Let s move on to the if question. You ve unbundled the problem, picked the issue you care about the most, and reduced it to a clear sentence , and now you re ready. You re going to confront the other person. Or are you? The mere fact that you ve identified the problem you d like to discuss doesn t mean you should actually discuss it. Sometimes it s better to consider the consequences before deciding whether to bring the issue up.
For instance, your teenage son walks in the door with his hair dyed bright red and cut in a Mohawk. He loves it. You hate it. Do you lay down the law or back off? Maybe you re out of touch with what is normal and what isn t. Haranguing your son until he opts for a new style might do nothing more than widen the rift that seems to be growing between the two of you. Maybe you shouldn t say anything. Maybe you should expand your zone of acceptance.
Let s consider an example from work. Your boss is combative in meetings. She verbally attacks arguments by raising her voice and labeling ideas stupid or naive and always looks disgusted. She also disagrees with almost everything and cuts people off midsentence. At first her hostile tactics bothered you, but you came to appreciate the fact that at least it was clear about where she stood on issues. Therefore, you said nothing. Today she questioned your loyalty and insulted you in front of your peers. That was going too far. Maybe you should say something. Maybe you should shrink your zone of acceptance.
As these examples demonstrate , there are no simple rules that dictate which problems are imaginary, which are real, and which you should deal with. Usually when someone breaks a promise, you talk about it ”circumstances demand that you talk, and you do ”but not always. So what are the rules?
In organizations there are reports , goals, performance indicators, quality scorecards, budget variances, and a boatload of other metrics that clearly show a difference between what was expected and what was delivered. These failed promises represent clear opportunities to have crucial confrontations . And since they re routine, they re probably fairly easy to discuss.
At home there are also clear indicators: You promised me we d go out to dinner. You told me you would be home for my birthday. These too are routine issues that are easily discussed.
But what if the problems are ambiguous or discussing them could get you in trouble? You re not sure if the problem is a problem, and bringing up the issue might lead to a raging battle, a harmed relationship, a lost job, or something equally frightening. How do you know if you should confront problems that are not so clear and not so promising ?
To answer this all-important if question, let s divide the challenge into two camps: First, how do you know if you re not speaking up when you s hould ? Second, how do you know if you are speaking up when you shouldn t ?
Let s start with a simple premise . More often than not, we don t speak up when we should. Sure, sometimes we confront a problem at the wrong time or in the wrong way, but that s not the predominant issue in most families and companies. Going to silence is the prominent issue in these situations.
To help diagnose whether you re clamming up when you should be speaking up, ask the following four questions:
Am I acting out my concerns?
Is my conscience nagging me?
Am I choosing the certainty of silence over the risk of speaking up?
Am I telling myself that I m helpless?
Let s say you ve observed a problem at work. Several members of the technical support team aren t keeping an eight-to-five work schedule. Instead, they re working flextime. They often arrive late and then work past closing. This bugs you because they agreed to stick to the posted schedule. After thinking about it, you decide that maybe being a stickler isn t such a good idea. They re putting in the hours, and there s no need to rock the boat. You re still bugged because they broke their word and it feels like they re acting like prima donnas, but you re not going to say a word.
Holding your tongue probably isn t going to work in this case. If the broken promise is really bothering you, you re unlikely to be a good enough actor to hide your feelings. You may try to choke them down, but they ll bubble up to the surface in unhealthy ways. If you don t talk it out, you ll act it out.
An actor named John LaMotta taught us this concept. We had hired him to play the role of a manager in a training video we were producing. During rehearsals he kept turning the rather harmless opening line into an attack. Later we learned that he had assumed that the person he was working with was a dipstick because he hadn t done his job. Consequently, no matter how we directed John (telling him to soften his delivery, drop the anger, etc.), he treated the fellow with disdain. He didn t stray from the written script, but his negative assumptions found their way into his nonverbal behavior: first his tone, then a smirk, then a raised fist, and so forth. When the director finally told John that the fellow was a hard worker whom everyone liked , John delivered his lines spot-on. He couldn t change his actions until he changed his mind.
Paul Ekman,  a scholar who has studied facial expressions and emotions for 30 years , came to the same conclusion. When people try to hide their feelings or put on an emotion, Ekman found they use different groups of muscles than they use to express authentic feelings. For example, authentic smiles of joy involve the muscles surrounding the eyes; false or social smiles bypass the eyes completely. And other people can tell. You can t hide your real emotions.
There s more. When you observe a problem, feel bad about it, and then decide to say nothing, your feelings don t come out only in your facial expressions and other nonverbal behaviors; they also escape in the form of biting sarcasm, cutting humor, or surprising non sequiturs. For instance, while seated across from his mother at the dinner table, a 29-year-old chronically unemployed son politely tells her that she has a hunk of lasagna on her chin. Mom responds with, Oh, yeah? When I was your age, I had two jobs. Guess what has been annoying her?
When you ve gone silent, but your body language keeps sending out hostile signals or you re dropping hints or relying on sarcasm, you probably ought to speak up.
Why do we ever set aside pressing problems ”hoping they ll somehow get better? It s like finding a tub of rancid cottage cheese in the fridge , setting it on the kitchen counter for a couple of days, and then thinking: Gee, I wonder if it ll taste any better now.
Sometimes you don t speak your mind because you feel isolated. You see a problem but fear that you re the only one who cares. No one else shows signs of anxiety. Now what am I supposed to do? you wonder. Why aren t my health-care colleagues concerned that we re not washing our hands long enough? How come my fellow accountants are looking the other way when our biggest client violates standard practices? How come my neighbors, spouse, and kids don t think riding in the back of a pickup is dangerous? Even though you re worried ”your conscience is nagging you a little ”you say nothing.
The fact that people often remain silent despite their best judgment has been studied extensively. For instance, Solomon Asche  created conditions in which people wouldn t just remain silent when they believed they were at odds with their peers; they actually lied rather than disagree with them. Stanley Milgram [3 ] replaced peers with authority figures and was able to manipulate the subjects to do more than lie. He got people to shock others to the point where they worried that they might have killed the other persons rather than disagree with the individual in the white lab jacket.
Peer pressure coupled with formal authority can compel people to act against their best judgment. Here s how it affects crucial confrontations: If social pressure can cause people to lie, it can certainly drive people to silence. Pay attention to a nagging conscience ”it may be indicating a confrontation that you need to step up to.
When you ve gone to silence and your conscience is nagging you ”you probably ought to speak up.
When it comes to deciding whether we re going to speak up, we kid ourselves into making the same error over and over. We choose the certainty of what is currently happening to us (no matter how awful it may be) over the uncertainty of what might happen if we said something. This of course drives us to silence, quietly embracing the devil we know, when there s a good chance that we really should have spoken up. Here s how this insidious dynamic works.
When we re trying to figure out if we should speak up, we often envision a horrific failure and immediately decide to go to silence. Then we look for reasons to justify the choice to say nothing. Our reasoning takes place in the following way. We first ask ourselves: Can I succeed in this confrontation? We don t ask, Should I try? Instead, we ask Can I succeed? When the answer to the internal query is a resounding no, we decide that we shouldn t try.
Effective problem solvers take the opposite approach. Only after they ve decided that the conversation should be held do they ask the question, How can I do this? Better still, how can I do this well? If we reverse the order, starting with can and not should , we almost always sell out. We decide to clam up and then justify our inaction.
Our two favorite methods for tricking ourselves into remaining silent are (1) downplaying the cost of not speaking and (2) exaggerating the cost of expressing our views.
Here s how we minimize in our own minds the cost of continuing to tolerate the status quo. First, we look exclusively at what s happening to us now rather than at the total effect. A professor is boring, unfair, and outdated , but why rock the boat? We ll survive, right? Never mind the fact that thousands of students will be affected over the next two decades of that professor s career.
Second, we underestimate the severity of the existing circumstances because we become inured to the consequences we re suffering. With time and constant exposure we come to believe that our wretched conditions are acceptable. We continue to work for authoritarian bosses, stay married to people who physically and mentally abuse us, and work alongside people who ignore and insult us because we tell ourselves that it s not really that bad. It s just how things are.
Third, as was suggested earlier, we can t see our own bad behavior when we fail to maintain silence. For example, we think we re silently suffering under the thumb of a micromanager. In actuality, we act offended when the boss asks for details. We say we know how to do the job, cutting her off when she tries to offer a suggestion. We defiantly choose to do something our way. We miss the fact that our own behavior has been degraded. In this case we don t merely downplay the cost of silence, we miss it entirely.
Let s look at how we routinely overestimate the costs we might experience if we did confront a broken promise. Human beings are downright gifted when it comes to conjuring up bad things that just might happen to them. In fact, when contemplating what we may be setting into action by opening our mouths, we often imagine (and then get obsessed about) appalling outcomes no matter how unlikely they may be. When we trump up a horrible chain of events, we use lots of and thinking, only the wrong kind of and thinking. Here s how it works:
The boss has asked us all to chip in twenty bucks to buy a present for a vice president we don t even know. That s a certainty, and it s bad. None of us want to do it. But if I speak up, I won t win the argument, and I ll still have to come up with the money, and my boss will despise me, and I ll lose my job and my wife will leave me.
We lose all sense of reality when we fixate on the horrific possibilities that might befall us. The severity of the possible outcomes distorts our view of the probabilities. If an unlikely outcome is bad enough, we often describe it as a certainty rather than a possibility.
Perhaps the largest error we make in exaggerating the cost of confronting an issue stems from the erroneous belief that the existing world always punishes people who are naive enough to speak their minds. We ve watched people speak up and get punished for their honesty and find it hard to imagine any other possibility. In fact, when the authors suggest in public forums that this book teaches people how to confront almost anyone no matter how touchy and powerful that person may be ”and with good results ”people think we re fooling ourselves: Maybe the pumpkin wagon you just fell off allows you to speak honestly and boldly to the driver, but our driver carries a whip and loves to use it.
At first we wondered if the skills we had seen demonstrated so often wouldn t work in certain instances, and so we started asking: Are you saying that there is nobody in your company who could confront this particular issue or person and get away with it? After an awkward pause, someone would name an individual who didn t have the position power that granted him or her the right to speak but somehow found ways to talk quite frankly and not get into trouble.
When you ve gone to silence and are trying way too hard to convince yourself that you ve done the right thing, you might want to examine whether you are intentionally minimizing the cost of not speaking up and exaggerating the risks of doing so. Did you start with a desire not to speak up and back into a justification or arrive there after careful consideration? Learn to notice the difference and you ll do a much better job of deciding if you should confront someone.
At the heart of most decisions to stay quiet even though we re currently suffering lies the fear that we won t be able to make a difference. We believe that either other people or the circumstances themselves make the problem insoluble. That puts the problem out of our control. It s not us, it s them: Have you ever tried to talk to that guy? He s a maniac ! Have you ever attempted to tell a senior executive that she doesn t really know how to do her job? Like that s going to work.
The truth is that many confrontations fail not because others are bad and wrong but because we handle them poorly. It s our fault. We decide to step up to a failed promise and subtly attack the other person. He or she then gets hooked, and we re now in a heated battle. Naturally, we see the other person getting hooked but miss the part we played in escalating the problem by doing such a shoddy job of bringing it up in the first place.
We re like the young boy who refused to see his role in an argument by explaining to his mother, It all started when he hit me back!
Even when we do see the role we re playing in a problem by owning up to the fact that our confrontation skills aren t that great, we often act as if we were as talented as we re ever going to be. We ve peaked; we ll never get better. We make this assumption because most of us aren t exactly students of social influence. We ve spent more time memorizing the capitals of Europe than we have examining the intricacies of human interaction. We rarely think of influence skills as something that a person should and can learn through actual study. But, as this book asserts, these skills can be learned and improved.
When you ve gone to silence because you re afraid you re not skilled enough to have a crucial confrontation, your assessment may be correct. If this is the case, enhance your skills. There s no use suffering forever. Be careful not to let fear taint your judgment. You may have the skills to deal with a particular issue but are letting your fear keep you from speaking up. When you re thinking about going to silence, ask yourself if you re copping out rather than making a reasoned choice.
Let s summarize the clues that you re hastily going to silence and explore what to do with them. Telltale signs that you should be speaking and not clamming up include the following four signs:
Sign 1: You re acting out your feelings. You think you re suffering silently, but you re not. To spot this mistake, ask yourself the following: Am I really expanding my zone of acceptance or am I actually upset and sending out a barrage of unhealthy signals? Are others getting hooked? If this is the case, you re probably not suffering silently but are acting out your concerns and making matters worse . Your nonverbal behavior is already speaking for you. Consider taking charge of the conversation instead.
Sign 2: Your conscience is nagging you. You keep telling yourself that it s okay to say nothing ”besides, other people aren t saying a word ”but you know in your gut that you need to say something. Listen to that voice. It s telling you to step up to the plate. Take the internal prodding as a sign that your silence isn t warranted.
Sign 3: You re downplaying the cost of not taking action (embracing the devil you know) while exaggerating the dangers of speaking up. You re trying way too hard to persuade yourself to stay away from a confrontation because you fear it will be painful. Don t confuse the question of whether the confrontation will be difficult with the question of whether you should deal with it.
Sign 4: You figure that nothing you do will help. Either others are impossible to talk to or you ve already achieved the height of your problem-solving prowess. In truth, the problem is less often that others are impossible to approach than that we aren t sure how to approach them. The authors have watched people deal with some of the most difficult problems and succeed because they knew what to say and how to say it. If you improve your skills ”even just a little ”you ll choose silence far less often and succeed far more routinely.
Let s turn our attention to the other side of the if coin. You confront a problem that in retrospect you probably shouldn t have dealt with in the first place. This seems to contradict what we just discussed, but it s true. There are times when it s better not to bring up a problem or at least not to do so until you ve done some preparatory work.
Often,when you ve weighed the consequences, it is a better option to remain silent about an issue. For example, you ve had difficulty working with a certain vendor and the process could have been much cleaner, but you were working on a one-time only project and probably won t ever see the vendor again. In this case, it may be better to avoid rehashing an issue that will never come up again.
Here s the biggest stumbling block: Problem solving is never done in a vacuum . Every company and family has an unwritten history that indicates which infractions are appropriate to deal with and which ones a person should let slide. All expectations, contracts, and promises aren t equally binding. Worse, in some organizations people aren t held accountable for delivering on any promises, or at least accountability is unpredictable.
Sometimes erratic approaches to accountability stem from the fact that leaders take the path of least resistance. It isn t fun to hold people accountable; besides, nobody s taught them much about it. Sometimes people hold back their concerns out of sympathy for the fact that everyone is assigned far more than he or she can ever do, and so it feels almost cruel to hold people accountable.
Whatever the underlying cause, if you re going to break from tradition and elevate a standard that had been nothing more than a rough guideline to a hard-and-fast law, people should know. You have to issue a fair warning. You have to reset others expectations, and you have to do it in a way that doesn t look smug.
For example, one day Kerry, one of the authors of this book, put on his new Coast Guard dress uniform in preparation for standing watch. He was going to take his turn as the officer of the day (OD) at a training center in California where he had been newly assigned. He would be in charge of the watch.
The watch consisted of a couple of dozen coasties who had to remain on the base all night and stand a post. They would sit in the barracks, motor pool, or boathouse and watch for any problems that might come up, including fires. Leaving one s post, Kerry had learned weeks earlier in officer training, could get a person brought up on charges.
Imagine Kerry s surprise later that evening when he caught wind that several of the men on duty were actually at the club chatting with their buddies rather than standing their posts and watching for whatever. Fortunately, before Kerry could march down and catch those fellows red-handed, leading to a great deal of pain and sorrow, a senior enlisted man took him aside and pointed out a couple of facts. First, lots of people on watch hung out at the club; nobody really cared. Second, several of Kerry s fellow officers were known to go down to the club and chat, throw darts, and otherwise turn a blind eye to the fact that some members of the duty crew weren t at their posts. If Mr. Patterson wanted to make a stink, there would not be a horde of adoring fans hoisting him on their shoulders to honor his vigilance .
What should Kerry do? He didn t like the idea of making rules and then not keeping them, and he certainly had the authority to write people up. However, if other officers had been turning a blind eye to regulations for a long time and now without notice Kerry, the new kid on the block, blind-sided people with a charge of disobedience, it could seem unfair. The fact that you have legal standing doesn t mean that you ll gain the support of the larger community.
After seeking the counsel of his boss, Kerry decided to take the following tack. He wouldn t run and he wouldn t blow the whistle (there was nobody to listen, and most people didn t care), and so he decided to strike a compromise. He let it be known that he appreciated the fact that other people had different opinions on the matter, but he didn t want people to leave their posts. When he was the OD, he would be checking the various posts to ensure that they were being watched. He then told a dozen or more opinion leaders about his stance and asked them to spread the word so that there wouldn t be any surprises . That was the end of the problem. Nobody left his post on Kerry s watch.
If you re going to speak up when others remain silent, if you re going to hold people to a standard that differs from that of the masses, get the word out. Send out a warning. Differentiate yourself from others. This is particularly wise advice for those moving into new positions of leadership, parents taking over blended families, etc.
Over the years, as the authors have worked with thousands of leaders, they occasionally have run into people who are proud of the fact that they are the only ones who have the guts to hold people to quality guidelines, safety standards, cost-cutting goals, and the like. Others may remain quiet while quality crashes or costs spiral out of control, but not on their watch. Others may bolt at the first signs of resistance, but they hold the line.
With time we have come to understand that while being true to one s values may be noble, if you do so in a way that dishonors your peers (making fun of the less vigilant, bragging about your own commitment, etc.), you re upholding one value only to deny another: teamwork. Along a similar vein, parents who piously set a new standard, all the while making fun of a partner who isn t as discriminating as they are, do so at the peril of their children s mental health.Inconsistency breeds insecurity.
If you re going to differentiate yourself from your spouse or coworkers by holding people to a more rigid standard, don t be
smug about it. Set expectations in a way that shows respect for people with different views. This may be a real test of your appreciation for diversity. You believe that people who hold individuals to a less rigid standard than you do are different ”not spineless wimps who are slowly eating away at the very soul of civilization. There s a huge difference between saying, I m going to ask you to do something even if others don t and saying, I don t care what the other lily-livered losers are doing.
 Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003).
 Solomon E. Asche, Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments, in Harold S. Guetzkow, ed., Groups, Leadership, and Men (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press, 1951), 177 “190.
[3 ] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).