Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am the first to admit that I do not well during crucial conversations– especially if the person I am having the conversation with gets angry. I immediately go silent. Then I hold my true feelings inside until I can’t stand it any longer and I let my own stories out, usually causing more problems and hurt feelings. I know I need to make it safe and talk about facts, but lack the courage to do so. I want to stop this behavior, so I need to know if there is any kind of exercise I can do to change my behavior. Waiting for the next crucial conversation is just not working.
Wanting to Change
Dear Wanting to Change,
Let me begin with an old academic framework. When people want to improve, they move along a continuum from unconscious incompetence, to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to unconscious competence. In plain English, this means people can go from being unskilled and not knowing it to being skilled and not having to think about it. You feel that you’re lacking some skills and know it. That recognition is progress–way to go! Now, how do you get to the point of putting the skills you’ve learned into action?
Given that long introduction, my advice is that you need more practice in a safe environment. You seem very motivated and very much aware. Motivation and awareness are the first steps, but they are not enough. What you need to work on now is your ability. Using the skills to prepare for or evaluate the crucial conversations you may face is a good place to start. Try writing a script for how you will start a crucial conversation before approaching it. Focus on the skills that will make it safe for you to share your views.
One point we’ve learned through years of training is that it’s very hard to improve your skill in significant and sustainable ways by yourself. You can grit your teeth, read, think, and plan and improve in many of your conversations. But to really get better, find a “coach”–a friend you trust to help you recognize how you’re doing with the skills. Over the years, I’ve made a distinction between “friend” and “accomplice.” A friend is someone who helps you; an accomplice is someone who helps you get in trouble. You need a friend: a buddy, a family member, a colleague at work, etc. Review your script with this person and have him or her point out places where safety still seems at risk or where you or others are likely to move to silence or violence. Discuss a previous conversation and have your coach help you explore what went wrong and see where you could have improved on these skills. Even practice role-playing a conversation with this person. Plan an approach that will help you step up to the conversation.
Another thing we’ve found helpful in learning transference is that often, people learn by teaching. Those who teach learn the content and the skills much better than those who don’t. Share a concept that you want to understand better with a family member, friend, or coworker. Teach someone about a principle or skill that you’d really like to improve in.
Finally, you have to keep the concepts on your radar screen if they are to become meaningful. Spend time on this each week—keep the concepts in your mind, notice opportunities to apply the skills, and take time to practice or rehearse.
When we have both the motivation and the ability, and then we see the opportunities, we are much more likely to face our crucial conversations and deal with them well. And the good news? Tens of thousands of people are doing this very thing everyday and improving their results and their relationships in the process.