Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Dealing with Past Leaders


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

I was asked to be the chairperson of a large seminar in its thirty-third successful year. Past chairpersons have been people from upper management and strong academic backgrounds. I am a bedside nurse unfamiliar with the duties of this job.

At each meeting, I am struggling to have control and get the work done. The past chair interrupts me and controls information I need, forcing me to work according to her schedule.

I felt like a chastised child at our last meeting. She interrupted me on three issues, misunderstanding what I was trying to say since she did not let me finish. At one point she accused me of “shooting her down” when I attempted to finish what I was saying, and she wouldn’t discuss it any further.

I think the former chair does not realize how she is treating me. We did have a discussion last week about an instance where she cut me off at the previous meeting. She had not meant to; she was trying to give me a helpful tip. So I don’t know how to approach her without alienating her or hurting her feelings.

Frustrated Chair

A Dear Frustrated Chair,

Welcome to leadership! Obviously someone saw great potential in you to give you such a complex assignment. If you’re humble and teachable, you can probably get through this challenge with the former chair.

Here’s some advice. Your crucial conversation needs to be one on one. You need to get some time with the former chairperson and hold the right conversation. The conflict and insult you’re feeling in meetings and the behavior you’re describing from the former chair make it apparent something else is going on that you need to talk about privately.

My suggestion is that you assume, for the moment, that the issue is your inexperience in this role. The former chair may well believe you are inexperienced and is trying to oversteer in an attempt to be helpful, avoid disaster, or both. If you can ensure your story about her frames her behavior as an attempt to do these things, you’ll come into the conversation with the right attitude.

Second, don’t get mired down into the wrong conversation. Don’t talk to her about details of the conference as you do in typical meetings. Instead, talk to her about your own view that you are inexperienced and let her know that your desire is to get help from her in a way that works for you. If you humbly acknowledge your inexperience and your willingness to be mentored, you can minimize the possibility that she’ll feel defensive. Assure her that you want and need her guidance; then move to the second issue.

The second issue is that you need to get her guidance in a way that works for you. Use your STATE skills to describe what she’s done in meetings that you believe is an attempt to be helpful. Start with the facts and tentatively share your story. Leave room for her to share her differing views or clarify what’s happening. For example, you might say, “At times I’ll be making a point and you’ll begin talking when I’m not finished. I suspect that could be because I’m doing something wrong, but this way of handling it doesn’t work for me.”

Finally, engage her in dialogue. Ask her for candid feedback about why she is cutting you off in meetings. Make it safe for her to be honest with you about any deficiencies she sees in you. The humble learn the fastest because they don’t waste time on defending a false image. Given that you know you could use some help, if you lay it all out on the table she’s likely to feel at ease being open with you, too.

Once you’ve gotten feedback from her, move to action. Come to agreement about how she can coach you and what you’d prefer she not do in your meetings. Perhaps, for example, you could occasionally meet with her outside of these meetings to get advice on your strategy for the meetings or the conference.

If you step up to this crucial conversation in an effective way, there’s a good chance this will be a tremendous developmental experience for you.

Best wishes,

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