Crucial Conversations QA

Finally Speaking Up

Dear Crucial Skills,

Many of us in our personal or professional lives have avoided crucial conversations, not just over weeks and months, but sometimes over years or even decades. How do we even begin to strategize about conversations that have been on the back burner for this long?

Finally Speaking Up

Dear Finally,

I am inspired to see someone who has disempowered themselves for years finally own their agency. I think all of us are challenged to examine and improve ourselves when we see someone take such an enormous step. I salute you for taking this step yourself.

There are two fundamental principles you must not violate if you decide to finally step up to a crucial conversation after a long period of silence.

First, given that you have enabled the bad behavior of the other person for so long, you owe them some patience as you announce your intention to discontinue your willing submission of unacceptable circumstances.

Now, in saying this, let me be clear that I am absolutely not suggesting you tolerate abuse, malfeasance, or the ill effects of incompetence one second longer than today. I am simply suggesting that your enduring collusion in shaping the other person’s bad behavior places a responsibility on you to be understanding if they take some time to disentangle from this long practice.

For example, let’s say I’ve had a boss who has frequently been dishonest about expectations. He hypes the possibility of future raises, promotions, or opportunities in order to keep me motivated then appears to do little to make them happen. In the end, he’s always got an excuse and another fair promise for the future.

For years, I have simply grumbled under my breath or gossiped to others about his manipulative ways but never taken responsibility to either require other behavior from him or quit the relationship. As a recent Crucial Conversations grad I’ve decided to candidly express my concerns.

What I’m suggesting here is that while the crucial conversation may go well, you’d be foolish to lay down ultimatums expecting that his deeply entrenched behaviors may change instantly. My goal in the conversation should be to a) agree on ground rules—how he will and won’t treat me in the future; and b) agree on how I’ll respond if he transgresses these agreements. It is part “b” that acknowledges that you’re going to give him some time to adapt to the new reality, but also that you’ll hold him accountable. If your goal in the crucial conversation is to get him to stop immediately and never fall back into old ways, you are failing to give him the same allowance you had in bringing about your own change. You took years to adapt. Giving him a few weeks is only fair.

The second principle helps you Make It Safe while also Mastering Your Story in how you feel toward him. This is a principle of ownership. You must own the fact that the bad situation is not just about him, it’s also about you. As you begin the conversation, make it clear that there is a pattern the two of you have been involved in that you are committed to changing. Don’t blame him exclusively—own up to the fact that you’ve enabled it.

For example, you might begin, “I’d like to discuss something I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve been doing for many years. It’s been wrong of me to not speak up about it in the past but I’ve decided to do so now. I’ve blamed you for many years for it going on, and that has been unfair. I’ve been a part of the problem, and I don’t want to do that anymore. May I discuss this with you?”

Whether or not these are the perfect words, what I’m suggesting is that your “story” needs to be one that stops painting you as a victim and him as the villain. You need to take ownership. This will help you approach him as a reasonable, rational and decent person—someone kind of like you. In addition, you’ll Make It Safe for him because you’re approaching him as a normal, fallible human being, rather than as a reprobate villain. You’re approaching him with the utmost confidence that he, like you, can change. That expression of confidence is an enormous show of respect.

Now with all that said, you should expect him to go through a period of defensiveness. The first conversation may be confusing, upsetting, and provocative to him. If this is the case, don’t go in with the goal of solving it in one sitting but rather to open up the issue. Ask if you could just tee it up and then allow him to reflect on it and get together after a few days when he has collected his thoughts. It’s only fair—you had years to get ready to talk, you should allow him some time to adapt to the new reality as well.

With all that said, let me conclude that by no means am I suggesting that if you are being hurt physically or emotionally, or if others are being damaged by the other person’s actions, you should allow this to continue one day longer. In these instances you have an obligation to take a hard stand on what must happen now, while allowing for patience and adjustment in areas where you owe the person the same season for change that life has allowed you.

Thanks for your inspiring question—and best wishes as you change your world—and hopefully, that of others.

Best wishes,

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: My Two-Bits' Worth

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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During the month of July, we will run “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on February 20, 2008.

It was my first day of work in a small town not far outside Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and after three months of intense language training I quickly learned I had studied the wrong language. The people I encountered didn’t speak the language I so arduously studied. Plus, every time I opened my mouth they ridiculed me.

Fortunately, I discovered a wonderful tool for enhancing my language capacity without harming my battered ego. Children. The local kids spoke far better Portuguese than I did. Better still, most of them showed infinite patience when it came to pointing at objects and giving me the Portuguese word for it.

It was during just such a linguistic encounter that I discovered the topic of today’s article. I’d often heard the expression you shouldn’t judge someone until you had walked in his shoes, but the idea contained within this expression never hit home until I received a personal lesson on the topic.

Here’s what happened. An eight-year-old boy who was pointing at objects and giving me the Portuguese nouns for each asked me to teach him the English equivalents. That way we both learned a new word. The first object the boy pointed to was a cobblestone, so I carefully articulated: “Cobblestone.”

“Desculpe!” he proclaimed—suggesting I say the word again.

“Cobblestone,” I repeated, raising my voice a little. With my second pronouncement the boy fell to the ground howling and chortling in a cloud of dust. When he finally gained composure he dashed across the street, gathered a few friends, and then had me pronounce again, “cobblestone.” On cue, his friends broke into peals of laughter.

“Cahb-al-es-tone,” each muttered in a mocking tone, pointing at me and laughing—as if I myself had invented the deeply guttural and apparently hilarious word. Finally, after I’d had my fill of the boy’s mockery, I asked the lad to share the Portuguese word for cobblestone. “These things?” he asked while pointing at the pavers. “They’re called Par-a-lel-la-pee-pee-doos.”

“Par-a-lel-a-pee-pee-doo?” I thought to myself. “And you think the word “cobblestone” is funny?”

It was hard for either of us to know why the other found our word so hysterical. In fact, it’s hard to really understand how anyone else feels about anything—not at least without having lived their life.

For instance, I once read a story wherein a fellow told a dirt-poor friend who desperately wanted to take a girl on a date that he should take her to the grange dance because it would cost only two bits (this was in the early 1940s). For only a quarter, the couple would gain entrance to the co-op and access to snacks, and they’d be able to dance to a live band. Who could turn down such a bargain?

“But I don’t have a quarter,” his friend answered.

I’ve often wondered if my own children would understand that phrase: “But I don’t have a quarter.” They’d probably think the fellow didn’t have change, or he’d left his cash home. Or, that if he didn’t actually own a quarter, he could certainly get one.

Without living the life the impoverished farmer had lived, my children couldn’t possibly know the meaning of these simple words. I have a bit of an idea because I lived under similar circumstances. Like the poor children in a research study conducted over fifty years ago, if a researcher had asked me to draw a picture of a quarter, I would have drawn a big quarter—one that was much larger than the quarter the middle- and upper-class kids in the study had drawn. A quarter meant a lot to me, a boy of no means. To me, it was the size of a hubcap.

In high school my mom gave me a quarter to take the bus home each day. I was supposed to pack my own lunch and ride home on the city bus after school. But in our house the fridge contained things like a boiled cow’s tongue for sandwich makings. I hated cow’s tongue sandwiches. You couldn’t tell who was tasting whom.

Besides, even if mom had stocked the fridge with fixings other than tongue, heart, and entrails, only nerds carried their lunch to school. Cool kids drove their cars off campus to buy scrumptious burgers, shakes, and fries. Well, cool, rich kids did. My family had one old car that had been smacked a lot and then patched up and painted with dark grey primer. Since the car was originally white, everyone called the spotted beast “The Dalmatian.” My dad drove the Dalmatian to work, so I couldn’t cruise to the nearby burger place for lunch. Besides, I had no money for food.

However, not all was lost. I learned that if I walked six blocks from school to the center of town, the bus ride home only cost a dime. That maneuver gave me fifteen cents for lunch. This wasn’t very much money, even in the sixties, but I could buy one thing. Each day I ambled across the street and bought a hockey-puck sized burger. Actually, the item was so small and bereft of meat that it was against the law to call it a burger. Each day I ate a fifteen-cent “Beefy.”

By the end of the day I was famished. I’d walk to the bus stop in the center of town and wait for my ten-cent ride, stomach rumbling all the while. And then things got complicated. The bus stop stood right in front of a bakery which sported, among other tasty delights, a ten-cent chocolate éclair filled with rich vanilla pudding. From inside their glass-cased mini fridge, the éclairs called to me, whispering French enticements: “Eat-tay Moi.”

It was torture. If I gave into the Siren call of the éclair, I’d have to walk home for a mile uphill (mostly in the rain) carrying my books.

Of course, quarters weren’t just for lunches. Quarters could be combined to make larger purchases. For instance, on my mother’s birthday my bus fare came in handy. For two weeks I’d go without lunch and walk home every day so I could buy her the dangly earrings she had hinted she wanted.

After my mother passed away, my wife and I went through her belongings. Tucked neatly away next to the cache of earrings I had given her I found a scrap of paper I had made notes on in 1963. My mom kept the scrap as a memento from my Senior Prom.

On the note was written the following: Orchid-$10; Tickets-$5; Tuxedo-$7; Dinner-$13; Snack after the dance-$5.

I’m sure it wasn’t this financial account that caught my mom’s attention. What inspired her to save the note were the words I wrote at the bottom: Total-$40. Length of prom date-5 hours. Cost per hour-$8.

I had calculated how much the dance cost me per hour! I spent 160 quarters on a dance at a time where each quarter meant lunch and a ride home.

So when I read about the fellow who said he didn’t have a quarter, I think I understood what he meant. He meant he didn’t have a quarter, he wasn’t likely to get a quarter, and if he did get his hands on one, he certainly wouldn’t spend it on a dance.

Of course, I’ll never know for sure. We’re never perfect at guessing others’ meaning. Sometimes a whole life goes into the meaning behind a single word. I saw a quarter as a scarce resource that led to a meal and a ride. My kids see a quarter as something you toss into a change jar so it won’t jingle annoyingly in your pocket.

When you think about it, it’s a wonder we understand anything about each other. It’s a wonder that simple greetings such as, “What’s up?” don’t lead to fist fights—so different can be our take on things. But somehow we get by. Maybe just knowing that we don’t know much about each other helps us get along.

Fortunately, amid all of this confusion and misinterpretation, I do know one thing for certain: “cobblestone” isn’t funny. “Par-a-lel-a-pee-pee-doo”—now that’s funny.

Crucial Conversations QA

Choking Up

During the month of July, we will run “best of” content from the authors. The following article first appeared on January 11, 2006.

Al Switzler is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Al Switzler is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of “choking up” during some crucial conversations. This is not a frequent occurrence by any means, but comes on when I least expect it. You can imagine how this adds a whole new dynamic to the discussion. I actually have had to say “excuse me while I collect myself,” take a few minutes and a few deep breaths, then resume. It goes as suddenly as it came, but I feel the damage was done. Can you offer any advice on how to deal with this in the moment and after the fact?

Choked Up

A Dear Choked,

Your comments and question are effective reminders that life comes at us fast. Crucial conversations fit right in this arena. Crucial conversations are defined as having “high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions”—and often we don’t have time to plan out these kinds of conversations in advance. What I hear in your comments is that you don’t frequently get emotional, and when you do, it’s about something that matters—a lot. All of that is pretty normal. We’ve run into this dynamic very often when coaching others. Let me share a few points about what we’ve learned.

1. People can get better at catching their own emotions early. Everyone has some kind of response when conversations turn crucial. The difference between the good and the best is how quickly they notice the response and use it as an “early warning sign” to switch to using their very best skills. Think about what some of these early indicators are:

  • Some people’s faces turn red.
  • Some people can feel their pulse—often in their temples.
  • Some people’s breathing changes—it speeds up, or lengthens.
  • People’s voices can increase or decrease in volume.
  • There may be churning in the gut or butterflies in the stomach.

There are any number of other possible reactions—pay close attention and learn to recognize your own early warning signs. What are they? How could you catch them early? The best see these signs as signals and have a little voice that tells them, “Ooh—this conversation just turned crucial; I need to use my best skills.” And they are more likely to do exactly that. The next time you have a situation where you get choked up, review it after the fact and ask, what should I have noticed earlier that would have signaled me to use my best skills? After a few cycles people can make big improvements.

2. Building or rebuilding safety is at the heart of the interaction. I congratulate you on the steps you have taken to restore safety. When a conversation becomes unsafe for you or for the other person, you should rightfully “call a time out.” In Crucial Conversations, we discuss this as “stepping out of the content and rebuilding safety.” The problem is that most of us get hooked into the content. We get so captivated by what is being said that we don’t look at the conditions surrounding the conversation.

Why is this the case? If you are like most people, you have a lot on your plate and are committed to getting things done. You have time pressures and commitments hanging over your head. You might be talking to someone who is verbally slower, or faster, or someone who is more powerful or more determined to argue until they get their way. In such circumstances, content hogs the spotlight. The conditions that make conversations safe can fade from view. When the conditions fail, safety is at risk as people move toward silence or violence.

Catch it early. “I’ve noticed that I’m getting a little emotional here. Could we take five minutes?” Or it might sound something like this: “I’ve noticed that we seem to be debating this issue. I’ve been putting my point forward—perhaps too strongly. I’d like to turn that around and ask more questions so that I can understand your points clearly. Would that be okay?” By fixing the conditions, you increase safety—and the content can flow more freely.

3. It’s never too late to fix relationships that matter. When we lose it during a conversation, it’s never too late to go back and try to fix it. Apologize appropriately and share your intentions. For example, “Last week, when we were talking about budget, I got ‘choked up.’ You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sorry it happened and I’m working on controlling my emotions. I hope we can continue to have effective conversations in the future. That’s what I’d like.”

In closing, let me repeat that your challenge is one that affects all of us. Learning to control your emotions can lead to significant and lasting improvements.

Best wishes,