Ron McMillan is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
The following article was first published on July 14, 2004.
Dear Crucial Skills,
What do you do when you don’t know for sure what the problem is? All you know is that there is a problem between you and another person and it has never been good from the beginning. It isn’t like there is anything major that has happened; it’s just that there is tension in the air and neither of you can open up with the other. Every conversation is guarded and there is a lot of fake smiling and handshaking going on.
How can I get past this behavior and figure out what’s going on when the other person doesn’t seem to want to communicate at all?
The key to unlocking this mystery is the condition called “safety.” When I don’t feel safe enough with someone to openly express my concerns or check out some of my fears, I start telling myself stories: “I don’t think she likes me,” or, “I wonder if he’s judging me,” or, “They think I’m stupid.” These are just three of the infinite number of stories, questions, or judgments that I could be coming up with about the other person—or vice versa. These stories create emotions ranging from concern and discomfort to anger and deep frustration. And of course if I don’t talk out or check out these stories, I will act them out in perhaps slight and subtle behaviors that could signal to the other person that I’m “guarded” or “uneasy.” This in turn could set off a new round of stories on his or her part that leads to feelings and actions that confirm I was right in suspecting a problem in the first place.
To put an end to this downward spiral, you need to make it safe for the other person to share concerns he or she might have but be afraid to bring up. Do this in the following ways:
1. Start with Heart. Ask yourself what you really want this relationship to be.
2. Master My Stories. Ask yourself why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would act the way the other person is acting (Hint: maybe he/she is just acting out his or her stories too). Remind yourself that there may be understandable reasons for the behavior.
3. Begin a crucial conversation at the “relationship level” by asking for permission. For example:
“Hey, Sarah, I wonder if I could talk with you about how we’re working together. Would that be alright with you? Is now a good time?”
Then tentatively share your own observations:
“It seems like when you and I get together it feels a bit awkward. I’ve noticed that I have a hard time feeling relaxed and being completely open. I feel somewhat guarded and I’m not even sure why. Have you felt this too, or is it just me?”
4. You may want to share your “Start with Heart” aspiration:
“I would like us to have a working relationship where we both feel comfortable talking with each other and where we can both be open. What kind of relationship makes most sense to you?”
5. Finally, be sure to be open to hearing the other person’s thoughts. Share your concerns in a tone that says “I sincerely want to resolve this issue and want to hear what it is that may be bothering you.” Don’t accuse. Then, use your best listening skills. Do your best to hear everything he or she may be concerned about.
By approaching the situation in this way, you are exploring a mutual purpose, being respectful, and thus building safety. This does not guarantee that you’ll get the outcome you desire, but it dramatically increases the likelihood that the issues will be disclosed and can then be worked out.
Best wishes in all your crucial conversations,