tough situation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Crucial Accountability" by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al.. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have some tough topics to talk about? How do you handle difficult situations that may arise?

The book Crucial Accountability teaches readers how to deal with tricky situations that may arise when you have tough topics to talk about. These points can apply to many kinds of difficult conversations.

Keep reading to find out how to handle tough topics to talk about in life, work, and relationships.

Truly Tough Situations and How to Handle Them

The authors note a few situations where extra steps or precautions may be necessary when you have tough topics to talk about. The section below will discuss these novel situations and how to handle them.

Dealing With an Obstinate Person

When the other person is impossible to hold accountable because they either refuse to have an accountability discussion or refuse to change their ways, your options are unfortunately limited. When you’ve done your best to converse and it seems the situation is a lost cause, you have two options: endure or end the relationship. This can be a tough choice when learning how to handle tough topics to talk about.

Enduring a relationship: When the issue isn’t big enough to end the relationship, we can learn to endure the issue by trying to see the other person’s story. This entails empathizing with the other person and coming to reasonable conclusions about their behavior.

(Shortform note: Experts note that in addition to the authors’ recommendations on how to cope, you should also know your triggers and avoid them when possible. If you do become triggered, take deep breaths and try to ground yourself in the present moment rather than your thoughts and emotions.) 

Ending a Relationship: If you find that you cannot empathize with the other person and you remain upset over the issue, you’re not enduring but wallowing. Wallowing is when we remain in a situation but constantly complain, either internally or externally. In these situations, the authors say that you must end the relationship.

(Shortform note: Experts second the authors’ argument that persisting, unsolvable issues that cause distress warrant relationship termination. While it might be extremely difficult to end a relationship, experts explain that staying in a relationship where problems persist can be unhealthy for you and the other person, leading to paranoia, avoidance of intimacy, self-doubt, sense of doom, and cynicism. Further, the longer you stay in a toxic relationship, the more likely you are to carry these trauma symptoms into your next relationship.)

When You’re Changing the Rules or Breaking Standard Practice

When you change the rules or break standard practice, you may be changing or contradicting previous accountability expectations—such as holding people accountable in a previously accountability-free environment. In this situation, it’s common for people to resist a change to their routine, especially when they don’t understand why the change is necessary. 

To get people on board with significant change:

  1. Inform influential people and ask them to spread the message that the standard practice is going to change and people will be held accountable for following the rules.
  2. Describe the current rules/practices and their natural consequences so people understand why things need to change.
  3. Describe your vision of how things should be instead, and then explain the rules and practices that should be enacted to materialize that vision. 
  4. Contrast past practices and the new change so people can connect what they used to be doing to what they should be going instead.

When You’re Asked to Address an Issue You Didn’t Witness

When learning how to handle tough topics to talk about, another circumstance would be if you’re a person of authority and you’re asked to address an accountability issue that you didn’t witness firsthand. For example, an employee might complain about another employee talking down to coworkers.

The authors explain that if someone makes a complaint about another person, you must first observe the behavior yourself before approaching the other person. Without first observing the behavior with your own eyes, you’re unable to see the full picture. As the authors mentioned earlier, entering the conversation seeing only one perspective spells disaster.

In these cases, before having a discussion, put yourself in situations where you may be able to witness the problem behavior. Once you have witnessed the behavior yourself, then you can discuss it.

(Shortform note: The authors don’t address what happens if you can’t witness the accountability issue firsthand. If this is the case, experts recommend that you hold a mediation between the complaining and offending parties. In doing this, try to focus on the outcome (eliminating the issue or its underlying consequences), give each side an equal chance to share their perspective, and identify a plan that will resolve the issue.)

When Acknowledging the Issue Would Devastate the Other Person

You might also run into trouble if you’re dealing with someone who thinks they excel in an area and you must tell them that they aren’t meeting standards. In this situation, you run the risk of greatly damaging their self-esteem.

In this situation, prepare for the discussion by breaking the issue down into smaller parts: What smaller pieces can the person work on that will ultimately improve the issue as a whole? Rather than addressing the issue upfront, consider holding multiple conversations where you address a smaller issue each time. In the long run, the small improvements will fix the overall issue. 

For example, if the other person is a terrible writer, don’t start with “your writing needs a lot of work to meet expectations.” Instead, break the big problem into smaller, workable pieces. First, discuss improving sentence clarity, then once that has improved, work on grammar, and so on.

If You Think You’re Nagging

If you’re constantly having accountability conversations about the same issue and the other person never changes, you can start to feel like a nag. Here is yet another choice to make when learning how to address tough topics to talk about. In this circumstance, you have two options:

1) If the issue is small, like your spouse leaving their shoes by the front door rather than putting them on the shelf, consider expanding your comfort zone. If the issue causes you a minor inconvenience but is something you can cope with, then do so.

2) If the issue is important to you, have another accountability conversation and really focus on the pattern of the problem.

How to Handle Tough Topics to Talk About

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  • How to broach sensitive conversations with loved ones and coworkers
  • How to prepare for, execute, and follow up on accountability conversations
  • How to solve issues while improving your relationships

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