Starting a Crucial Confrontation

Mind the GapWhat is a crucial confrontation?  According to Joseph Grenny, it consists of a face-to-face accountability discussion – somone has disappointed you and you talk to them directly.  All ends well, the problem is resolved, and the relationship benefits. And shortly after this happens, a beautiful unicorn dances over a fluffy cloud onto your rainbow.  Awesome.

In 1986, NASA engineers repeatedly expressed concerns about the O-rings on the space shuttle’s solid fuel boosters. However, these concerns never made it up the chain into the hands of the personnel responsible for deciding whether the press the “Launch” button.  Such are the stakes for mishandling a “crucial confrontation”. 

So, how to start. Before opening your mouth, make sure you understand the exact dynamic of what you are stepping up to.  You are addressing a broken promise, a gap, a difference between what you expected and what actually happened.

Once you are able to define your issue under those terms, beware of a few common mistakes.  First, don’t play games.  Sandwiching your problem statement between two compliments, the circuitous “surprise attack” (…So, how was your weekend? Great…family good, uh huh…so what the heck is your problem with our new procedure?), or trapping someone into a lie, are all gamesmanship.  Don’t do it.  Next, don’t play charades (“I’m thinking of a problem, not you of course…”).  Don’t pass the buck either…(“You know, I really don’t care you are late all the time but the bosses are getting angry”).  The capper is the “read my mind” ploy used by parents world wide (“Do you know why we are meeting today?”).

The three-step process detailed by Grenny is not complicated.  Describe the gap, in your terms, from what was expected and what happened.  Ensure through identifying mutual respect and mutual purpose that the discussion is safe.  This means while you describe the gap, you will need to pay attention to tone, facial expression, or use of certain words that you respect the other person and that you have common mutual goals so that solving this problem is a good thing for everyone. And lastly, your description of the gap should end with a question – “What happened?”

Now, it’s time to listen.