Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Sometimes I look at the possibility of holding a crucial conversation and wonder if it’s really worth it. I know that the other person isn’t likely to change and that he or she may become upset with me–maybe even try to get even with me–so overall it looks too risky to speak up. So here’s my question: Do you believe that a crucial conversation is always the best idea, despite the potential risks, or are there some situations in which it is unwise?
Perplexed in Peoria
Let me start with a short answer, and then I’ll beef it up some: No, you shouldn’t always hold a crucial conversation.
There are people with whom your possibilities for a positive outcome are bleak. There are people who are nearly impossible to approach with anything even close to candid feedback. They become woefully defensive when you talk about their choice of socks. There are people who become defensive and vindictive, no matter how skillfully you talk to them. They’re eagerly waiting for you to step across some imaginary social line–and when you do, they’ll gleefully sting, dump, or fire you. There are people who are so emotionally off-kilter that they need to be wrapped in a blanket and shipped off to a team of full-time therapists–and even then I wouldn’t approach them until they’ve been certified “fit for public interaction.”
At the other end of the risk continuum, you face circumstances that are so bad that not speaking yields the worst possible results. Nothing the other person can do to you could make matters worse. Silence is killing you. So, you should speak up and hope the other person is able to hear your point of view, and that you’ll better understand him or her. Your relationship is already so bad it can’t get worse and you’re willing to risk a parting of the ways. You can’t afford not to speak.
Unfortunately, most of the interpersonal problems you face fall somewhere in between “never approach” and “never avoid.” Your crystal ball isn’t all that clear. You think the other person might respond poorly. But then again, maybe not. The problem isn’t exactly killing you, but it sure would be nice if you could make it disappear. You weigh the possible costs and the benefits and come up with a question mark.
So what’s a person to do? Here are some factors to consider when peering into the unknown.
As you think of the possible results of speaking your mind, are you inflating the likelihood of negative outcomes? Are you conjuring up the worst possible result imaginable and then treating it as a certainty even though it may be only a slight possibility? Try to objectively consider what really will happen. Talk with someone who isn’t so close to the problem and see if he or she shares your same bleak view. Don’t let fear taint your logic.
Are you imagining a scenario where you speak up–but when you do you aren’t exactly on your best behavior? You’ve been holding your grievance inside for awhile and have a history of waiting until you’re upset, so when you do speak your mind, you aren’t exactly skilled and respectful. The truth is you don’t have to be on your worst behavior. You don’t have to hold your opinions and feelings until they ferment into a deadly brew. Try to imagine the scene unfolding as you do your best to bring your crucial conversations skills into play. If you weren’t snippy or self-righteous or arrogant–or whatever you traditionally do wrong when you’re upset–how might the interaction unfold?
What would happen if you actually practiced and improved your crucial conversations skills? Sometimes others become prickly or upset, not because they are inordinately defensive, but because your personal style of influence is imperfect. True, others may not be all that easy to approach, but you have to ask yourself, what if someone truly skilled stepped up to the conversation? If skills might make a difference, practice using them.
Finally, you can always take a strategic delay. Start into the conversation with the most tentative of terms “I’m not sure I’m seeing this right and would like to hear your view on the matter.” Then share your observations. If the other person starts to go ballistic, back off. You haven’t planted a flag. You haven’t cut off your path of retreat. Speak oh-so tentatively and live to talk another day.
And remember, most of us live with the certainty of our existing bad results rather than face the uncertainty of speaking our mind. With the right skills, this can all change.