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Asking Permission


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Authors,

I note that one of the principles you advocate in starting crucial conversations is to ask permission to discuss the issue. I could imagine that some people would simply say “no” to this request, wanting to avoid confrontation or possible discipline. Certainly teenagers often respond this way when asked to talk.

So is it wise to ask permission when you know you must talk? Is it disingenuous to ask when “no” isn’t an option? Is it better in these situations to simply state up front that you need to talk?

Gotta Talk

A Dear Gotta Talk,

You raise a very important point.

The principle here is to create safety. The “skill” is asking permission. The skill may not always be applicable—but the principle should always be honored.

Asking permission builds safety by showing respect. People naturally place a high value on their autonomy. When we attempt force them into a conversation, they often resist our attempts even though the content of the conversation we want to have may be in their best interest. For example, when a boss starts to offer “constructive criticism” to a direct report without consent, it can roll off his or her back and may have little effect. When the boss takes the time to explain why he or she would like to give the feedback and why the feedback will support a mutual purpose, the employee can then choose to listen and will be much more likely to reflect on what is said.

Now, let’s take a different case. It isn’t “constructive criticism” you want to discuss. In fact, it’s embezzlement. You’re the boss, and you must talk to the suspected employee. In cases like this, should you ask permission to create safety? Of course not. That would be disingenuous. Pretending to give the other person a choice is dishonest and, therefore, violates the basic premise of healthy dialogue. So the question is, how can you create safety when the conversation is not optional?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

First, you can show respect by showing flexibility in when or where you hold the crucial conversation. Let’s say, for example, you are deeply concerned about the behavior of your child. You intend to have a conversation, but want to show respect in approaching the child. You might say, “Honey, I’ve got some concerns I’d like to discuss with you. Is now a good time or should we talk later this evening?” Surrendering a little bit of control over the conversation to the other person can be a signal that you respect his or her needs. As a result, he or she may feel less of a need to defend him- or herself, and will be more likely to be open to your comments.

Let’s say you have a crucial conversation that must be held here and now—for moral, ethical, or legal reasons. Even in this circumstance there are ways to create a modicum of safety. One way is to explain your need to confront now before launching in to the confrontation. Another is to express regret for your need to put this person in a highly uncomfortable situation. For example, in confronting a shoplifter you might say, “Ma’am, I need to speak with you right now. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I am a store detective and I believe you placed some of our products in your stroller.”

Now, let’s be realistic—no matter how graceful you are in forcing this conversation on someone, he or she is not going to be thrilled. But remember, our goal in creating safety is not necessarily to make the conversation “fun”—it’s to remove as much defensiveness as possible from it. You’d be surprised how just small adjustments in how you launch into a required crucial conversation can dampen defensiveness and improve the conversation.

Thanks for giving us an opportunity to provide a more nuanced explanation of how to create safety when entering a crucial conversation.

Best wishes,

Joseph Grenny

“If I haven’t challenged you, I haven’t helped you.” Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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