Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have attended Crucial Conversations Training and try to practice the skills, but it’s difficult when the person I am trying to communicate with doesn’t “play along.” For example, when I try to ask how he or she is feeling or why he or she feels a certain way, I receive a response such as, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t want to talk about this.” This ends the conversation and I feel stifled and defeated.
What do I do?
Dear Playing Along,
It is very frustrating when you want to talk something out with someone and the only response you get is, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t want to talk about this,” or worse, an icy-cold stare laced with a fake smile. I hear you. I’ve been there.
So what should you do when the other person won’t play along?
I think you have an advantage—you’re motivated and able because you’ve gone through the training and practiced your skills. Good job.
Whether it’s at work or at home, you feel the need to hold a crucial conversation and the other person won’t talk to you. He or she won’t engage and won’t “play along.” What I hope to provide here are tips that might give you some additional options for reaching dialogue with a stubborn companion.
1. Start with heart. I suggest you Start with Heart and ask yourself, “What nonverbal messages am I sending?” Sometimes we have behaviors—subtle or overt—that demonstrate our purpose or intent more loudly than our words. A common pattern is to start a conversation very pleasantly and nicely but then quickly let our emotions escalate as we press for the solution we want. Or sometimes before we even open our mouths, we enter a conversation with our eyes and gestures signaling, “I have held court in my head and found you guilty; let’s talk.” When that happens, other people don’t want to play. These kinds of patterns cause people to disengage from the conversation.
Here’s a personal example. Years ago, my third daughter found every excuse to avoid talking with me. She was fourteen years old and all I got was a cold shoulder. Finally, I asked her why she was acting that way around me, and in a tender moment, she opened up. She shared with me that no matter what I asked her—whether it was about school, friends, or something else entirely—I always, always got around to discussing just two topics, her grades and her messy room.
Sometimes, we are so good at debating that the other person prefers to disengage or stonewall rather than argue. Make sure you get your emotions in control before you open your mouth. Make sure you build Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect before you begin and work to maintain both throughout the conversation. The other person needs to know you have a mutual purpose rather than a selfish or opposing one.
2. Choose CPR. We often find that people choose the wrong topic to discuss. When having a crucial conversation, we tend to choose simple over complex; recent over distant; and easy over hard. In reality, we need to discuss the right issue instead of the most convenient one. We use the acronym CPR to help you determine what the right issue really is. C stands for content and deals with the immediate incident or concern. P stands for pattern and references the fact that the immediate incident has actually occurred more than once and probably frequently enough to make you upset. R stands for relationship and is a conversation you hold when you realize that the pattern is so pervasive and unwanted that it is now affecting your thoughts, feelings, and interactions with that person.
You need to hold a conversation not about the content, but about the pattern you’re experiencing—the way in which you two talk, or don’t talk. You need to explain the pattern you’ve noticed and how it’s affecting your relationship. I can see the conversation going like this: “Bob, every once in a while, I feel the need to talk about an issue here at work. The last two times I have tried to talk to you, you said, ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ I know having conversations about issues like budget or deadlines can be tough. I don’t want to make it tough. I want to be able to talk about these issues so we can work together in the most effective way. Why do you think it’s difficult for us to have these talks? What’s going on?”
If the person still refuses to talk, I’d ask, “Will you please think about it? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I do want to deal with some of these issues so we can work well together. Can we schedule a time tomorrow to meet and talk about our working relationship?”
3. Explore natural consequences. In Crucial Confrontations, we teach the difference between imposed and natural consequences. So far, I’ve only introduced the natural consequences of being unable to communicate. Helping people understand what will happen naturally if you don’t deal with the issues is an educational step that motivates them to comply. For example, you could explain how the lack of talking about issues is affecting colleagues, deadlines, budgets, and customers. If your colleague still won’t comply, then you’d impose a consequence. In this case, you’d probably ask someone else to help or communicate the situation to your boss and ask her to convene a meeting.
4. Use your skills; keep your cool. When you have situations like the one you’ve described, it’s easy to slip into less than helpful behaviors. Make sure you avoid gossiping about the other person, getting angry and flying off the handle, or withholding information or avoiding the other person.
What you do when it matters most will determine the results you achieve, the relationships you build, and how you feel about yourself when you look in the mirror. Inviting people to dialogue, being persistent and patient, and maintaining your professionalism will eventually pay big dividends.
While I believe you can make progress and there is great potential in your relationship, I will close by saying that not all conversations work. You can’t always get into them and you can’t always get the things you want out of them. However, crucial conversations skills improve your chances of getting results and building and preserving valuable relationships.