Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

When You're Under Attack


Emily Hoffman

Emily Moss is a Master Trainer and Senior Director of Client Training and Employee Development at VitalSmarts.


Crucial Confrontations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently got a call from the head of another department. He asked me, “Why are the analysts afraid to ask you for a work product?”

I tried to build in safety and replied I wasn’t sure why that would be and that my department worked hard to meet requests.

This isn’t the first time this manager has called with this type of pointed question. After taking the position, he explained that “in their opinion, the Rapid Response Group wasn’t very rapid.”

Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with someone who seems to have no method of communicating other than attacking?


A Dear Attacked,

Several months ago, I presented a Crucial Conversations workshop to managers of a Fortune 100 company. At the end of the presentation, one senior IT manager approached me and said how much he enjoyed the presentation and how helpful he found many of the concepts. He then asked if our Crucial Conversations course was open to the public—he wanted his wife to attend.

This IT manager was not the first to approach me with such a request. As a VitalSmarts Master Trainer, one of the most common questions I receive is “What if my boss/spouse/teenaged child/mother-in-law doesn’t know the skills?”

Dialogue is certainly easier to achieve when all parties participate and share meaning in a respectful, safe, and skilled way. This is one of the reasons we encourage intact teams within organizations to go through the training together. But, just because it is easier when all parties are skilled at dialogue does not mean you can only dialogue with someone else who knows the skills. Even if your boss, spouse, teenaged child, or mother-in-law doesn’t have top-notch dialogue skills, you can still have a successful conversation.

So, what do you do when someone has an attacking style of communication? You have already taken the first step by recognizing that you are dealing with a process issue (how we are communicating) rather than a content issue (what we are communicating about). When process issues arise—when someone is in silence or violence rather than dialogue—you need to step out of the content and address the process. Sometimes this can be done in the same conversation; often, it works best to initiate a separate conversation about the process concern.

As you think about how to approach this conversation, make sure to let the person know you don’t want to discuss a particular incident but rather the process of how you are communicating: “I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about how we are working together.”

You don’t want the other person to start attacking, so make sure to build some safety: “I don’t want you to think I don’t value the work you do or the feedback you have given our team in the past. I really appreciate your willingness to bring your concerns with my group’s performance directly to me. I would like to talk about how you raise those concerns.”

Then, explain your concerns about the process, not content: “There have been times when you have called with a question like “Why are the analysts afraid to ask you for a work product?” When you ask questions like that, it seems like you have already made a judgment on my behavior or approach. It feels like an attack on me. I don’t think that is what you intend; however, that is how it impacts me. Do you see it differently?”

One tip on this: When addressing a process concern, you still want to use facts to support your conclusions. Yet, often, when you present a fact, the other person will seize on this as the main issue. It’s not. The process of how you are communicating is the issue, not the fact you used to illustrate that process. Make sure you are prepared to refocus the conversation: “My goal isn’t to talk about one question or one incident. Rather, I’d like to discuss the process of how we communicate in general.”

Finally, remember that if your goal truly is to dialogue with this person about his attacking behavior, you are responsible not only for sharing your meaning but for helping him to share meaning as well. Exploring skills like asking, mirroring, paraphrasing, and priming, work equally well when someone is in silence or violence.


Emily Moss

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

1 thought

  1. Cynthia

    To avoid continued conflict, anger and friction with supervisor, managment and other staff in the office. after a long period of conflict and confrintation we grow tired of the battle. It feels easier to give-up and walk away than to continue with the office battles.

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