I’ve gained a lot from using crucial conversations skills in my life, but always as the initiator. What I feel less skilled at is being on the receiving end of criticism. My last relationship ended partly because my partner and I could not come to an agreement about my children. In that relationship, I always felt judged, defensive, and rebellious when my partner tried to talk to me about my kids and how their behavior was affecting them. I want to learn from my mistakes. Any advice on how to be a better at being the recipient of a crucial conversation?
Some years ago, I needed to have a crucial conversation with Ron McMillan, co-author of Crucial Conversations. I was young and inexperienced. I had a tough topic to address and was anxious about offending Ron. I was pretty sure I was going to bungle the conversation.
I remember sitting down in his office and blurting out, “I need to have a crucial conversation with you and I know I am going to mess it up, but I think your crucial conversations skills are good enough to cover both of us.” And they were.
Ron, for me, was the perfect exemplar of how to receive a crucial conversation. I loved your question because it demonstrates tremendous insight. As the recipient of a crucial conversation, we can draw on the same foundational principles that we use when initiating a conversation, but we apply them with a slight twist. Here is what I have learned, from Ron and others, about receiving a crucial conversation.
1. Don’t expect the other person to crucially converse perfectly. For those of us who know and practice crucial conversations skills, it can be tempting to unconsciously expect everyone to start their crucial conversations by building safety and sharing facts. We are trying hard to hear their tough message and think that the least they can do is state it well. So, when that other person slips up and says something rude, hurtful, or disrespectful, we tell ourselves a story: this person is being rude, hurtful and disrespectful. While logical, that story doesn’t help us in the moment. Instead, it creates a feeling of defensiveness.
Consider how you might react to someone saying something rude, hurtful, and disrespectful if your story was: “Wow! This person has a tough message to share and she really has no idea how to do that well. She could use some training.” When we stop expecting people to share their meaning perfectly, we see their poorly delivered messages as a lack of skill rather than poor intent. This reduces our defensiveness because suddenly it’s not about me anymore, but about them.
2. Take time to prepare and time to respond. For many of us, it is easier to initiate a crucial conversation because we’ve had time to prepare for it. We’ve thought through not only what we want to say, but why we are saying it (our intent), and how we will say it (so as to demonstrate our good intent). When someone initiates a conversation with us, we don’t have the benefit of time. Unless, that is, we ask for it.
You can always take a time out in a conversation. Sometimes, asking for a time out is easy: “Hey, I can see this is a really important topic to you and it is important to me too. This isn’t a good time for me to have this conversation. Could we connect on this tomorrow?”
However, it can be tough sometimes to call a time-out in a way that works for both you and the other person. After all, the other person has likely been stewing on this topic for a while and has finally gotten up the courage to talk to you about it. To him, it may feel like now or never. He has a message and he wants to deliver it. Now. How do you call a time out when the other person doesn’t want to take one? The key to doing this is to differentiate between listening and thinking versus listening and talking. You may not be able to take a time out on listening but you can take a time out on responding. Here is how that might sound: “I can tell this is really important to you and I want to hear what you have to say. I also really want to think about it before I respond, to make sure I have taken the time to consider everything you are saying. So, I’d like to listen carefully to what you have to say and then schedule a time for tomorrow when I can come back with my thoughts.” It is the rare person who will demand that your response must be now or never.
3. Get clear on your intent in receiving the message. In crucial conversations, we teach that safety is about intent. If you are feeling defensive, it is likely because your perception of the other person’s intent is negative. She is trying to criticize me. She doesn’t love my kids. He doesn’t think I am a good parent. As you feel yourself getting defensive, step back and create safety for yourself by challenging your perception of the other person’s intent. Sometimes you can do this internally, talking it through in your head, creating the best possible interpretation of the other person’s intent. And sometimes it helps to do it out loud: “I am starting to feel defensive because it seems like you are implying I am not a good parent. My guess is that is not the case but it feels like it right now. Help me understand what your intent is in bringing this up.”
You can also reduce your defensiveness by getting clear on what your intent is, regardless of the other person’s intent. Why do you want to listen to this message? What is your goal in the crucial conversation?
A couple years back, Joseph Grenny sent me an email saying that he had heard from a mutual friend about some things I was struggling with. He said that he had some recent insights he thought might help and asked if I would be open to some feedback. Now, Joseph and I have worked together a long time and I know that he loves me. And still, reading his message, I felt vulnerable. I went to this “feedback” lunch with Joseph chanting in my head: feedback is a gift, feedback is a gift. I told myself that whatever he said, I wanted to take it and use it to become better. Luckily for me, Joseph is every bit as skilled at crucial conversations as Ron McMillan. While the conversation wasn’t always comfortable, it was incredibly helpful.
I have had other conversations with people far less skilled who nonetheless had important feedback to give me. My goal in these conversations is always the same: regardless of how they share their message, I am looking for what is true in that message, and what I can use from their message to improve. That is my intent in hearing them and it creates tremendous safety for me.
Being the recipient of a crucial conversation is not easy and not comfortable. We are vulnerable and unprepared most of the time. But if we are sure of our intent, to listen to others and understand their perspective, and if we claim for ourselves the time we need to process their message, we can hear what others have to say.
Best of luck,