A Collaboration Treasure Map: Crankiness marks the spot

If you think you should be doing “it” better, you’re suffering needlessly.

A Director-level client told me about a recent conversation she’d had with a colleague, a department head. The department head was working herself into a fury, reiterating that my client should be doing a better job of “it.” Each time my client skillfully asked for more clarity, she got more cranky intensity. Running out of cleverly worded repartee, my client said:

“What is ‘it?’”
“I beg your pardon?” said the department head.
“This ‘it’ you keep referring to, the thing I should be doing. What exactly is ‘it?’”
“You should know what ‘it’ is.”
“I don’t.”
“But you are the Director – you should know.”
“I don’t know. Will you tell me?”

And she did. “It” was a simple list of 4 things the department head needed from the director. The director wrote them down, and made sure they got done.

What I love about this conversation is:

  • The director stayed grounded, calm and helpful.
  • She did not take the crankiness personally.
  • She did not get defensive and fire back her own “should.”
  • She did not shy away from the crankiness.
  • By interrogating the crankiness directly, she broke through a years-old stalemate between departments.


You can have similar, struggle-free results.  Most conversations are built on assumptions. The tricky thing about assumptions is they exist just out of our awareness, much like the foundation of a house. If, like a foundation, they were made of steel-reinforced concrete, there would be no problem. But our assumptions are made of the merest gossamer, wispy and hard to pin down. It’s easy to exceed their load-bearing limits. Basing your working agreements on assumptions leads to disappointment, which leads to unfortunate conclusions, which leads to judgments, which will get you horribly stuck, sometimes for years. Best to ferret out those assumptions as quick as you can.

There are three signs that assumptions are at work in the above conversation:

  • The level of intensity/crankiness escalates as the conversation goes on.
  • The use of the word “should” (Scratch crankiness hard enough and a “should” always leaps out).
  • The use of the word “it.”

Like the three horsemen of the apocalypse, these signal big conversational trouble. I hope you like horses, because you’ve got to move toward these to get back on track.

How to interrogate an assumption (and not the person making it)

  1. Calmly comment on the level of intensity/crankiness. “I’m getting a bit bowled over by your energy on this. Tell me what that’s about.” Or “You’ve raised your voice and leaned forward in your chair each time you talk about my campaign for bunnies in the workplace. Which makes me wonder: Do you think I’m crazy?”
  2. Comment on the word “should.” “I’m getting distracted by the word “should” which you’ve used 3 times in the last few seconds. What is it I should know or be doing?”
  3. Comment on the word “it. ”I’m sure I should know what “it” means, but I’m not at all clear. Could you give me the specifics again?”

In horror movies, there is always the terrifying knocking in the closet that no one wants to explore. It has to be investigated before the plot can continue, and we hang on the edge of our seats as the door swings open to reveal.. a truth we hadn’t imagined.  Assumptions are like that. You won’t know what the conversation is about until you look in the closet.

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