Describe the Gap


To ensure that you set the right tone during the first few seconds of a crucial confrontation, don t shoot from the hip. Don t charge into a situation, kick rears, take names , and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, carefully describe the gap. Here s how:

  • Start with safety.

  • Share your path .

  • End with a question.

Start with Safety

When another person has let you down, start the confrontation by simply describing the gap between what was expected and what was observed : You said you were going to have your room cleaned before dinner. It s nine o clock and it s still not done.

Don t play games , merely describe the gap. Describing what was expected versus what was observed is clear and simple, and it helps you get off on the right foot .

For the most part, this is how you ll begin a crucial confrontation. However, if you have reason to believe that the other person will feel threatened or intimidated or insulted by the mere mention of the broken promise, you ll need to take steps to ensure that he or she feels safe ”no matter the topic.

As we suggested earlier, we watched skilled individuals talk about incompetence , mistrust , and even embezzling, and the conversations, though not pleasant, ended successfully. Then we watched less skilled individuals raise something as trivial as arriving five minutes late to a meeting and the confrontation degenerated into a shouting match.

As we tried to understand these apparent contradictions, we finally realized what was happening.

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The Big Surprise

At the foundation of every successful confrontation lies safety. When others feel frightened or nervous or otherwise unsafe, you can t talk about anything. But if you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything ”even about failed promises.

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Of course, the more controversial and touchy the issue is, the more challenging the confrontation will be. Nevertheless, if you maintain a safe climate, others will hear and consider what you re saying. They may not like it, but they ll be able to absorb it. Make it safe for people, and they won t need to go to silence or violence.

Let s take a look at what it takes to create and maintain a safe climate, regardless of the person or topic. Let s examine how to open our mouths and talk about a violated expectation when we re suspicious that the other person might become defensive or upset.

Watch for Signs That Safety Is at Risk

Let s quickly review the basics of safety and then move to the task of making it safe, even when you re dealing with a mammoth broken promise.

People feel unsafe when they believe one of two things:

  1. You don t respect them as a human being (you lack Mutual Respect).

  2. You don t care about their goals (you lack Mutual Purpose).

When others know that you value them as a person and care about their interests, they will give you an amazing amount of leeway. They ll let you say almost anything. That s why your four-year-old granddaughter can tell you you re fat without offending you. You know that she loves and respects you and that her motives are pure. This, after all, is an innocent child. However, if what you say or how you say it causes others to conclude that you don t respect them or that you have selfish and perverse motives, nothing you say will work. Here s why.

As you talk to others about a problem, a warning flag goes up in their minds. After all, this is a problem discussion. They immediately want to know one thing: Are they in trouble? Their boss, parent, loved one, or friend is bringing up a problem, not inviting them to lunch . Are bad things going to happen? People assess their risk on the basis of two factors. Are bad things currently happening to them? Are bad things about to happen to them?

Mutual Respect

As you first describe the gap, if your tone of voice, facial expression, or words show disrespect, bad things are currently happening to the other person. You re not respecting that person. You re speaking in an uncivil tone. Your manner is discourteous. Your delivery is contemptuous. In short, you ve held court in your head and found that person guilty, or so it feels to him or her.

Of course, this lack of respect is typically communicated subtly, not overtly. Sometimes all it takes is a raised eyebrow. (On other occasions the word moron finds its way into the confrontation.) In any case, the other person believes that you think he or she is incompetent, lazy, or worse . You have signaled that this confrontation is going to end badly . After all, it s certainly starting that way. It s only natural that when others feel disrespected, they are afraid and resort to either silence or violence.

Mutual Purpose

Let s look at safety problems that extend beyond the moment. If it becomes clear to others that your purpose is at odds with theirs, they re likely to conclude that something bad is about to happen to them. You re going to solve a problem, and if they re harmed in the process, so be it. Your goal is to get what you want, and you aren t even thinking about their goal. This doesn t bode well for them. Even if you start the confrontation respectfully, it s only natural that if others feel that you are at cross- purposes, they ll resort to silence or violence. They have to watch out for their interests.

At the very first sign of fear, you have to diagnose. Are others feeling disrespected? Or do they believe you re at cross-purposes? Or both? Then you have to find a way to let others know that you respect them and that you re not going to trample all over their wishes.

This can be hard to remember in the face of a confrontation. We typically care so much about the content of a confrontation that we don t think to watch for fear and restore safety. Nevertheless, it s the only solution. We have to watch for signs that people are worried, stop saying what we re saying, diagnose why people are afraid, step out of the original conversation, and then restore Mutual Respect, Mutual Purpose, or both. Here s how to do that.

Maintain Mutual Respect

You re about to suggest that the other person has violated an expectation, and this could easily imply that he or she was not motivated, was not able, or both, and nobody likes to be told that. And if the infraction is huge, say, infidelity or lying, isn t the other person going to assume that you don t respect him or her ”almost by definition? What can you do to ensure that the other person doesn t feel disrespected even though you re about to talk about a problem?

Remember to Tell the Rest of the Story

Obviously, everything we ve talked about so far helps. First, we avoid making others feel disrespected by not disrespecting them. If we see a problem, tell ourselves an ugly story, and then charge in with an accusation, the other person is going to feel disrespected. Even if we find others guilty in our heads and do our best to hide it, the verdict will show on our faces.

Show others respect by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Tell the rest of the story. Think of other people as rational, reasonable, and decent. This attitude eventually affects our demeanor, choice of words, and delivery and helps make the confrontation safe for others. They can tell that even though we ve spotted a potential problem, we re speaking out of a position of respect.

Use Contrasting to Restore Mutual Respect

Sometimes thinking good thoughts is not enough. We re pleasant as we begin to talk about a failed promise, but the other person hears the mention of a problem and immediately assumes that we do not respect him or her. Problems are bad things, the other person is connected to the problem, and therefore we must think he or she is bad. Despite our best efforts, others feel unsafe and go to silence or violence, and we haven t even made it all the way through our first sentence .

Let s add a skill to help us with our very first sentence. We ll use it as a preemptive tool for stopping disrespect in its tracks. It s called Contrasting . It s the killer of the fundamental attribution error. Here s how it works.

Before you start the confrontation, anticipate how others might assume the worst. How might they feel disrespected? For instance, if you bring up a quality problem, the other person may believe that you think he or she is unskilled in general. If you address poor effort on a specific project, the other person may conclude that you believe he or she isn t motivated or can t be trusted, or perhaps you don t like him or her or are about to take disciplinary action, and so on. You ve noticed a problem, and the other person prepares for the worst before you can finish your thought. To deal with these predictable misinterpretations, use Contrasting. First, imagine what others might erroneously conclude. Second, immediately explain that this is what you don t mean. Third, as a contrasting point, explain what you do mean. The important part is the don t portion. It addresses misunderstandings that could put safety at risk. Once safety is protected or reestablished, the do part of the statement clarifies your real meaning or intent. Here s what Contrasting sounds like when it is used up front to avoid feelings of disrespect:

I don t want you to think I m unhappy with how we work together. Overall I m very satisfied. I just want to talk about how we make decisions together.

I m not saying that it was wrong of you to disagree with me in the meeting. We need to hear everyone s view if we want to make the best choice. It s just that I think the team heard your tone and words as attacking.

I know you tried your best to improve your grades. I m satisfied with your effort. Please don t hear me as being less than proud of your progress. I d just like to share a few study ideas that might help you maintain your grades more easily.

Contrasting plays a huge role in initially describing broken promises. The bigger the problem is, the more likely it is that the other person is going to feel disrespected. Consequently, many discussions of failed promises and bad behavior start with a preventive Contrasting statement. In fact, this is the skill people are looking for when they pick up a book that deals with missed expectations because it answers the question: How do I get started?

If you suspect that the other person is going to feel offended or defensive, prepare the ground by explaining what you don t and do mean.

Of course, you can also use Contrasting in the middle of a conversation when you suddenly become aware that the other person is feeling disrespected. You didn t anticipate the reaction, but sure enough, he or she s found a way to feel disrespected:

I m sorry; I didn t mean to imply that you were doing it on purpose. I believe you were unaware of the impact you were having. That s why I wanted to bring it up in the first place.

When a conversation turns ugly, with greater intensity and speed than you ever imagined it could, it s usually because others misunderstand not your content but your intent . You re speaking respectfully. That part you got right. You merely want to solve a problem in a way that keeps the relationship on solid footing, but the people you re talking to think differently. They believe that the only reason you re bringing up the infraction is that you re out to humiliate them, make them do something they don t want to do, overthrow their authority, or otherwise cause them pain and sorrow. They believe that bad things are about to happen to them.

Of course, once others allow vicious stories about your intent to romp freely inside their brains , they become angry , defensive, and emotionally charged. Blood rushes to their arms and legs so that they can be better equipped for the fight or flight reaction their bodies have been genetically designed for. Within seconds they re on their worst brain-starved behavior. Once this chemical transformation happens, there s a good chance you ll never get back on track. Anything you say carries with it the stench of evil intentions. And of course, since they are now dumbed down by adrenaline , their logical processes take a vacation and nothing you say really matters.

You can t let this happen. If you think others are likely to harbor bad thoughts about your intentions before you ve even said a word , take another kind of preventive measure: Establish Mutual Purpose.

Build common ground before you even mention a problem. Let others know that your intentions are pure ”that your goal is to solve problems and make things better for both of you. Start with what s important to you and them ”not just you. Establish Mutual Purpose.

Here s an example:

If it s okay with you, I d like to spend a couple of minutes talking about how we made that last decision. My goal is to come up with a method we re both comfortable with.

I d like to give you some feedback that I think would help you be more productive with your meetings. [Add Contrasting.] I don t think this is a huge problem, but I do think that if you were to make a couple of small changes, things would run a lot more smoothly.

Note: If your sole purpose is to make your life better while possibly making the other person s life worse, who can blame others for becoming defensive? If there is a short- term cost associated with the change you re calling for (and there usually is), think about how everyone will benefit over the long haul and then establish Mutual Purpose. For example:

I m concerned about a problem that is affecting all of us. If we don t find a way to increase our output, we ll cease to be competitive. Our customer is already researching alternative sources, and we re at risk of being shut down. [Add Contrasting.] I don t want to come up with a plan that is physically or mentally stressing because we ll have to live with it for years to come. I just want to develop a plan that leads to a more consistent and predictable effort.

Ask for Permission

If the topic you re about to address is traditionally off limits, particularly sensitive, or something a person in your position doesn t normally discuss, ask for permission to discuss it. Be gracious. Don t plunge into a delicate topic without first seeking permission. Asking permission is a powerful sign of respect. It also helps allay people s suspicion that your intentions toward them are malicious.

Speak in Private

This safety tip is both obvious and easy: Always discuss problems in private. No matter where you may encounter a problem, retire to your office or another secluded setting where you can talk one on one. Never conduct public performance reviews. Never discipline your children in front of their friends. Never confront your spouse in the middle of a dinner party. Never talk about friends , loved ones, direct reports , or bosses at the water cooler , behind their backs. Speak in private, one to one and face to face. Avoid the following common violations of this principle.

Inappropriate Humor

Don t violate privacy by masking a public performance review with thoughtless humor, as in this example: Well, look who just arrived. Forget how to find the meeting room, did you?

For many people this is a hard habit to break. It takes years to learn how to craft the perfect public punitive remark: veiled enough to deny, clever enough to get a laugh , and pointed enough to be nasty. Nevertheless, drop the cutting sarcasm.

A Group Attack

Don t deal with individual problems in meetings or public gatherings by chastising the entire group. This cowardly tactic fails doubly. First, the guilty parties may miss the fact that they re the target of your snide comments. Second, the innocent people resent the fact that they re being thrown in with the guilty. Once again, problem solving should be done in private, one on one.

If you can create enough safety, you can talk about just about anything with just about anyone ”even a defensive boss. You note a problem, step out of the content of the conversation, and restore Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose.

Combining Safety Skills

Let s see how these safety skills can be combined to help form the first few phrases in a crucial confrontation, particularly if the topic is touchy or the person you re dealing with is in a position of power. How, for example, could you start with safety when challenging a very defensive boss?

Watching Wally

Let s watch Wally, a skilled communicator, as he deals with a defensive chief executive officer who is about to torpedo a project that Wally has invested a year in launching. This text is taken from an actual interaction between a manager and the CEO of his company.

CEO: You mean to say that we re going to spend three months gathering data? What a crock! I don t want to gather more data; I want to do something .

Wally recognizes the boss s outbreak for what it is. It is not a sign that the issue is off limits. (That s what less insightful individuals might conclude.) He realizes that the boss is getting hot under the collar because safety is at risk . The boss needs to know that Wally cares about his interests and respects his position, so that s exactly what Wally communicates.

Wally : Let me be clear on something. I don t want to waste any time or resources on something that adds no value. If gathering data is a waste, I will whack it from the plan in a heartbeat. I understand that you are facing a tough deadline, and at the end of this discussion I will do what you think needs to be done.

Now, with safety restored, Wally steps back into the issue at hand.

Wally: With that said, I think there will be some negative consequences if we don t gather more data. I ll be happy to describe them, and then we can decide how to proceed.

At this point the CEO feels safe about where the conversation is going and asks to hear Wally s concerns. At the conclusion the CEO agrees that data gathering is critical and willingly supports the next steps.

Share Your Path

Let s look at the second step in describing the gap. We started with safety and will be doing our best to watch for fear throughout the discussion. When called for, we may start with a preemptive Contrasting statement or describe our common ground. Once the other person feels safe, it s time to describe the gap.

Common Mistakes

To get us started on the actual words we ll choose, we ll begin with one of our favorite research subjects, Bruno. He was among the first leaders the authors watched on the job. We selected Bruno not because he was great but because he consistently demonstrated (note the root of the word: demon ) all that is bad and wrong. He taught us what not to do.

Don t Keep Others in the Dark

It s ten minutes into the workday , and the authors are roaming the floor with Bruno as he meanders through a nest of cubicles teeming with technicians.

Watch this, Bruno fiendishly giggles as he approaches one of his direct reports. Bruno then circles the fellow like a vulture, shakes his head in disgust, mutters under his breath , and then flutters away.

The technician is clearly alarmed.

Keep em on their toes, Bruno declares. That s my motto.

True to his word, for four straight hours Bruno explains nothing in clear terms. He constantly prods people with ambiguous expressions such as shape up, fix that, that could kill someone, and the ever-popular get a better attitude.

Nobody understood this guy. His tactics were as manipulative as they were ineffective . Strangely enough, Bruno was purposely vague. He used ambiguity as a torture device. But that was Bruno. Most people don t try to be vague; they re merely inarticulate. Whatever the root cause, lack of clarity is a problem solver s worst enemy. People can t improve if they don t know the specific details of the infraction.

Back to the Model

To be crystal-clear about the details we want to discuss, let s return to the Path to Action model. It explains how humans move from observation to action.

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Remember this diagram, which was first introduced in Chapter 2? The other person acts, you see something (the action, the result, or both), you tell yourself a story about the other person s motive, you feel, and then you act. By adding the result of an action to the model, we re now fully prepared to talk about infractions. In fact, leaders often see only poor results as the entry point to a problem discussion. Here s the question: What details should you talk about? What part of the path should you share: the original action or behavior, the result, your conclusion, or your feeling? How do you share your path?

No Harsh Conclusions, Please

When we step up to a problem discussion, we re inclined to lead with judgments or stories. After all, our view of others intent often has us all riled up. As far as we re concerned, their bad intent is the problem. Unfortunately, when we lead with our judgments , we get off on the wrong foot. It sounds something like this:

  • I can t believe that you purposely made fun of me in that meeting!

  • You don t care about our family one tiny bit. Must you work every waking hour ?

  • You show no confidence. No wonder nobody trusts your opinion.

When we share our harsh stories, others know what we have concluded , not what they have done. They can only guess at what we re talking about. This strategy can be unclear, inaccurate, and costly.

Start with Facts

As a general rule, when you are sharing your path, it s best to start with the facts: what you saw and heard. Don t start with your stories. If you do, people are likely to become defensive. Instead, describe what the person did, along with the result. By talking about the result, you let the person know why you ve brought up the issue. You ve framed the problem.

  • Stay external. Describe what s happening outside your head. ( You cut the person off in midsentence ) as opposed to what s happening inside your head ( You re rude ).

  • Explain what, not why . Facts tell us what s going on ( You spoke so quietly , it was hard to hear ). Conclusions tell us why we think it s going on ( You re afraid ).

  • Gather facts. If others complain to you about their friends and coworkers, they re likely to tell stories and leave out the facts:

    He s arrogant . She s unreliable. Their team is selfish. When this happens, probe for details. Ask them to share what they actually heard and saw.

Even when it comes to our own thinking, it s often difficult to remember the original facts. Most of us have an experience ( You spoke nonstop about yourself and didn t ask me a single question ), tell a story ( You re egotistical ), generate a feeling ( I don t like being around you ), and then forget the original experience. In some cases we may not even be aware of the other person s subtle action that led to the feeling. Thus, we end up walking around with feelings and stories but are incapable of holding crucial confrontations successfully because we lack the facts required to help others understand what we re thinking.

Here s the bottom line. Every time you share a vague and possibly inflammatory story instead of a fact, you re betting that the other person won t become defensive and can translate what you re thinking into what he or she did. That s a bad bet. Share the facts. Describe the observable details of what s happening. Cut out the guesswork.

Tentatively Share Your Story

As we suggested earlier, sometimes a person s behavior can be moderately annoying and maybe that individual has even broken a promise, but what really has you distressed is the fact that you believe that his or her intent is less than noble. You re trying not to make the fundamental attribution error, but facts are starting to pile up and it s hard to keep assuming the best. Keeping an open mind is one thing; being naive is another.

Remember the realtor who was upset at an employee not just because she was routinely late but because the realtor figured she was taking advantage of their friendship? We suggested that this was the right problem to discuss or at least the correct starting point. But how do you merely discuss the facts when it s your story you want to talk about?

You don t. You share your story as well. Of course, you don t start there, but you don t walk away from your story either. Start with the facts because they re the least emotional and controversial element of the conversation and then tentatively share your story or conclusion. Make sure your language is free of absolutes. Trade You said for I thought we agreed. Swap It s clear for I was wondering if. Here s what this might sound like:

Martha, I was wondering if we could talk about something that has me bothered. I m not sure I m correct in my thinking, so I thought I d better check with you.

Sure, what s the deal?

I ve talked to you four different times about coming into work between twenty and thirty minutes late, and I m beginning. . . .

Like I told you, it s not always easy to make it on time.

I m beginning to wonder if the fact that we re friends and neighbors isn t getting in the way.

How s that?

Well, since we re friends, it feels to me like you re coming in late, knowing full well that it could be hard for me to hold you accountable. Do I have this right, or am I missing something here?

Your conclusion could be dead wrong, but it is your conclusion that s starting to eat at you, and now you ve made it safe to talk about it. By taking the attitude that you could be wrong and using tentative language, you re being fair.

Continually Watch for Safety Problems

Warning: Once you start to tell your story, no matter how tentative you are, there s a chance the other person will become defensive. If, for example, you believe your teenage son has stolen money from you, regardless of how tentative you are, you re likely to experience something like this:

You: Given that you re the only one who s been in the house in the last four hours and $200 is missing out of my wallet, it s hard for me not to wonder if you took it.

Son: I can t believe you re calling me a thief ! (Stomps out of room and slams door.)

How do you handle this kind of defensiveness? First, recognize it for what it is: a threat to safety. The problem is not that the other person can t handle the content you re offering; it s that he or she doesn t feel safe with you discussing it. When you realize that the problem is one of safety, you ll do the right thing: Step out of the content and rebuild safety. Decide whether the problem is that the other person feels disrespected, or believes your intentions are bad (or both). Then use the Contrasting skill we described earlier to relieve that person s mind.

You: I m not calling you a thief. I am trying to come up with explanations for what just happened . Can you see how I would wonder given the facts I just described? My intention here is not to accuse you but to find out what is really going on so I can solve this problem. Can we talk about it?

If you start to share your story and the other person becomes defensive ”take away his or her fear. Step out of the content and restore safety.

End with a Question

You started the crucial confrontation by doing your best to make it safe. You shared your path in a way that continued to make it safe. Now it s time to bring your opening paragraph to a close, still maintaining safety. End with a simple diagnostic question: What happened? Make this an honest inquiry, not a veiled threat or an accusation such as What s wrong with you!

As you finish off your description of the failed expectation your goal should be to hear the other person s point of view. If you ve started with safety and presented detailed facts, the person responsible for the infraction should understand what the problem is and feel comfortable talking about the underlying cause and the eventual solution.

Don t underestimate the importance of this sincere question. This is a pivotal moment in the crucial confrontation, one that will sustain the safety you ve created. If you sincerely want to hear the other person s point of view, you let him or her know that this is dialogue, not a monologue. You help the other person understand that your goal is not to be right or to punish but to solve a problem and that all the information must be out in the open for that to occur. So end your opening statement with a sincere invitation for the other person to share even completely contrary opinions with you.

Finally, as the other person answers the question, What happened? listen carefully.

Diagnose the root of the problem ”which of the six sources of influence are at play? Are they unmotivated? Are they unable? The solution to each alternative is quite different. You don t want to try to motivate people who can t do what you ve asked, or enable people who don t care. We ll look at ways to deal with each of these problems in the next two chapters. For now, remember to listen for the underlying cause.




Crucial Confrontations. Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior
Crucial Confrontations
ISBN: 0071446524
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 115

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