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What do you do when somebody more powerful than you pulls rank and shuts down a conversation by applying “the boss card?”

Joseph Grenny, who with others at the VitalSmarts consultancy has written books on crucial conversations, recalls when theory turned to practice and he faced such a tricky moment in his career. He had just presented a list of options to a client’s meeting and afterward the CEO privately ruled out a key element, deeper diagnosis of the company’s situation. “I found myself doing what I counsel others not to do. I began to think I had to choose between telling the truth and keeping a relationship. My convictions began a debate with my fears,” he writes on the consultancy blog.

Fortunately, his convictions won out. He knew it’s possible to speak the truth and not just preserve but actually strengthen the relationship. Here’s how:

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Ask permission

An excellent way to create safety in this situation is by ceding control, honouring the fact the other person has rank. Ask for permission to share.

Give the other person a reason to talk

Keep the conversation going by encouraging the other person to talk on some aspect of the issue important to them.

Say the thing he or she is afraid to say

If fear lies behind the issues at stake and is keeping the other person from speaking openly, you have to put it on the table. In this instance, Mr. Grenny figured the CEO was concerned the consultancy was trying to jack up its fees with unnecessary work.

Accept your role

You are not the boss – the other person is. Show respect and create safety for that individual by affirming your relative positions. “The first thing I want you to know is that I’m fully aware you’re the boss. At the end of this conversation I will do what you order me to do,” Mr. Grenny said. “Second, if there are elements of this plan you think won’t add value – or worse, a way to jack up worthless consulting fees, I’d like to know about them. Ultimately, I want a relationship with you where you are okay demanding that I justify the work.” After a pause and a favourable head nod from the CEO, he added: “With all that said, I want you to know I have reasons to believe that if we skip diagnosis, the project will suffer significantly. I would be happy to explain those reasons if you want. But if not, I will remove it and do my best to compensate for the problems I think we’ll see.”

Show your work

Don’t just disagree. “Share your logic. Share your facts. Share the reasoning behind your decision. And most important, share the values that motivate your conclusion. If you don’t, others will fill the vacuum you leave with their fears and biases,” he notes in a separate, related article on Harvard Business Review that adds a few more tactics.

Acknowledge value trade-offs

Let others know you sympathize with the values your position compromises and that they hold dearer. Decisions are not black and white, after all. Honour the worthy values that may motivate other people’s positions.

Be tentatively confident

Take a firm but not overstated position. You’ll only alienate others if you make absolute statements like “the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is …” or “The right answer is …” You are a thoughtful but not dogmatic person who has arrived at a conclusion.

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These are not easy situations. You must proceed with caution. Mr. Grenny’s advice might help.

Quick hits

  • Never attend a convention or trade show without a list or a plan, says consultant Donald Cooper. A few weeks beforehand figure out four or five things you want to learn, touch base with organizers or others who know people attending the event who have expertise in that area, and phone or e-mail to see if you can meet them for 15 minutes at the event. Show up with some specific questions so you are respectful of their time.
  • Don’t text while being interviewed in person for a job. When asked by careers website Fairygodboss the worst interviewing mistakes hiring managers have seen, this was raised by several people.
  • To banish or at least control your worries, write them down in a journal, research shows.
  • Weakness protects you. It tells you what you shouldn’t do, says career coach Dan Rockwell.
  • Mothers and fathers who temporarily opted out of work to care for family fared significantly worse in terms of hiring prospects relative to applicants who experienced unemployment due to job loss and compared to continuously employed mothers and fathers, sociologist Katherine Weisshaar found.

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