Crucial Confrontations: A Review
I hate confrontations. Maybe it dates back to my childhood. Or maybe it’s because I’ve not been so successful at confronting others. My favorite strategy is to avoid those moments, and when that’s not possible, I find myself apologizing for the confrontation after procrastinating for several stomach-churning days. And, of course, it is not just uncomfortable, but impossible for me to confront someone who has no fear of confrontation. I know I will be eaten alive.
When Confrontations Go Bad
Here’s a typical scenario. “Hey, Bob, you were supposed to get me those statistics by Friday and it’s Tuesday, and where are they?” Bob, it turns out, has a hundred reasons why he couldn’t get what he needed because somebody else didn’t come through for him. This is enough to make me a little sarcastic: “Well thanks, Bob, for letting me know you’d miss the deadline!”
If it’s a chronic problem, and I’ve just avoided dealing with it frankly and directly, I might complain greatly to a colleague while still avoiding Bob. “He never sends those statistics on time. Every week, every single week I have to hound him, and every week he misses the deadline by a few hours to a few days. Somebody should talk to him! I’m not his boss— I can’t make him do anything.
This will drag on until in a meeting that includes Bob I’ll say things I’ll regret later—like criticizing his work habits, his character, or his motives. Oh, if only somebody would just straighten him out!
What’s the Alternative?
What’s needed here is a crucial confrontation—a face-to-face accountability session that takes place because someone has let you down, failed to live up to expectations, or violated a promise made. Rather than suffering in silence or resorting to sarcasm or angry eruptions, we can have open and honest discussions with people who have let us down—and handle these discussions well. The book that can teach you these skills is Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.
- Here’s what I learned from this book about how to deal with my own discomfort about confrontations.
- First, I tease apart the issues and figure out what’s bothering me the most. What exactly is troubling me about Bob’s behavior? Is it that I didn’t get the statistics on time? Or, that it happens every week? Or, that Bob promises me on-time reports but then doesn’t deliver? I decide that because Bob doesn’t deliver on his promises, I no longer trust him. And, this means we can’t have a meaningful work relationship. And that will affect the organization’s ability to get its work done.
- My next step is to get a grip on my emotions and think before I act. I want to dismiss Bob as a slacker, but I realize I don’t understand why Bob is always late with the statistics, I don’t understand his motives. Maybe his goal in life isn’t to torment me. I ask myself, “Why would an otherwise sensible and rational person consistently be late? What’s missing from my story?” Is this among the least of Bob’s priorities? Does he not know how to generate the statistics easily? Or, is my request for these weekly statistics unfair for some reason?
- Interesting—by speculating about what the whole story could be, I’ve gotten curious about what’s getting in Bob’s way. I’m now ready to talk to him directly.
- I want to make sure Bob doesn’t get defensive, so I state the problem in a way that will engage him rather than put him off. I decide to approach it this way. “Bob, you said you would get me those statistics by noon every Friday, but I’ve noticed that it seems to be a very difficult deadline for you to meet consistently. Are you having a problem with this that I can help you with?” By describing Bob’s behavior calmly and in a non-accusatory fashion, I’m doing my best to keep the conversation reasoned and professional. My intent is to jointly explore the forces that are serving as barriers and jointly come up with solutions.
- Bob, surprised by my uncharacteristic lack of sarcasm, tells me that it’s been low priority for him because of competing projects. Bob reminds me that six months ago he asked for a software package that would make it easier and faster for him to compile the weekly report and I vaguely indicated it was a good idea. And, then nothing happened. In other words, I didn’t actually order the software. I promise to get him the software. But I can also see that he needs help in setting priorities. I recommend a book that could really help Bob. Bob’s surprised, but pleased that I want to help him. He hasn’t enjoyed being late with the stats every week, but really couldn’t figure out how to get the job done.
- The next step is a crucial one: make sure the behaviors change, both Bob’s and mine. Here’s where we “seal the deal” so that we don’t end up having the same conversation next week. We mutually make a complete plan which sets out clear and measurable expectations. The plan has four components: Who does What by When and How.
- I agree to purchase the software for Bob this afternoon. He agrees to install it on his computer by Monday at 5 pm. He describes his process for collecting and compiling the statistics and gives himself a deadline of Thursday at noon to have them compiled. We agree that if it looks like he won’t be able to get them to me on time (Friday at noon) he’ll give me a heads up on Thursday at noon to let me know what the problem is and when I’ll have the stats. And that Bob is on time three out of every four weeks, no excuses.
- Bob leaves my office, and I shake my head in wonder at how easy that confrontation turned out to be. I find myself liking Bob a lot and really wanting to do my part to make him succeed.
- Whew. Everything I feared—Bob getting angry along with no results—didn’t come true. Instead, we were able to work through the problem together.
What If It Wasn’t That Easy?
The book illustrates multiple strategies to deal with situations that don’t proceed smoothly, despite your best efforts. What if Bob had gotten angry and defensive? I could stop and deal with the new problem—Bob’s anger and defensiveness. Alternatively, I could back off for now and take some time to figure out a new strategy. The point of a confrontation is to resolve a behavioral issue. “A confrontation is a conversation, not a gauntlet. It has exit points”, state the authors. It’s always wise to consider all the options and not just plow ahead.
More Confrontation Resources
What Crucial Confrontations does is break confrontations down into discrete, manageable, un-frightening steps that anyone can learn. The book goes into a great deal of detail about many different types of situations, using tons of examples and lots of humor to illustrate each step in the process. The final chapter is devoted to “twelve yeah-buts”—”yeah, but these skills won’t work for me because my situation is really different”.
After having read Crucial Confrontations, I feel that I’m far more ready than I was before to engage others in meaningful dialogue when things go wrong. And I feel far more confident that I’ll have the skills to do so. The skills taught are applicable in so many situations that I’ve recommended to everyone—managers, teams, even my kids. It can really change your life—it’s that good.
There’s a website associated with the book and the key concepts www.crucialconfrontations.com where you can find videos illustrating good and bad confrontations as well as self-assessments to quantify just how good—or bad—you are at confronting others.
Written by Pamela Weisse, Coleman Associates