Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Confronting the Chief of Staff

Dear Crucial Skills,

For the past several months I’ve been working on a project in collaboration with a director from another department. A chief of staff has expressed concern about why it’s taking so long and has inserted herself into the process. She’s trying to help, but her way of managing the situation is to communicate with me and the director separately via email. Once I realized this, I responded to her and copied the director so we’d all be on the same page. In her NEXT email, the chief of staff indicated she had again communicated with us separately. I’m flummoxed about how to address this. How do I let the chief of staff know that splitting communications results in lack of shared understanding, a sense of powerlessness, and decreased collaboration and unity, even though it may be efficient for her to complete tasks?

Left Out

Dear Left Out,

You have found yourself in a classic quandary of show versus tell. You have a concern with chief of staff’s behavior. In a respectful, subtle, unobtrusive way, you have attempted to show her a better way of communicating (“See how I copied in the director on this message? That’s the way we should communicate, hint, hint!”). But dang it all, she didn’t get it, and nothing has changed.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Too often we think we have communicated—we’ve hinted, implied, nudged, jested, or gestured. Surely the other person understands us! Thus, when they don’t respond, change, or agree, we become alternatively flummoxed (how can they be so ignorant?) or frustrated (how can they be so obstinate?).

You ask how you should address this. The answer is straightforward—have a candid and respectful conversation. It’s time to move from showing (“hint, hint”) to telling (“let’s talk about what is happening here”).

While the what is simple, the how can seem complex. Here are three tips for how to hold a candid and respectful conversation when someone’s behavior is impacting you.

Be Clear

No more beating around the bush. You need to explicitly articulate two things: what you want to talk about (her pattern of communicating individually rather than collectively) and why you want to talk about it (your positive intent to create a collaborative team for the good of this project and future projects). Being clear about the first helps the chief of staff understand exactly what your concern is and respond to it. Being clear about the second helps build the psychological safety that every conversation needs.

It might sound like:

“I’d like to talk about a communication pattern I have noticed that I think might be getting in the way of our collaboration and maybe even our performance. I know this project is important to both of us and we are invested in its success. I often find it more helpful if we can all communicate on the same message threads so that we are operating with the same information and a shared understanding. I have noticed that you have sent several emails either to me or my director individually.”

Be Curious

This is where most of us fall short in our conversations. We come in with a conclusion firmly fixed (yours seems to be that splitting communication is a bad approach leading to all manner of negative outcomes). Our goal in the conversation then is to tell the other person why we are right, and they are wrong. Yet we know from hard experience that those conversations never go well.

I would suggest that this is not a “I am right; you are wrong” conversation. This should be a conversation about “How can we best work together to accomplish our shared goals?” You have a way of working and communicating that you are confident will help you accomplish the goal. Presumably, the chief of staff is equally confident that her way of working will accomplish the goal. Yet how can that be when you have totally different ways of doing it? One of you must be wrong, right?

In theory, we know that there can be a range of effective approaches to the same situation. In practice, we struggle to see beyond our own proven approach. One way to see beyond yourself is to ask: why would a reasonable, rationale, decent chief of staff communicate this way?

The answer to this question may well lie in the motives and values that drive her. As Elias Porter explained in his relationship awareness theory, each of us is driven by different motives to achieve a sense of self-worth. People can gain a sense of self-worth through achieving results (performance), developing others (people), or analyzing and understanding problems (process), or a combination of these. We often choose behaviors or ways of engaging with others that are in line with these core motives. When people have different core motives, they choose different behaviors, even when trying to accomplish the same thing.

Curiosity leads us to ask: “I wonder why she is doing this? What does this way of communicating do for her? How does it satisfy her needs?”

Bring that curiosity with you to the conversation. Once you clearly share the what and why of the conversation, show that you care as much about her perspective as your own by asking for understanding.

Asking can be as simple as:

“I am curious about your approach. What does it help you accomplish?”

Be Creative

As with many conversations, you are starting from a point of “my way vs your way.” If we aren’t careful, we can become constrained by this narrow, binary view of the problem and assume that the solution will be one of the two starting options—my way or your way. Instead, bring a spirit of creativity to the conversation. Once you understand what each of you wants, step back and consider, “Are there different options for meeting our goals? What would that look like?”

Test your ideas out. Suggest a trial run of a new way of doing things. Neither of you needs to commit to a change forever. Simply be willing to try something new and check in to see how the test is going.

In your conversation, this might sound like:

“What if we tried a ten-minute huddle each morning to share info and align? We could do it for two weeks and then decide whether that approach is working.”

Relationships Outlive Projects

One last thing to remember as you step up to this Crucial Conversation: relationships are built on the accumulation of our interactions. This project is important. I get that. But my guess is that you, your director, and the chief of staff will all be working together after this project is done. Look at this conversation as a chance to both move this project forward and build a stronger working relationship for future projects.

Good luck,

PS. If you’d like to learn more about Elias Porter’s work around our motivational value systems and how they drive our behavior and impact our relationships, check out

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3 thoughts on “Confronting the Chief of Staff”

  1. Mike

    Unless there’s an early typo, the Director isn’t Left Out’s director. As I read their question, it seems likely that they are peers. Yet you refer to [my] director or “your director”. Would your answer have been different if the director was a peer?

  2. Darrell Harmon

    Excellent advice, as always, Emily.

    One thought that strikes me is that the COS maybe have deliberately chosen her communication approach based on her role as mediator. What if the director has issues with Left Out and the COS has positioned herself between the two to actually *facilitate* communication? We don’t know the content of the emails, so I may be off target, but that would explain the asynchronous communication method.

    This is where Be Curiosity would help Left Out master their story about the COS’s communication style.

    Whatever the reality is, your advice should help all three people involved make progress.

    1. Darrell Harmon

      … Be Curious … (An edit option would be great.)

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