And so there you have it ”all the skills applied to a single problem. And here s the good news: it reflects how you and other experienced problem solvers behave on your best days.
A rocket scientist contemplates talking to her boss about a potential safety problem with a new propellant but chooses not to say a word because she figures that it ll just get her into trouble. For months on end she walks around in a funk, wondering if something horrible will happen. A nurse wonders about making a suggestion to a doctor that could affect a patient s health but holds his tongue rather than incur the physician s wrath. As this unspoken interaction continues, he too lives in a cocoon of worry and doubt. A husband chooses not to question his wife about her suspicious behavior and then lives with the haunting possibility that she may be having an affair.
And so we re back where we started. We routinely refuse to step up to bad behaviors ”despite the fact that they re causing us horrific pain ”because we figure that it s better to suffer in the current circumstances than run the risk of saying something dangerous or stupid. It s a matter of social calculus. Here s the formula: If we speak up, we could fail. We also might do nothing to solve the problem. In fact, we could create even worse problems for ourselves . We do the calculations, and the answer that pops out of our head is: H-O-L-D Y-O-U-R T-O-N-G-U-E.
But not forever. We suppress our gripes until one day our dark side shows itself. Our ugly stories create a brew that eventually fuels us with enough energy to take scary actions and dumbs us down enough so that we think that what we re about to do is okay, even the right thing to do.
And so we alternate between silence and violence. First we think, I can t believe I just said that, and so we shut down. Then we think, I m not taking this abuse any longer, and so we fire up. This particular cycle might be best described as the social version of quantum mechanics. We jump all the way from silence to violence without ever passing through the intervening space separating the two. We don t pause in the land of dialogue. To us, the lovely place where ideas flow freely and honesty rules doesn t exist. Here s the interesting part: Neither silence nor violence serves us, our relationships, or our purposes, yet we still toggle.
The solution to this reaction to failed promises lies in our ability to step up to high-stakes confrontations and handle them well. We see a problem and speak honestly and respectfully. But far more frequently than most of us are willing to admit (like the rocket scientist, the nurse, and the husband), we don t say a word because we don t know how to handle the confrontation or fear that we don t know how. We re not bad people. We re just frightened. And we re not frightened because we are inherently skittish; we re frightened because we believe failure looms on the horizon. Or so we think.
If only one message emerges from this book, it should be the following: You can step up to a crucial confrontation and hold it well. You already do that on your best days. And when you can take it no longer, you try to do it on your worst days. Now that you have a systematic way to think about crucial confrontations and are armed with skills that really work, more days can be your best days.
Equally important, when it comes to holding a big, sticky, complicated confrontation, you don t have to leap out of a plane without a parachute . Nobody s asking you to take a terrible and irreversible risk. Here s why. The first two skills, choose if and what and master my stories, take place in the confines (and safety) of your own head. By stepping up to problems that should be handled and picking the right one , you re ensuring that your effort is worthwhile. By doing your best to keep your emotions under control, you re taking an important step toward acting rationally and reducing resistance and defensiveness. Once again, this is all done before you say a single word. No risk there. Also, these actions alone keep you from charging in and ruining the conversation with your first sentence . This alone doubles your chances of success.
You then move from thinking to talking by discreetly and calmly describing the gap. This is the first time you re exposing yourself to any risk whatsoever. But you re doing your best to describe behaviors, not share ugly conclusions. You re a scientist, not a critic or judge. This humanistic approach helps keep the conversation professional and objective.
Now, after sharing one sentence or possibly two, you end with a question, not an accusation. You re not three sentences into the crucial confrontation, and you ve paused to listen to the other person. This too minimizes the risk. You ve seen some things, and you re wondering what s really going on. What s the other person s view?
What if the other person takes offense or maybe even becomes angry and abusive ? You can stop and deal with the new problem, or if you re feeling befuddled, you can always take a strategic delay. Back off and take time to rethink your approach. This is a conversation, not a gauntlet. It has exit points.
Let s say the other person responds favorably. He or she doesn t explode or become offended, but merely explains what s happening. He or she s either unable or unmotivated to keep the failed promise. That s it.
Consider motivation. This isn t particularly dangerous either. You re not trying to motivate others. You re not trying to figure out how to generate enough power to force others to comply .
Best of all, you re not trying to change underlying, immutable personalities. Your job is simply to make it motivating.
To do this, you jointly explore the forces that cause the task to be motivating or not motivating. This requires you to do nothing more than share natural consequences and listen for the other person to share any additional consequences you may not be aware of. You don t have to pummel people into submission. You may even choose to back off from your original request if it becomes clear that continuing on the original course doesn t make sense. You too can be influenced. When it comes to motivation, you re relying on dialogue not diatribe.
What if the person isn t able? Once again, your job isn t to force others to do the impossible . By definition, that can t be done. Your job isn t even to force others to do the difficult, not over the long run at least. Your job is to make it easy. How risky is that? Jointly examine forces that are serving as barriers. Jointly come up with resolutions .
It s little wonder that our friend Melissa at the plywood mill and the thousands of other influence masters we studied so willingly step up to crucial confrontations. They do this not because they are more courageous than the rest of us but because they are more skilled.
How about you? Are you ready not to rumble? Are you ready to hold a confrontation that has been keeping you from something you really care about? To give your skill set a final boost, turn to the next chapter, where we look at the ins and outs of several confrontations that are both common and challenging. They are the confrontations that people tend to worry about the most.