How are you handling YOUR “crucial confrontations?” One of my favorite books shares an approach. Before I jump into that, I’d like to share two instances where crucial confrontations skills come in handy. They are real life.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert at crucial confrontations, just someone trying to get better at them. Having read plenty of “leadership” books on the subject, I’m pleased to have found something that works. That’s rare amidst the sea of words on the subject of confrontations.

Browsing my Facebook wall a few moments ago, I saw the following from a fellow educator:

Brilliant. They left my kid out of the sixth grade slide show – AFTER I emailed them his pics AND verified that they’d been received! WTH??????

As you may not know, my daughter just graduated as a senior from high school. She was summa cum laude, received principal’s award, and other honors. But, like my colleague, even though my daughter submitted the pictures in time to the right person, verified that they were received, my daughter did NOT appear in the senior slide show. I bet this has happened to others at this time of the year.

Upset would be too mild a word to describe the reaction in my family. You can imagine the list of interrogatories someone in this situation might dump on their off-spring or a spouse might on the other, right?
  • Are you sure you sent the email with the pictures? You know we had to get after you to remember to scan the pictures.
  • Did you send them to the right person? Maybe you flubbed the email address…you tend to do that, don’t you?
  • Was there a conspiracy or plot to keep you out of the slide show? Maybe one of your friend’s mothers was jealous of how well you were doing.
Simply, the conspiracy theories and “stories told to oneself” can get your blood pressure racing. The idea is that “son of a gun” screwed you over on purpose. The authors of Crucial Confrontations describe this tendency in the following way:

People aren’t all that good at accurately attributing causality. We quickly jump to unflattering conclusions. The chief error we make is a simple one: We assume that people do what they do because of personality factors (mostly motivational) alone. Why did that woman steal from a co-worker? She’s dishonest. 

Human beings often employ what is known as a dispositional rather than a situational view of others. We argue that people act the way they do because of uncontrollable personality factors (their disposition) as opposed to doing what they do because of forces in their environment (the situation). We make this attribution error because when we look at others, we see their actions far more readily than we see the forces behind them. 

People often enact behaviors they take no joy in because of social pressure, lack of other options, or any of a variety of forces beyond personal pleasure. For example, the woman stole because she needed money to buy medicine for her children. Assuming that others do contrary things because it’s in their makeup or they actually enjoy doing them and then ignoring any other potential motivational forces is a mistake. Psychologists classify this mistake as an attribution error. And because it happens so consistently across people, times and places, it is called the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Is there a better way of handling this aside from committing the Fundamental Attribution Error?
One of the approaches I’ve been sharing with my son is known as Crucial Confrontations. It involves a 3 step process that looks like this:
  1. Describe the expectation.
  2. Describe the gap between the expectation and what actually happened.
  3. Ask the question, “What happened?”
The key in this approach is NOT starting with the story you told yourself, the same story that extrapolates from too few facts and gets your blood pressure up. How does this approach measure up to real life? In my opinion, it works quite well. 
In my family’s situation, I tried that approach with the person responsible for my daughter’s senior slide show. Here’s a copy of the email, word for word, that I sent that person:

This past weekend at the Banquet, I expected to see my daughter represented in the slide show featuring all the seniors. The information I had suggested she had sent in all the pictures (attached with email below) before the deadline.
At the end of the slide show, I couldn’t help but notice my daughter was not included in the slideshow. What happened?

As you can see, I deliberately stuck as close as I could to the formula provided by the authors of Crucial Confrontations. I could have started differently, right? I could have written the following:

What do you have against my daughter?!? Were you jealous because your daughter didn’t make it? Out of all the seniors present, she was the ONLY one who did NOT have her pictures appear in the slide show! Not only is she graduating summa cum laude, but she’s received all these honors and awards, and this one precious moment in time in front of her peers, her friend’s parents, YOU LEFT HER OUT!!! I am going to complain to the principal, the superintendent, and tell every one of the parents what you FAILED to do right.

Ok, I’ve had a little fun with that version.What kind of response would I have gotten if I’d sent that email? Probably not a very good one…and, that response would have shown I’d committed the fundamental attribution error.
The response–yes, this is the actual response–from the person I contacted came later in the day, based on the first version I wrote (not the angry one):

OH MY!  I AM SOOO SORRY.  I am just shaking right now!  I got confused because Ms. [TeacherName] sent in a picture and said that she didn’t bring her pictures in.  I spend about 100 + hours on this slide show and check and double check and send emails to faculty…  There is NO excuse.  I am just SICK about it, which doesn’t help. 

The only thing I can offer is my sincere apologies to your family and especially Aida.  I can also add her other pictures and burn to a DVD.  I was thinking of burning DVD’s and distributing to seniors.  

Since the event is over, there’s no going back in time, a sincere apology from an overworked parent is sufficient. In fact, I just wanted to know What happened? and then use that information to move on. 
Since I was busy at work, and my wife received a copy of the email, she is the one who ended up speaking to the person. I asked her to share how she’d begun the conversation. Not surprisingly, my wife naturally followed what the CC authors call “sharing her path to action.” 
In fact, I pointed it out to my son–he and I have been listening to this on the way to and from school; he has already used this approach on me successfully!–and he agreed.
The path to action essentially looks like this:
As you might imagine, when we get angry, we tend to see/hear something and without giving it more thought, we jump to “tell a story” and then to “feel” and “act.” The problem, of course, is that if you don’t take the time to get your facts together, share what you’ve observed, explaining to the other person YOUR path to action, you may find yourself starting with your conclusions and judgments. This can result in unnecessary conflict that masks what really is happening. Suddenly, the issue isn’t that the slide show failed to include your child but that you insulted someone who spent a lot of time on the project and made a mistake they’re willing to own.
I just had to share this story and how well it aligned to the Crucial Confrontations model. Is there a confrontation in your life that you would have handled differently? I know I have a few!

Get Blog Updates via Email!

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure