Dear Crucial Skills,
How do you respectfully call someone out for bad manners in public?
I frequently find myself in situations where someone’s behavior goes against well-known norms or even common decency. I work with people who dive into their smartphones while in the middle of a conversation without excusing themselves. They will literally check out of the conversation they’re having with me in person, start texting someone, then resume the conversation with me as though nothing happened. I think this is quite rude.
Or, there are people who smoke at my community park where it’s clearly prohibited. And they play their music loudly. I know these behaviors aren’t exclusive to young people, but it seems it’s almost always young adults who are guilty. Has nobody taught them?
Every time something like this happens, I want to say something but am not sure how to do so. I worry that speaking up will offend the person or lead to an argument or make matters worse, and yet I want to say something. I think our communities are better when people respect basic norms of, well, respect. Any suggestions?
Dear Old Fashioned,
You’re in luck. A couple of years ago I conducted my own personal experiment to see how well our dialogue skills work when confronting strangers for bad manners. It was completely unscientific, and yet I learned several valuable lessons. It all started when I was hiking in the backcountry and crossed paths with a trio of young adults blasting Limp Bizkit from a Bluetooth speaker.
My irritation was palpable. “Are you kidding me?” I muttered while grunting up the trail. “What is wrong with these people?”
“Dad,” my kids said, “take it easy.”
We were on a family hike in late September. The air was crisp, the sunshine warm, the sky blue with a smattering of cumulus clouds that skirted the mountain peaks. The leaves on the trees were luminescent—orange, yellow, pink. We even brought along the family dog, Rosco. It was a perfect day, that is until these hoodlums came cavorting down the trail as though they were on their way to a rave.
“I think I’m gonna tell these people what’s up,” I said. “They can’t play music like that. Don’t they know that’s noise pollution?!”
“Dad, don’t you dare say something,” my kids cautioned. “That would be so embarrassing.”
“Trust me, kids. I’ve been studying Crucial Conversations. I just want to see how well the skills work. If they work in this situation, they should work in just about any situation.”
“Oh boy,” my wife exhaled.
Though I hadn’t been drinking, my determination to respectfully tell these folks how wrong they were to play music in a designated wilderness area could have been characterized as “hold my beer,” much like Clark Griswold’s determination to harvest the perfect Christmas tree.
We were getting closer now. My heartrate increased. My breathing grew short and rapid. Our paths met.
“Hey, I don’t mean any disrespect, but do you know that when you play music in the backcountry, you effectively turn this large, open space into your personal living room?”
The implication was clear: we didn’t walk all this way to find ourselves in your den of inferior taste in music.
The trio of twenty-something-year-olds looked at me incredulously. An audible groan came from my wife and children, who had distanced themselves behind me on the trail. The young man holding the speaker moved his pointer finger to the volume controls and tapped them in quick succession. The music died, as in the manner of a sad trombone.
I then tried to make small talk. “So… are you enjoying the hike?”
“Come on, guys,” the girl at the head of the group said, and they turned and continued hiking down the trail.
I then was subjected to a lecture from my family on why I should’ve kept my mouth shut, which gave way to a healthy conversation about social accountability. Why is it so challenging to confront people about relatively harmless—albeit annoying or inconsiderate—behaviors?
That dour interaction on the trail didn’t deter me from trying again. In the months that followed, I confronted someone at the grocery store, another at the coffee shop, and I had a few more occasions to confront people in the backcountry for playing music. Here’s what I learned.
Lesson 1: Take ownership of your feelings.
Your irritation is about your perspective, not their behavior. If you try to use the conversational skills of Crucial Conversations without first taking ownership of your emotional state, the only thing I can guarantee is that you’ll come across as a well-spoken jerk. You can probably guess how I know this.
Think of it like this: Two people go out hiking and both get a few pebbles down their boots. One can think only of the pebbles and hates the experience. The other notices only the surrounding beauty and loves the experience. It’s not the pebble in your footbed that makes the difference, but your perspective of it.
This is why Start with Heart and Master My Stories—those skills that help us examine our motives and reframe our perspective—come before all the others. The feeling of your feedback will improve drastically if you first let go the motive to express annoyance, ease your irritation, teach someone a lesson, or any similar inclination. Continue reading for a few tips on how to do this.
Lesson 2: Assume it’s a problem of ability.
One reason my delivery on the trail went so poorly is that it was informed by the belief “Any idiot knows it’s immoral to play music in the backcountry.”
Assume people aren’t aware of the norm you take for granted OR that they have understandable reasons for their behavior. When you assume someone lacks knowledge or ability, your motive shifts to lifting another to a social virtue, not ridding yourself of irritation. My delivery improved when I replaced my feeling of moral condemnation with a desire to share a perspective or make people aware of how their actions affect others.
Lesson 3: Highlight the social impact.
Social consequences are powerful deterrents of bad behavior. Many people commit such social offenses because they’re unaware of the impact. Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is reveal to them how their behavior affects others, especially those they esteem.
Lesson 4: Express respect for autonomy.
Getting called out by a stranger almost always feels like a rebuke. In my experience, people usually conform in the moment because the rebuke shocks them into submission. But don’t bank on that. Instead, make it clear you respect the other person’s freedom to choose as they will, to continue as they are, and that you only wanted to share your perspective. This, I think, softens the blow.
Lesson 5: Don’t attempt to manage how the other person feels about your words.
No matter how gracious your delivery, odds are your recipient will feel gobsmacked (see findings from our survey about feedback). You must be willing to live with this. Efforts to change how they feel about your feedback will likely compound any sense of offense or conflict. So, speak your peace, then carry on.
Lesson 6: Turn it into a script.
A pre-packaged approach that combines the above points will reduce your chances of getting derailed by emotions. Because I frequently encounter people in the backcountry playing music, I ultimately devised a script that goes something like this.
“Hi, how are you today? Do you mind if I share something with you? First, I want you to know I respect your freedom to do as you will—this wilderness area is as much yours as it is mine, so please understand what I’m about to say is not a demand. You may not be aware of this, but it’s generally considered impolite to play music out here. Many see it as a form of pollution, and it’s prohibited in areas. Keeping this space quiet allows it to be shared by many, all of whom want it to feel as though it’s their own. I thought you should know.”
Lesson 7: Recognize this is part of the human tapestry.
Not everybody signals when changing lanes, returns the grocery cart after unloading it, or washes after using the restroom. This is the world we live in, and we all contribute to it in ways.
After my months of experimenting, I now usually resort to Lesson 1 and change my perspective—which is sufficient to ease my irritation—and I don’t feel the need to say anything at all. My exposure to tobacco smoke will be momentary. Undivided attention isn’t always required. The music will die down. You may find the same.
That said, I’m not suggesting you should refrain from speaking up. Norms don’t persist unless people uphold them. Though I’ve stopped testing my skills with every stranger who commits a social faux pas, I continue to address those in the backcountry because I want silence to prevail there. And after all my work on my approach, do you know how people respond?
They are stunned! They don’t know what to say! They look at me dumbfounded! They stumble over their words! It’s uncomfortable! But ALWAYS they turn down their music. Just as they did before.
So why go to the trouble?
Perhaps our shared virtues are worth the work. Should we choose to encourage respect for them, it’s our hope that we can do so with respect for those we encourage.