Tag Archives: office

Crucial Conversations QA

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Coworker

Dear Crucial Skills,

Over the past six months, I have had several confrontations with a coworker. I admit the reasons for the confrontations are mostly my fault. However, instead of approaching me and handling these situations with me, my coworker constantly complains about me to our boss.

I am frustrated that my coworker cannot talk to me about these issues without getting management involved. I want to explain to my coworker that we can talk about our differences directly, but I am afraid I will say or do the wrong thing again and will be back in my boss’s office explaining my behavior. I considered not having this conversation with my coworker, but the situation is growing uncomfortable and makes it very difficult to work together. Can you please share some advice on how to have this conversation with my coworker?


Dear Frustrated,

Many of us can identify with your frustration—and kudos for acknowledging your role in the problem. As you consider your options, it is important to realize that the stakes are high because you and your coworker are interdependent and your boss is now involved. And the same could be said if other coworkers were involved. In either case, someone is put in a position of choosing sides or trying to ignore the situation, and working together becomes more and more difficult.

The difficult and awkward situation you’ve shared here should motivate all of us to have our crucial confrontations or conversations early and with safety. When we don’t hold the conversations or we hold them badly, our relationships and results suffer, just as you are now experiencing.

As I have pondered your situation, I’ve struggled with what to focus on. Your problem is complex, of some duration, and serious, so I’ve been concerned my advice will miss something or oversimplify. With that said, I want to talk about a few steps you might consider.

First, don’t ever consider NOT having the conversation. While this option is tempting, avoiding the problem will not help. Issues will continue to fester and the relationship will continue to sour. So, what steps can you take to ensure the conversation goes well? Here are a few suggestions:

Analyze: I suggest you reflect on the conversations you’ve had with your coworker. Write them down verbatim, to the extent you can remember. When you’ve finished, go back and ask yourself: “What did I do that worked? What did I do that didn’t work? What was I thinking when I said or did that? What intentions or motives were present at the moment when things went wrong?” Such an analysis leads to the next step.

Prepare: Ask yourself a few questions: “What can I do differently next time to make things better? How can I better start the conversation? How can I make it safe for my coworker? How can I deal with the thoughts or emotions I had that were not helpful? What can I say or do differently?” Record your answers, then rehearse the conversation a few times. During this analysis, pinpoint the conversation you need to have.

I’d be willing to bet the conversation you need to hold now is not the conversation you had in the past. It seems like you need to have a conversation about not talking to one another. Plan how you’ll invite your coworker to engage in dialogue with you. Plan the words. Plan where you’ll meet, and plan to keep it private. Also, plan your apology—apologize for what you’ve done in the past and share your intention that you’d like to work this out so you can have a good working relationship moving forward.

Practice: We often practice sales pitches or informational presentations, but we don’t practice some of the conversations that matter most in our lives. After you’ve analyzed what you’ve done in the past and what you will do better in the future, and after you’ve outlined a plan for accomplishing your goals, find a friend—preferably someone who is not on your team at work. This friend should serve as a practice “coach.” Make sure your coach understands the situation and then ask him or her to role play with you various scenarios of the conversation.

What if your coworker says it really isn’t a big deal—but you know better? Practice. What if he or she gets emotional? What if you get emotional? What will you say or do? Practice. When you have practiced holding the conversation well, you will have increased motivation and ability to actually have a conversation that is vital.

Lastly, as a part of your practice, consider your options for if the conversation doesn’t work out as planned. What will you do? Will you ask to have another conversation? Will you ask a third party to mediate your conversation? Will you ask the boss to help? I don’t know what the details are, so I don’t know what your strategy should or will be. But I do know that anticipating and planning for the options can help you make good choices in the heat of a crucial conversation.

So, of the many bits of advice I could have offered, I suggested that you analyze, prepare, and practice. When you do this, you can increase your competence and your confidence.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Showing Respect for Your Colleagues

David Maxfield is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, Influencer.

David Maxfield is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller, Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a physician and I have to admit that, although I am respectful toward my patients, I have great difficulty when I am dealing with fellow physicians and nurses who, in my opinion, don’t seem to know basic skills to care for our patients.

My frustration with their ignorance often manifests itself not necessarily in the words I choose, but more in the way I voice my opinions and in the tone of my voice. I am dealing with people’s lives and am frequently pushed to go too fast. Often I am sleep deprived or emotionally exhausted. These things make it even harder to be as respectful as I would like to be with colleagues.

I totally understand that my lack of respect just makes the situation worse, but I don’t know how to deal with ignorance in people who I think should know better and who often have egos that prevent them from listening very well. Please help.

Dr. M

A Dear Dr. M,

Thank you for writing such an open and revealing letter. It’s clear you’ve thought deeply about this concern, and your good intentions shine through. I see three elements to your situation:

1. Crucial Moments: In key situations, you are both emotionally exhausted as well as in the middle of a high-stakes medical issue.
2. Primed Stories:
You’ve become especially sensitive to certain problems: caregivers who “should know better” or “have egos that prevent them from listening.”
3. Visible Actions:
You show your frustration—not in your word choice, but in the way you voice your opinions and the tone of your voice.

I can imagine I might do the same. And yet, as you note, these lapses just make the situation worse.

You’re already motivated to maintain a respectful relationship and you already control your choice of words. However, you realize your frustrations are seeping through anyway and damaging relationships. What more can you do? Here are four tips you might try.

1. Identify the crucial moments. The more you can do to recognize when you’re in these moments, the more prepared you will be. Take a pen and paper and map out when, where, and with whom you are most likely to experience these crucial moments. Focus on the moments where you are most at risk of being disrespectful to others.

2. Apply the skill “master my stories.” It sounds as if, when you are emotionally exhausted, you are especially apt to use “villain stories“—to interpret others’ actions in a negative way. And when you judge others, the verdict shows on your face.

James Gross, the head of Stanford’s psychophysiology lab, is the leading researcher in a field called “emotional control.” According to Gross, we control our emotions in two very different ways. One way is to suppress them—we rage inside, but keep our faces calm. Gross explains that this approach results in immediate cardiovascular costs as well as a variety of long-term negative impacts. Living your life behind a mask is not good for you. In Crucial Conversations, we call this “going to silence.”

The second way we control our emotions is through reappraising the events that have made us angry and re-evaluating the situation. This second strategy is the “master my stories” approach we teach in Crucial Conversations. Gross says people who use this approach are more successful in controlling their emotions, as well as happier and healthier over the long term.

So, what do you do? Right now, while you’re calm and relaxed, ask yourself the following questions: “Do I really believe the people I get frustrated with ‘should know better’ and ‘have egos that prevent them from listening’? Or are my stories symptoms of the pressure-filled moments and emotional exhaustion?”

If the problems are real, address them using your crucial conversations skills. But don’t wait until the crucial moment, when you are exhausted. Instead, select a time when you can have high-quality dialogue.

If you decide your stories have more to do with the pressure of the situation and your exhaustion, ask yourself how you would like to handle these frustrating moments. Assume the caregivers around you are reasonable, rational, and decent and that they are trying to do the right thing. Then ask yourself, “What can I do to help them help my patient?”

3. Prepare before the situation. It’s always harder to use these skills in the heat of the moment. So establish a rule for yourself and decide now what you will do and say when you find yourself in that situation. For example, if I’m in one of my crucial moments and feel intensely frustrated, I will say, “I know we both want what’s best for the patient. Let’s each share our perspective.” Create a rule, pick the words that will work for you, and write them down.

Establishing these if/then rules in advance is very powerful, especially when the moments you need them involve a lot of stress and competing demands. They work in two ways. First, they highlight the crucial moments, making it more likely you’ll recognize these moments when you’re in them. Second, they help you move from “consciously competent” to “unconsciously competent.” Instead of having to think about and make decisions in the moment, you act on the decisions you’ve made in advance. (Peter Gollwitzer at NYU has published several interesting studies showing how these rules work).

4. Enlist support. Ask your colleagues to help you recognize when you’re starting to go over the edge. An anesthesiologist I respect told his team, “In general, please call me by my first name, Jim. But if you think I’m becoming intimidating or not listening, then call me Dr. Smith. That will be our signal.” I like this cue because it’s subtle and respectful. Making this request is also a powerful way of convincing people that you really want to do what’s right.

I hope these ideas help. Let me know how it goes.


Crucial Conversations QA

Rebuilding Trust After Layoffs

Dear Crucial Skills,

As a result of recent layoffs at our company, there is a lot of distrust between our management team and senior leadership. We’ve all been through Crucial Conversations Training. How can I use crucial conversations skills to rebuild trust and get the two groups talking again?

Two Groups Talking

Dear Two Groups,

Thank you for your timely question. For many, this scenario also occurs in the home as people struggle to build trust between a spouse or a child. When a crisis happens and choices are made that we may or may not agree with, it can be difficult to rebuild trust and get two groups or individuals to hold productive dialogue.

To answer your question, let me first review some important concepts and then provide a few suggestions.

Concept #1: In our thirty years of research and observation, one of the key findings we’ve uncovered is that all relationships, teams, families, and organizations have problems. The difference between the good and the best is not how many problems they have, but rather, how they resolve those problems.

Holding crucial conversations is about rapidly and respectfully resolving problems. And yet, as you’ve experienced, in tough times people often feel compelled to solve a problem rapidly, but at the expense of respect. Sometimes they do this because of urgencies, sometimes it’s just their style. Either way, this rapid and disrespectful approach causes others to disagree and lose trust. Layoffs certainly fit in that category as well as budget cuts, spending decisions, outbreaks of anger, and lack of involvement.

Concept #2: When held well, a crucial conversation can help you catch problems early, maximize input, make better decisions, and take more committed action.

When crucial conversations are avoided, distrust builds on both sides of an issue. As that distrust continues to rise, confidence or interest in quickly holding the very conversations that could help also decreases. So beware of avoiding the very crucial conversations your team may be facing for too long.

Suggestion #1: Meet with your team to talk through the issues ASAP.

As you’ve all been through Crucial Conversations Training, begin your dialogue with some key questions: “What do we really want: for us, for senior leadership, for our relationship?” “What should we do right now to get what we really want?”

I imagine that what some team members want is an apology or an assurance that their jobs are safe, or that they will not be kept in the dark and surprised if more changes arise. Also ask these key questions: “What are the key reasons for the feelings of mistrust?” “What do we really want going forward?”

Suggestion #2: As a team, identify the things you need to work on.

What do you and your team members need to do to build trust within your group? What do you need to do to build trust with the senior leadership team? Often agreeing and living a few specific behavioral commitments, or ground rules, will help the team see they can trust each other to make and keep commitments. Here are a couple of examples of commitments you can make:

1. We will keep confidential what is spoken in confidence.
We will speak well of all colleagues and coworkers regardless of level or department, and if we have an issue we will speak to the individual privately and respectfully.

After you have made these commitments, regularly ask each other how you are doing, what has gone well, and what you need to improve on. Too frequently, we have agreements about budget or work behaviors, but not about teaming behaviors. Several weeks of setting and living these ground rules can help build trust within the team.

Suggestion #3: Recognize your role in building trust and improving relationships.

Instead of asking, “What should senior leadership do?” ask “What can we do to improve our relationship with senior leadership?” Also remember to master your stories and ask “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act in the way they did?” Remember that when it matters most, we often do our worst. If your team will give senior leadership the benefit of the doubt and conclude that maybe the company’s financial standing is more complex than they realize, then you can, with mutual purpose, invite your boss or members of the senior leadership team to dialogue. Your purpose in this conversation is to reach a mutual understanding. The apology or the assurance that some employees are looking for may not be forthcoming, but if you engage in a process that is built on mutual purpose and is safe for all parties, you’ll make progress.

This advice is equally applicable to personal or family relationships. Crises, bad behaviors, or ineffective decisions can damage trust in these familial relationships. Often, an appropriate and sincere apology is enough begin dialogue.

When there is an opportunity for a crucial conversation, there are only three options: avoid it, face it and hold it badly, or face it and handle it well. The most common problem is avoidance. Silence and time cure so very few issues. If you can put issues on the table and work at resolving them rapidly and respectfully, then trust is likely to increase.

Best wishes,