After learning that Leo had beat up an employee, we asked the manager if we could spend time studying supervisors who were ”how does one put it? ”less physically assertive. After all, it was our job to study the most competent leaders in the mill. We had been asked to fashion a leadership training course based on the practices of the best leaders, not the worst.
When the plant manager walked us down to the supervisors offices to introduce us to his top performers, we were amazed to learn that their highest-rated front-line supervisor was a 105- pound female engineer who was doing a short stint on the line. Nobody was better at holding employees accountable than Melissa was. She, along with a half dozen other leaders, would make up our first study group . We selected them because of their ability to hold people accountable (they weren t soft) and do that in a way that was respectful ”unlike Leo.
Actually, Melissa and her colleagues would be the first of over 25,000 people we would study across dozens of institutions for the next two decades. As it became clear to us that leaders aren t the only ones who wield influence, we expanded our research population to include all opinion leaders. Some were leaders and others were not, but all had been identified by their colleagues as the most powerful and effective people in their companies. We studied them not because they were the best communicators , the most popular employees, or the people with the fanciest titles; we studied them because they were the most influential people and we wanted to learn what made them that way.
For over 10,000 hours we tagged along with Melissa and other opinion leaders as they faced their daily routines. We shuffled alongside them until they tired of us and we eventually melted into the background. We watched as they conducted meetings. We sat by quietly as they celebrated successes. We took detailed notes as they held one another accountable.
In a study across dozens of organizations, it didn t take long for us to learn what set opinion leaders apart from the pack. It wasn t their technical skills, their title, or even something as intangible as, say, charisma. Opinion leaders wielded influence because they were the best at stepping up to colleagues, coworkers, or even their bosses, and holding them accountable.
Melissa and her peers taught us the meaning of the word confront. They held others accountable, face to face and one to one, often under trying circumstances. They were able to step up to problems and solve them quickly, and (this is what really set them apart) actually enhance relationships.
After learning that the ability to hold others accountable lies at the very center of a person s ability to exert influence, we became fascinated with the ways opinion leaders handled volatile topics such as incompetence , insubordination, and racism. We really perked up when the person an opinion leader was about to confront was more powerful ”say a supervisor going head to head with a vice president. And if the person who had broken a promise had a reputation for being defensive or even abusive (we once watched a technician confront a fellow who had been aptly nicknamed Vlad the Impaler ), we couldn t wait to see what happened . These were the interactions we really wanted to watch.
And watch we did. We watched a vice president confront a chief financial officer he believed was embezzling from the company. We looked in as a physician told her medical director that he was dangerously incompetent ”so incompetent that other physicians scheduled risky surgeries for times when he wasn t on duty. We witnessed a middle manager confront a senior vice president for breaking the law and placing a multi-billion-dollar contract at risk. What staggered us about all those conversations was not merely that they went well but that when they were finished, the problem was resolved and the relationship enhanced.
Of course, not every opinion leader succeeded all the time. We can t promise that the skills they taught us will make it so that you ll always get what you want or magically transform the people around you. What we have seen is that crucial confrontation skills offer the best chance to succeed regardless of the topic, person, or circumstances.
At this point you might conclude that this is a book about communication. After all, the focus will be on ways to talk to one another. But it s not about communication; it s about results ”and crucial ones at that. To give you a feel for what we mean by crucial results, let s take a look at a few recent news items.
On the morning of January 13, 1982, a jumbo jet crashed into a bridge linking Washington to the state of Virginia.All but five of the 79 people on board died. What caused the tragedy? The official accident report suggested that the disaster was due to pilot error. The pilot had waited too long on the ground before taking off, allowing too much ice to build up on the wings. But upon further investigation, here was the cause behind the cause.
As the pilot made preparation for takeoff, the copilot noticed that ice was building up on the engine and wings far too fast for his liking. He feared that it was becoming too dangerous even to consider taking off. But rather than come right out and say that he thought the pilot was being reckless or irresponsible, the copilot just dropped hints. See all those icicles on the back there and everything? or Boy, it s a losing battle here trying to deice those things, it [gives] you a false sense of security, that s all that does.
As the pilot continued his takeoff routine, now taxiing the plane down the runway, the copilot continued to raise concerns, but, again, only obliquely. That doesn t seem right, does it? The copilot didn t want to come right out and confront the pilot or authority figure. He didn t want to step across the line. He didn t say, I don t think it s safe to take off. I think we re all about to die. He thought it, but he didn t say it. He felt it was better to be polite. 
So what was the real cause of the tragedy? The copilot didn t have a method for confronting the pilot in a way that he believed was both direct and respectful. To the copilot, it was unthinkable and tactless to confront the pilot. In short, he didn t know how to step up to a crucial confrontation and deal with it well.
A middle-aged man checked into a medical clinic for a simple earache and walked out, the puzzled owner of a brand-new vasectomy.  How could this have happened? Hint: It wasn t a typographical error. Later the doctor explained that the patient had been wide awake as medical professionals prepared him for the surgery. That included shaving him in a place that was a whole torso away from his infected ear. And yet he said nothing. I can t figure out why he didn t ask what was going on, the doctor exclaimed. The man deferred to the doctors ”he had learned not to question authority.
This next example is painful to talk about. If you were watching on Tuesday January 28, 1986, as the space shuttle Challenger broke into pieces, you ll never forget the feeling of absolute horror that overcame people around the world as seven American heroes disappeared into the Florida sky. How could this have happened? everybody wondered. How could some of the world s finest minds make such a horrific mistake?
Eventually investigators pointed to the O-rings as the culprit.Most of the talk stopped there. It all would have ended there if the O-ring problem had been discovered for the first time after the explosion. The sad truth was that months before the tragedy occurred, several engineers had expressed fears that the O-rings might malfunction if the temperature dropped low enough. But who had the guts to pass the information up the chain? 
Seventeen years later, when the space shuttle Columbia exploded, it wasn t due to the O-rings. Nevertheless, the failure had the same root cause: People were afraid to express their concerns openly.  Why were people afraid to speak up? Investigators who studied the second shuttle disaster suggested that the environment at NASA had become so repressive that individuals who brought up safety issues weren t fired , but their job assignments were changed, people stopped listening to them, and they were rendered ineffective .  How do you hold a crucial confrontation that, if not handled well, could ruin your career?
Let s step back from the headlines and look at more typical scenarios. How does the inability to hold crucial confrontations affect the average family or organization? As it turns out, crucial confrontations lie at the root of all chronic family and organizational problems. Either people are facing failed promises and simply not dealing with them or they re dealing with those problems poorly.
For instance, you ve just been given a gigantic new assignment at work even though your plate is already full. Your boss mentions nothing about shifting your priorities to accommodate the new workload. In fact, the unspoken message is I don t care what it takes. Make it happen! When you mention that the assignment appears unrealistic , your boss tells you to be a team player. Of course, not being a team player is the corporate version of committing treason. Who knows how to handle this crucial confrontation?
Now for a home example. After five years of marriage Charley decides that it s time for his wife, Brandy, to give birth to their first child. When the two finalized their marriage plans, they agreed that they would never have children, but it seems that Charley has changed his mind. He announces his updated plan to Brandy as if it were his decision alone. He delivers it as a command.
Brandy feels completely blindsided . When she starts to raise her concerns, Charley proclaims that their marriage is over if they don t have kids . End of argument. What do you say when your spouse threatens you over a topic of such grave importance? How do you have this crucial confrontation?
Behind every national disaster, organizational failure, and family breakdown you find the same root cause. People are staring into the face of a crucial confrontation, and they re not sure what to say. This part they do know: First, they need to talk face to face about an extremely important issue. Second, if they fail to resolve the issue, simple problems will grow into chronic problems.
When they stare into the face of a possible disaster, some people are caught in an agonizing silence. Rather than speak directly and frankly about the problem at hand they drop hints, change the subject, or withdraw from the interaction altogether. Fear drives them to various forms of silence, and their point of view is never heard , except maybe in the form of gossip or rumor.
Others break away from their tortured inaction only to slip into violence. Frightened at the thought of not being heard, they try to force their ideas on others. They cut people off, overstate arguments, attack ideas, employ harsh debating tactics, and eventually resort to insults and threats. Fear drives them to do violence to the discussion, and their ideas are often resisted.
 Deborah Tannen, How to Give Orders Like a Man, New York Times Magazine (August 28, 1994): 201 “204.
 Brazilian Loses More than Hearing, BBC News, World Edition (August 20, 2003). Available at: http://news.bbc. co.uk/2/hi/health/3169049.stm.
 Richard P. Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 214 “215.
 NASA Chief Promises to Break Culture of Silence that Contributed to Columbia Accident, but Some Say That s Not Enough. Associated Press (Posted July 26, 2003).
 Marcia Dunn, NASA vows to purge bad managers. Associated Press (April 13, 2004).