Crucial Conversations QA

How to Survive an Abusive Conversation

Dear Steve,

What do you suggest when you try to use the Crucial Conversations skills only to realize the other person is unhealthy, unaware, and unable to communicate effectively, respectfully, or civilly? Many people are healthy and just don’t have the communication skills, and when they are mentored or trained, they can learn to communicate better. But what do you do when you run into people who are not healthy or seem to have issues like anger management, narcissism, etc.?

Stumped

Dear Stumped,

Some years back, I found myself in, what I considered, a fairly unnerving situation. At the time, I was part of an organization that provided lay counseling to neighbors, by neighbors. While we didn’t handle really significant, chronic, mental health issues, we dealt with some tricky situations.

I remember receiving a call one evening from an older, single woman who wanted to talk with someone. Her adult son, living in another state, had just been incarcerated and she wanted to process it with someone. Once I determined it wasn’t an urgent need, and something that was within my own mandate, I let her know I’d be happy to come over and could be there in about twenty minutes. The silence on the other end of the phone was the first sign of trouble.

After what seemed like an eternity, I checked to see if she was still on the line, “Will that work for you?” I asked again.

“If I wanted someone in twenty minutes, I would have called in twenty minutes!” she stated aggressively.

Now, some of my peers had warned me this person was prone to yell and become abusive. But I had “mastered my story” so I figured I was okay to proceed. I also figured she’d surely respond well if presented with a Crucial Conversations approach. The sublime principles and skills would soothe her fears and bring her back to a healthy interaction. With this inner reassurance, I calmly proceeded back in to the conversation.

I paraphrased back what I understood her concerns to be, reaffirmed my purpose (which was to make sure she got the support she needed), and I rejected all the “either/or” choices as I tried to expand my mind to all the potential “and” options that would create safety. I was in the moment and one with the principles. I was also in deep trouble.

She turned more abusive. Her volume increased, words became more cutting. I felt shell-shocked.

I tried to interrupt her tirade to get us back on track—back to dialogue. I lead with the only thing that came to mind, “Look, I can tell you’re upset and I really want to help you, and yet the way we’re interacting right now is getting in the way.”

Her response let me know she heard my statement as well as how she felt about it. The abuse ratcheted up a notch—something I hadn’t believed possible. I absolutely could not believe a person would treat another person in this manner.

It finally reached a breaking point for me. I reaffirmed that I hoped she’d get the help she was looking for, that it wouldn’t be from me at this time, provided her with the contact information of others who might be able to help, and informed her that I would be hanging up. Which I wasn’t able to do as she hung up first (but not before she fired off some choice, closing remarks).

I was left holding the phone, completely dumbstruck. What had just happened? I’d used my best Crucial Conversations skills and they didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to make the situation worse—much worse. Crucial Conversations skills had failed . . . or had they?

As I reflected on the interaction, I realized I usually thought of success or failure in a dialogue in terms of how the other person responded. But this time it was different. I still thought the skills were of benefit despite the response I received. But why? And how? My understanding started to expand as I realized that the biggest benefit of my Crucial Conversations skills across many different types of interactions was that they helped me to not become part of the problem. It was then that I began to value the impact the principles had on me. It also helped me rethink some of my long held Crucial Conversations assumptions.

Just because you’re engaging in dialogue doesn’t mean the resulting decisions have to be consensus. You always have options to escalate, or even terminate, interactions. When you’re in a position where you believe your safety (psychological or physical) is purposefully being threatened, it’s appropriate to disengage. And you can use your Crucial Conversations skills to do so respectfully.

I’ve also come to better understand the power of telling the rest of the story—especially when it comes to the villain story. So why would a reasonable, rational, decent person continue to berate me despite my best efforts?

Much of what goes into our stories has to do with how we attribute the motives of the person who’s done us wrong. “She did it because she enjoys it!” or “She’s just like that!” are very common attributions we make. It was during tough situations like the one I described above, that I realized even when others’ motives are bad and directed at me, I can still choose to respond in a productive, positive way. I don’t have to be a victim; I can simply choose to get out of the line of fire. There is a powerful and calming connection between these principles of Master My Stories and Start with Heart.

So, while it may be appropriate to stop a particular conversation, it doesn’t mean you have to stop using the skills. Over the years, I’ve become more and more appreciative of the way the skills have positively impacted me—just as much as they have impacted others.

Best of luck,
Steve

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