Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Dear Joseph,

I work very closely with someone who I really like and respect. I have one concern about how he tends to rely on me to deal with all criticisms directed at our shared projects. I have tried bringing up the issue and holding the crucial conversation about it, but it didn’t go well. My partner became upset and told me we needed to change the subject because he was getting all worked up. At this point I dropped it.

Our mutual success relies on an open, free-flowing, honest relationship. I’m afraid I’ve done some damage in the trust department. So here’s my question: If the first attempt at a crucial conversation fails and trust is damaged, but the issue is still important, should I try again later? How do I undo the damage I’ve done?

Out of Sync

Dear Out of Sync,

You are already a mile down the road to solving this problem. The fact that you genuinely like and respect this person means your heart is in the right place. Here are a couple of suggestions for repairing any damage that might have been done in your previous attempt, and for making it safe to try again.

First, you need to remember that people usually don’t get defensive because of what you’re saying. What went wrong in your first conversation was not that you complained about your colleague’s failure to step up to criticism with you. What went wrong was that something in your conversation made it seem like either you disrespected your colleague, or that your intention in raising the issue was hurtful. In Crucial Conversations vocabulary, either Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose did not exist, so your colleague became defensive. With enough safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything. So, the questions you should be asking yourself are:

1. What did I do that might have communicated a lack of respect or a bad intention? For example: Think about your tone of voice (were you unusually quiet or loud–communicating upset emotions?); body language (did you fail to make eye contact, frown or in other ways act differently from when you communicate respect?); word choice (did you use hot emotion words to begin with like, “you’ve been disloyal” or “you don’t back me up”?).

2. What did I fail to do that would have reassured my colleague of my respect and positive intentions? For example: When he became defensive, did you fail to “step out of the content” and reaffirm your respect and purpose? When you started the conversation did you jump right into the issue without first establishing mutual purpose and respect?

Second, you need to have another conversation. But the topic of this one is different. The crucial conversation you now need to hold is, “What went wrong with the last crucial conversation?” Here’s a way you might begin. Notice that this suggested approach models how you can begin by building mutual purpose and mutual respect:

“I’ve been worried since our last conversation. I wanted to talk about something that was concerning me and in retrospect I believe I communicated some things I didn’t intend. Somehow or other I think I came across as insulting, or attacking. I really didn’t want to do that. I am so sorry. Could we talk for a few minutes about what I did wrong in that conversation? I’d really like to know so I can try again to resolve this issue without coming across in a way I don’t want to.”

This little script communicates your respect for the other person, and clarifies your intention. Having delivered it, listen like crazy. Ask clarifying questions. Try to come to understand what you did or didn’t do that made it possible for your colleague to misunderstand your respect or intent.

Finally, consider a skill we call “Contrasting.” This skill is extremely helpful in building–and when needed, rebuilding–safety. One of the best ways to prepare for a crucial conversation is to ask yourself, “How could the other person misunderstand my respect? My intentions?” Once you’ve answered that, fend off the misunderstanding by making a statement that does two things:

1. Debunks the misunderstanding (Specifically point out what you don’t mean to communicate, e.g., “I don’t want you to think I am dissatisfied with our working relationship. I am not raising this issue because I am disappointed with your work or our relationship at all.”)

2. Confirms your true intentions or respect (“I have the utmost respect for you and love working with you. My only intent here is to point out something that you may not even realize is happening that is causing some problems for me. Would that be okay?”)

If you start off this way, you can avoid a lot of defensiveness later on.

Good luck!

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2 thoughts on “If At First You Don’t Succeed…”

  1. Susan Roedl

    This post is really helpful as I have a somewhat similar situation. My question is about the first point to debunk misunderstanding. While it is true that I respect the individual I am dissatisfied with an aspect of their work which seems to qualify as our working relationship. It seems normal that from time to time people become dissatisfied with someone else’s work. Is there no way to discuss that? In my case (and it looks like in this one) it is only one area that I have a problem with but it is a problem.
    I appreciate any feedback you can add.

    1. Tom

      I’d suggest you stay focused on the mutual purpose of improving your work relationship. The person in the original post who was getting worked up clearly felt their status or self image was being threatened, which meant they couldn’t hear the feedback. Same will happen if you try to convince your coworker that it’s ‘normal’ for you to be dissatisfied with their work. Focusing on the fact that you respect them and want to maintain a good working relationship will help them believe you have positive intent and a mutual purpose, and they are more willing to then want to understand how they can continue to build on that. Not sure what aspect of their work you are dissatisfied with, so that may be hard to broach, but suggesting an alternative for how they could do something rather than criticizing how they are doing it now would be a good general rule.

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