to create scripts in a vacuum, but one that might be helpful is: “I’ve been excited about the new employee involvement program the company has initiated. I’ve noticed a pattern over the past three weeks. Each week, two or three suggestions were given to you and I hear that those have not been passed on to the committee. I’m wondering if we could talk about that. Would that be okay?” In your conversation, you want to honestly and empathically understand the reasons and jointly seek solutions.

4. Know what you’ll do if it doesn’t work. There are a variety of responses you can expect. 1) You and your boss talk about it and find a solution or not—but you are talking and that’s progress. 2) The boss agrees to a solution and then doesn’t change (which leads to another conversation about the pattern and the relationship). 3) The boss gets angry—maybe loudly, maybe quietly. On a bell curve this response is an anomaly and yet many people magnify the tail end to be the middle of the curve. They inflate the small percentage of this happening to a large number and thus choose silence and gossip rather than speaking up. If you play the real odds, you choose speaking up in a safe way. Whatever the reaction, it’s always wise to have some backup plans.

If it doesn’t go well with your boss (it’s not safe, he gets emotional, etc.) there are two possible backup plans you might consider:

a. Share your intentions and excuse yourself. Tell him that you brought up this topic to improve the results and teamwork in the company and that you didn’t intend to cause him any stress. Express thanks for his time and find a way to leave.

b. Suggest a team approach. If appropriate, you might propose that the improvement program can be done by members of the team. After the suggestions are vetted by the team, one team member could take them to the Employee Involvement Committee. This might fit your boss’s preference or style better.

For either of these plans, you need to assess what is happening in the moment and what might be the best next step. The point here is that you’ve anticipated some next steps, so when one option ends, you have a way forward. Preparation and sound anticipation improve confidence.

Speaking up to your boss can be tough. Yet I remind you that if you don’t speak up, you are voting for the status quo. Also, if you gossip or speak up in a frustrated, angry, or judgmental way, you’ve diminished the relationship. Either way, you have become part of the problem. On the other hand, if you can speak up in a safe, considered, and planned way, you are much more likely to solve the problem and build the relationship.

I wish you well,


Crucial Conversations QA

Aligning Different Parenting Styles

Dear Joseph,

My husband is constantly angry at our fifteen-year-old son. They are always in shouting matches and it drives me crazy. When I walk away from them, my husband says I am “burying my head in the sand.” My husband is very negative and set in his ways, and he expects our son to have the same ideas. My husband also verbalizes his disappointment in our son and tells him he is only concerned with himself. Granted, there are times this is true, but he’s a typical teenage boy. He’s sometimes mouthy, but he’s a good kid, works hard even though he may complain, and is never in trouble anywhere but at home.

I want to support my husband, but I feel he is often wrong, that he goes too far, and that some of his expectations are unreasonable. When I try to talk about it, he says that I am taking our son’s side and that the only way he can keep the peace is to just shut his mouth and not say anything. He’s not very open to conversation. Help!

End of My Rope

Dear End,

Aren’t marriages wonderful? And I mean that! Sustained, intimate relationships are usually both the greatest opportunity for personal growth and the greatest challenge of our lives. And they are the former because they are the latter.

You are exactly the gift your husband needs, and he may just be the perfect gift for you. Children need both affirmation and influence. It sounds like you’re world-class at affirmation and he has a bias for influence. Unfortunately, many relationships break down because we keep trying to make the other person be good at what we value without properly recognizing our need for what they bring to the party. Now, I’m not suggesting your husband’s approach to influence is the best. But it sounds as though what’s important to him is trying to help bring out the best in your son. And your approach to affirming him may, at times, come at the expense of helping him aspire to higher standards. But that should not take away from the fact that you see great worth and beauty in him. That’s wonderful!

So the question is how do you turn conflicting values into complementary ones? How can you and your husband create a relationship where your son gets the best you both have to offer—and where you both learn to offer it in a healthier way?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with safety. Help your husband know that you value what he is trying to do for your son. Express genuine appreciation for his desire to influence your son to strive. Point out specific ways you can see that your son has benefited from having him as a father. Then scrupulously avoid using the word, “but.” Don’t do it! Get it out of your brain.

After affirming your value for having a positive influence on your son, don’t go on to say, “But…you often do it about things that aren’t that important.” There are no “buts” when you’re affirming people and creating Mutual Purpose. There are only “ands.” The fact that you appreciate him wanting to challenge your son is not offset in any way by your desire to also affirm him. The two are complementary, not competing, values. So don’t make it seem like they are in conflict by using the b-word.

2. Motivate with natural consequences. If your husband is reluctant to engage in this conversation with you, think of things that are important to your husband that will help him want to engage. Then share these as you invite him into this complex discussion. Think, for example, about pain, concerns, worries, or problems he may have with you or with your son that are connected to the changes you’d like to discuss.

For example, you might say, “John, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can better work together with our son. I know you and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. I know you are also frustrated that he has drifted away from you. I also know you don’t like how I criticize you at times about how you handle things. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I want to find a way to help you have the relationship you want and to partner in a way that works for you as we solve problems with him. Could we set aside some time to discuss this?”

3. Work on you first. Realize that while you will have useful feedback for your husband, he will likely see weaknesses in you that you must be willing to hear. Be open and humble. If you get defensive in the conversation, avoid reacting in the moment. Say, “I’m sure there is merit in what you’re saying. I’m feeling defensive right now so I’m going to need time to think about it. Can I do that and then get back with you later to talk about what I will do with these suggestions?”

If you are to work together better, it is going to require both of you to change. You will need to be more willing to be part of raising tough issues with your son and holding him accountable. Your husband will need to be willing to learn to do it in a healthier way—and focus on big things while letting go of little things. If you both work on yourselves, you’ll be a potent parenting team for your son.

4. Organize for the long run. Have realistic expectations. If both you and your husband have habits that have been nurtured over a lifetime, they aren’t going to change after one conversation. I suggest you frame this conversation as a starting point, then agree on ways you can help each other stick with commitments you make about how to work together more productively. Be patient with one another as you try new approaches. Expect relapses. I suggest you read our book, Change Anything, as a couple, for ideas on how to create a plan that will help you both make steady progress in changing these habits.

I applaud your commitment to your son and wish you the best as you find ways to complement one another, grow together, and give your son the gifts both of you want so much to offer.



Crucial Conversations QA

Balancing Stakeholders

Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I believe it’s paramount to maintain a positive working relationship with all of our potential vendors, whether we use them or not. The goodwill of healthy person-to-person relationships often translates into discounts, freebies, and other considerations that benefit my company in the long run.

At issue is what happens when a campaign doesn’t work or if we have a disagreement with a vendor. My superior’s knee-jerk response is to insist that we never work with the company again. He appears to enjoy this tactic and even preempts me by canceling contracts. Given my beliefs and that our niche market has a limited selection of vendors, this feels premature and reactive to me. How can I help him understand that his approach is detrimental to our marketing program and is making my own job that much harder?


A Dear Peacemaker,

To answer this question, I need to hark back to the creation of our name: VitalSmarts. (By the way, I love to hark.) For many years, as we consulted with managers and teams, we used a tool we called the Death-to-Vitality Continuum. The essence of the tool is this: Every individual, team, or organization fits on a continuum between death and vitality and is moving one way or the other. A leader’s primary responsibility is to help move her- or himself, her team, or his organization measurably toward vitality. The skills and tactics that move them toward vitality are the “smarts.” Hence our name, VitalSmarts.

As part of this strategy, we defined what vital means. In every case, and particularly in your situation, being vital means having all stakeholders willing and able to maintain a positive relationship with you. This goal becomes a balancing act. Some of the actions we take to please one stakeholder can negatively affect another. For example, if you lower the price of your service, you may find that you don’t have the revenue to pay your employees well. On the other hand, if you give employees a raise, and then raise the price of your service, fewer customers may purchase it. In either case, your organization may become less vital.

Keeping all stakeholders balanced can be difficult. There are other strategies that can also cause imbalance. One of those is process improvement. In complicated processes, leaders sometimes try to streamline one part of the process to reduce steps and costs, unwittingly moving the work and the cost to another department or team. And the new frustration can stay buried for months. I repeat, keeping all stakeholders in balance is difficult and important. That’s why in the best organizations, leaders have balanced scorecards that help them frequently see what’s happening so they can analyze and adjust.

Before I get to your situation, let me highlight one other factor. Not all stakeholders are equally visible or regularly measured. For example, many teams and organizations have measures that can allow a lag in the information they use to inform decisions. Often, financial measures are conducted daily, customer satisfaction measures monthly, and employee satisfaction yearly. A lot of dissatisfaction can grow in that time span. It is also interesting to note that when it comes time to identify key stakeholders, too often, one or more are overlooked until there is a crisis. Among the stakeholders that are always identified are owners, customers, financial institutions, and employees. Vendors, suppliers, regulators, and resellers however, are often missed. When any of these become unable or unwilling to maintain a positive relationship with the organization, vitality can suffer.

So here is some advice on talking with your superior to ensure your organization remains balanced and vital:

1. Share how vendors are important stakeholders. Be specific about how having a positive relationship has helped you, your team, and the company. Tell detailed stories about how a specific vendor went the extra mile to help your company out of a jam because your relationship with that vendor was positive.

2. Share how a relationship that has been improved is often better than one that has never met with a difficulty. Research on customer satisfaction supports this. If a customer has a negative experience with a company and that company responds with an appropriate solution, the customer’s loyalty is higher than that of a customer who has never had a problem to begin with. I’m not suggesting that you create a problem to solve, but that you solve the ones that come. Share stories about how this has worked for you.

3. Put the right issue on the table with your boss. You have two issues. One difference you have with your boss is opposing opinions about stakeholders in general and vendors in specific. You need to dialogue about that difference of opinion. You also have a second issue: your superior’s actions with vendors and how they have put important relationships at risk and made your job harder. The second issue is harder to discuss, I imagine. But talking about the first issue, and not getting to the second will not solve your concerns. You need to find out why he does what he does. You need to really try to understand. You need to be equally determined to help him understand how his actions are affecting your job. You need to get to the point where both of you understand what actions you each need to take to allow trust to be present in your relationship.

Your challenge is typical of many differences that affect how people work or live together. People have differences about what is the highest priority, about what defines quality, about what order things should be done in, and so on. There are enough differences to go around. Often these differences are unseen and unstated until there is some friction. “Ah, there’s the rub.” To solve these differences, you need to make sure you create the conditions of Safety, Mutual Respect, and Mutual Purpose. Then candidly and courteously put the issue on the table. Even with our best efforts, we sometimes don’t find a mutual solution; but with our best efforts, odds are we will.

I wish you well,