Crucial Conversations QA

Seeking Safety for Yourself

Dear Crucial Skills,

I understand the importance of “creating safety” for the other party in a crucial conversation, but I find myself stuck most of the time because I’m the one who feels unsafe.

If I’m the one who needs to initiate a crucial conversation, is there a way to create safety for myself as well as the other party?

Feeling Unsafe

Dear Feeling,

Certainly, like you, I have worked to make it safe for others in conversations. And I too, have felt unsafe. I’ve also felt unsafe in a variety of situations beyond conversations. For example, I’ve felt unsafe when wading a river while fly fishing or when using a ladder to work on the house. To help answer your question, let’s consider what we do in these kinds of situations to improve personal safety.

First, we feel safer when we know we’re competent—when we have the know-how and when we’ve practiced. Wading a river can be difficult, and over the years, I have observed others and asked for their best practices. This principle works for crucial conversations. When we know that we are skillful, we feel more confident and more safe.

If you are feeling unsafe, I suggest that you practice and get feedback. Find a coach or a friend and practice the specific conversation that you need and want to have. Good practice builds competence and competence builds confidence. When you feel competent and confident, you will feel safer in tough situations.

Next, we anticipate and prepare for negative situations or for things that could go wrong. I wouldn’t wade into a tough river without thinking of all the possible outcomes. I prepare myself by thinking of the angles, the speed of the water, the need for a wading stick or a partner, and so on. This, of course, is equally true of tough crucial conversations.

If you are feeling unsafe, take a moment to anticipate what the other person might do—from blow up to clam up; from trying to dismiss your points to overwhelming you with data. Go into the conversation prepared and aware of your options. Make sure that your motives are good, that you can find mutual purpose, and that you have mastered your stories. When we are prepared for the possibilities, we feel safer entering into the conversation.

And lastly, we need to be able to deal with issues in real time. When it becomes unsafe for the other person (when I notice him or her showing signs of stress), I know I have some skills to help build safety. But if you are the one who is feeling unsafe, it can be very difficult to apply these skills. So what to do in real time?

Be aware of your own early warning signs. When you are taking that half breath, when you can feel the tension in your jaw, or when that little voice in your head is sounding like a siren, you can ask for a brief time out to give yourself more time to analyze why you are feeling unsafe.

Step out of the content. When you figure out why you are feeling unsafe, find a way to step out of the content and deal with the conditions that create mutual safety. Use your skills to suggest that you talk about how the two of you seem to be debating and how you’d rather dialogue. Or you can pause and suggest that perhaps the mutual purpose is not clear and spend time on what you are both really trying to accomplish.

Reach agreement and re-engage. Once you have agreed on the mutual purpose, re-engage in the conversation. Sometimes this will happen easily and sometimes it will take several interactions before the two of you can have safer crucial conversations.

Remember three points: practice, anticipate, and improve your skills for dealing with issues in real time.

Best Wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Contesting Consensus Decisions


Joseph Grenny

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


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

“Consensus” is just a buzzword in our organization. We talk about making consensus decisions, but what really happens is that after everyone has shared input to the pool of meaning, the senior manager will force his view as the only solution. The rest of the team will then defer because they know that the management will have the last say anyway.

How do we begin to address this crucial conversation?

False consensus

A Dear False consensus,

My opinion on this topic may surprise you. But I believe if you’ll endure the surprise, there will be hope at the other side.

Here’s the surprise: The best thing you can do is to persuade your leaders to stop promoting consensus.

At least most of the time.

Consensus decision making is the least efficient of all available methods and should only be used in very specific circumstances. For example, we suggest you limit consensus decisions to times when:

  • the data needed to make a decision is dispersed across many people
  • the consequences of a less-than-perfect decision are great
  • the need for buy-in is as important as the need for speed

When all of these conditions align, you’d do well to consider going for consensus. But under most other circumstances, consensus bogs things down and yields less value than the trouble it requires.

For example, I’ve been told you can get a remarkably accurate estimate of the room temperature by gathering thirty people, asking them to make their best guess at the temperature, then averaging all the guesses. Typically this method will get you within 1/10 of 1 percent of the true temperature. Amazing, isn’t it?

And yet, why would you want to do this when one person with a cheap thermometer will get a good enough result?

In fact, in the most effective organizations, the vast majority of decisions are “command”—meaning a specialist whose job it is and who is well trained to make a decision just does so autonomously. A few decisions are “consult”—meaning one or more decision-makers gather input from others then make the decision on their own.

Now to your situation. Your organization appears to have two problems:

1. The leaders are using a “consult” process but calling it “consensus.”
2. Your leaders misunderstand when a consensus process is truly needed.

So what crucial conversation should you hold—and how should you approach it?

I suggest you find a couple of highly respected leaders with whom you have a reasonable relationship and start the discussion one on one. Make it safe for them by avoiding the self-righteous approach many would take in your circumstances. It would be easy to be disrespectful of your leaders by labeling the behavior you see as hypocritical or dishonest. It’s likely they don’t realize how their actions are being seen. Or they may feel caught in the trap of wanting to show respect for others’ ideas while trying to move business along at a reasonable pace. In any case, you can communicate respect and establish mutual purpose by beginning your crucial conversation with a statement like,

“I’ve been watching how we make decisions here. The leaders seem to think we need to make lots of decisions by consensus. I worry this could bog things down and add little value. And then when we really need consensus, the leaders are frustrated with non-value added input, and in their haste to get on with it, come across as disingenuous. Could I share some examples of where I think we might want to back off of consensus completely—and others where we might want to use it, but use it better?”

If you approach your leaders with a goal of trying to support them in getting decisions made in the most appropriate way, they’ll likely be open to your input. If they think you’re just going to guilt trip them into slowing everything down until everyone feels good—then in essence you’ll be asking them to abdicate leadership.

Hopefully your crucial conversation will help restore trust in your leaders.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Avoid Venting and Encourage Coaching


Al Switzler

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


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a coworker who is extremely overwhelmed by her workload. However, she is offered help periodically and always seems to find a reason why that help won’t work. She continues to complain about her workload and yet appears to refuse the support she is offered. In addition, she does not address the issue with her boss. She uses me as a sounding board. I would like to be able to help her, but I am not sure how to start the conversation. What advice can you offer?

Tired of the complains

A Dear Tired,

Many people empathize with the challenge you have outlined.

As is usual in cases like this, we have to work on ourselves first. I think you have done that. It seems you’ve asked yourself what you really want and determined that you’d like to help your coworker work through this problem. Since you have taken the coaching path, I’d suggest your first conversation be about setting boundaries. Talk with her about some specific times when you’d be willing to coach her rather than allowing her to drop in at times when you need to be about your work.

In this conversation, share your insights about the pattern. She is stuck; there is a persistent and repeating problem that she is addressing with you and not her boss and there is little you can do to change the situation.

I suggest that after you share your insights about this pattern, ask her if she sees it the same way and then ask if the two of you could explore some solutions. You now have a clearly defined mutual purpose.

You can now explore some options with her about how to improve her skills to engage in the conversation.

Options include going from a larger investment of time and money to smaller:

  • Sign up for a training class.
  • Each of you get a book and go to to utilize the free resources available to help you learn skills like how to identify the right conversation, how to make it safe, how to talk to almost anybody about anything, etc.
  • Spend time practicing approaches, scripts, and responses that would help with the boss. In this situation, you are sharing specific ideas about how to start, what to say, and how to respond to the boss’ anticipated comments. This type of dialogue has moved from venting and gossiping to coaching.

At the end of the practice, your co-worker needs to make a specific commitment about when she will talk to the boss and when she will report to you that she did it. NOTE: If your coworker chooses not to have the conversation, you then need to clarify your role. Talk about how you are doing your best to help, but if she will not act, then your conversations have become just venting or gossiping and you would prefer not to do that.

If we assume good motive and clarify purpose, we can do our best to have conversations that center on coaching instead of venting.

Best wishes,