Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My current job is being eliminated, and unless I find another position in the company, I could be facing a layoff after twenty-two years with the company. The job I would really like to have reports to a manager I used to work for and with whom I didn’t get along.
The manager and I never resolved our differences. I am intimidated by this person. I seem to say and do things that set him off–certainly without intention. I want this person to understand that I have a great deal of respect for his intellect, for his accomplishments, and for his leadership. But I do not want to come across as a brown-noser, and certainly, I would like for him to consider me as a serious contender for the vacant position in his group.
Any suggestions that you might have for me in terms of my approach with this manager would be greatly appreciated.
Dear Very Anxious,
I couldn’t think of a better example of a situation where a crucial conversation must be held. Congratulations on recognizing it. So often we fool ourselves into thinking we’re coping with avoiding a crucial conversation, while we act in ways that perpetuate and even deepen the problem. You are right on target in believing that a failure to address the relationship problem will affect the outcome.
In truth, this crucial conversation is somewhat easier than many others. The reason is that your goal is just to find out what you were doing wrong in the past relationship. It’s always helpful to examine your own role in relationship problems, but when your very motivation for a crucial conversation is–as you said–to find out what you say and do that “sets him off”–you’re in a great place. You’ve applied the “Master My Stories” principle marvelously.
Second comment before some advice: To paraphrase the objective you described, your goal is to be honest and not pathetic. You have two “contrasting” challenges: 1) You want to discredit the story you think he holds about your view of him and help him see how you truly see him (you respect his intellect and leadership); 2) you want to express interest in the job, but without seeming like you’re pretending the relationship was fine.
I set up these “contrasting” statements because they help you design the opening lines of the crucial conversation. Your goal in these first lines is to “Make It Safe.” You’ll do it by helping him understand what your intentions are and aren’t, and what your view of him is and isn’t. By ensuring mutual purpose and mutual respect in this way, you’ll help him feel safe, and you’ll safeguard his accurate perception of your intentions.
For example: “Thanks for making some time. I’d like to throw my hat in the ring for this job. And yet in doing so I worry about a couple of misperceptions. I worry, for example, that based on some of the tension in our past working relationship you might think I don’t support you. I want you to know I have a high regard for your intellect and leadership. I also worry that in saying this now, I will be seen as disingenuous.”
That’s the opener–you’ve clarified your intentions and your respect while avoiding misperception of either. Now, we’ll open the main topic:
“I want to acknowledge that things weren’t always smooth between us, and in some ways I’m confused about why. My goal in this conversation is to get feedback from you about what I was doing that didn’t work for you and see if there’s a way to make it work better in the future. If there isn’t, I would not want the job–or to saddle you with me! If there is, I would welcome the chance to work with you.”
Here you’ve clarified the topic, and also avoided his perception that you’re begging or masking by being clear that you won’t accept the position at any price–both for your benefit and his.
The spirit of your question is so mature that I truly believe you’ll be able to get through this conversation.
Best of luck in your crucial conversation, and in your career.