Crucial Conversations QA

Do Crucial Conversations Skills Make Others Defensive?

Dear Steve,

When identifying styles under stress (silence or violence) how do we confront them without “calling someone out” inappropriately? In another Crucial Skills post that I read recently, the author recommended that we address silence and in one example suggested we might say something like “I saw you roll your eyes when (name) stated they were understaffed.” I feel that if I were to do this in almost any setting, I would get a “violent” response for calling someone out. I know there is more work involved to create a safe space, but how do I address silence with the intent to foster communication without making someone uncomfortable?

Reluctant to Address Silence

Dear Reluctant,

Many years ago, when I was yet a Crucial Conversations neophyte, I learned an important “reality” lesson courtesy of my wife.

After my first Crucial Conversations course, I was ready to change the world—one conversation at a time. And in my view, it didn’t matter which one: all conversations could be improved. So, I set out, resolved to make the world (or at least my world) a better place, starting with my family. With my wife, to be exact.

It all happened on a Saturday, which started out safe enough, but didn’t stay that way for long. My wife, Margaret, and I were running some errands. Specifically, we needed to go to the grocery store and the bank. We were closer to the store than the bank, but we needed to go to the bank first. “Great,” I thought, “this will be a perfect time to practice a skill in a non-crucial situation. I’ll try out Contrasting. I’ll clarify, the car will swell with safety, we’ll get our errands done, and everybody will be better off.” And so, I began, “Margaret . . . I don’t want you to think I don’t want to go to the store (good start—got the “don’t” part). I do. I just want to go to the bank first (followed by the “do” part and victory).”

She didn’t say anything right away, which I had counted on. I mean, I figured that most people would take a moment to appreciate the skill as well as the delivery.

“What did you just say?” I could tell immediately from her tone that it wasn’t one of those hey-that-was-so-powerful-can-you-say-it-again types of responses. I sensed I was in trouble, and I wasn’t exactly sure why. I had used the skills. I was being open and respectful. Why wasn’t it working?

Fortunately, I’m usually able to pivot pretty quickly when I find myself in these types of situations. So, I immediately replied, “Nothing.” Which, as you can imagine, only made matters worse.

“Nothing? I knew we were going to go the bank first. I wasn’t even thinking about any of that until you mentioned it.” Now I knew I was in trouble. I was still trying to collect my wits when she said, “Have you been learning something new at work??”

In an effort to practice, improve conversations, and provide clarity, I had made things worse. Much worse!

Now, this is where things can get interesting for people. If you’ve ever been in this type of situation, you can appreciate the position I was in. My wife was providing me with some feedback—some pretty strong feedback. She didn’t appreciate being a guinea pig for what I was researching at work, and so what started as seemingly harmless practice turned into a real crucial conversation. And it is really easy to interpret her response as an indication that Crucial Conversations skills don’t work. At least not with her. So easy, in fact, that many draw this conclusion. My partner, colleague, friend, relative, or whoever responded poorly, so it must be the skills that are causing them to bristle. In reality, a number of different things could be going on.

Since this exchange, I’ve had some time to reflect on what went down that day and why. Hopefully my lesson can be to your benefit.

Consider Your Delivery

When I finally talked through what I was doing and why, Margaret said, “Well it just sounded so skill-y.” And she was right. It was the first time I was trying things out, and it took a little while to find words that sounded more natural. For me, it has been helpful to overtly broadcast my intentions. With Contrasting, for example, that means saying things like “I’d like to point out what I do and don’t intend here so there’s no misunderstanding” before delivering the contrasting statement. In the example you raise—addressing silence—think about the delivery. Talk tentatively. Convey positive intent.

Consider Their Current State

Sometimes others aren’t expecting a more open, honest approach and it catches them off guard. Or they are in such a heightened emotional state that they need to allow the chemicals in their body time to dissipate before they engage. A poor response tells you where that person is emotionally. Learn to look. Explore others’ paths. If someone is in a heightened emotional state, you might wait to address the topic, or arrange a time to do so privately.

Identify the Impact

The greatest benefit I’ve realized from Crucial Conversations skills is that they help me not become part of the problem. When I’m anchored in the principles that guide the skills, I tend to lead and respond with my better self. They don’t make me perfect, but they sure help me respond better. I suspect that with continued practice you’ll see a similar impact in your life.

Don’t misinterpret the pain and discomfort you experience during a crucial conversation. When you’re able to consider a broader range of drivers, you’ll be better positioned to make the improvements necessary to shift how you respond. When you run into strong reactions, ask for feedback to understand what’s really driving those responses. The skills are there to help you address silence candidly and respectfully.

As always, good luck, and I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

Good luck,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at

Getting Things Done QA

How to Apply New Skills

Dear Justin,

I have attended many courses that make use of skill models, including the VitalSmarts courses. Crucial Conversations, for example, provides a model that outlines what to do before, during, and after a crucial conversation. In Getting Things Done, I learned multiple steps for how to take control of my workflow, from capturing ideas to completing projects. But do I need to follow these models from A to Z? How much of a model does one need to follow in order to see results?

Curious GTD-er

Dear Curious,

This is an excellent question. Everyone reading this struggles to acquire and apply new skills and learn new behaviors. When you’re done reading this article, ironically enough, you’ll struggle to apply what I share. I won’t go into the detailed nature of becoming an expert (10,000 hours of deliberate practice), rather I will share a few ideas for improving your ability to retain and apply what you learn—whether from a two-day class, an online course, a book, a TED talk, or a cooking show. And in the spirit of my message, I encourage you to pick just one suggestion and try it.

The Easy Answer

You know the saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” But what if you are full after a few bites? Ask yourself, “Do I need to use this whole model to benefit?” You might want to later on, but first focus on applying the skill or skills that will help you handle the challenges you’re dealing with today, this week. In my experience, you probably don’t need the whole model and you probably wouldn’t use it even if you could. Look at your current situation. Which of the skills you have learned would have the greatest impact if you used it consistently for the next month? Work on that one skill and nothing else. Go all in. Some experts estimate you really only need about twenty hours of deliberate practice to become proficient at something (see The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast).

Break It Down Even Smaller

You don’t DO the crucial conversations model; you do small actions. You don’t do at the model level and you don’t do at the principle level; you do at the skill and behavior level. So when you learn a new skill, whether from a course, book, or article, stop and ask yourself, “What is the next micro-action I must take to apply this new skill?” Maybe you learned the ins and outs of apologies and you decide the smallest next action you could take is to call your spouse at the next break and apologize for being short this morning on your way out the door.

Create Disfluency

A few months back, I was working with author Charles Duhigg. He said that in order to learn in today’s world of abundant information we need to create disfluency. Disfluency is the idea of making a task more difficult in order to absorb it. In order to learn (change behavior, thinking, or perspective), you have to assimilate information slowly. Disfluency is the process of intentionally assimilating information slowly and tediously. That could mean taking handwritten notes about something you read or sharing a sixty-second summary to someone else or preparing a short presentation on it for your next team meeting. When you struggle or work to understand or apply new concepts or skills, you tend to absorb them. How can you apply disfluency in your life? Let’s try it now. Go to a coworker or call your spouse right now and tell them in thirty seconds what you’ve learned from this article. Seriously, try it.

Practice > Learning

I once worked with Ethna Reid, one of the world’s experts on teacher behaviors that drive measurable improvements in student learning. She used to tell me that when you’re designing any learning experience, there should be a 2:1 ratio of practice/application to learning. This should be the same for you and I. It’s fun to say we read a whole book on how to influence others. It’s far more interesting to actually be able to influence. Dr. Stephen Krashen at USC says that learning is valuable only if it enables you to plan, edit, and correct yourself while practicing. If it doesn’t do that, then you should only practice.

Let me know in the comment section what you do to retain new skills.

Best of luck,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at

Getting Things Done QA

How to Get the Right Things Done

Dear David,

I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, as a teenager. I loved it. I purchased the FranklinCovey planner and for years I defined my roles and tried to execute on important-but-not-urgent matters related to those roles. I loved getting clear on my values and trying to keep them at the center of my life, even if I didn’t always succeed. Recently, I discovered the GTD system, and I’ve found that executing around context (rather than roles) works better for me. I actually get more done with less stress. Who knew!

That said, I feel I’m veering from my values. I’ve only just started with Getting Things Done so maybe I’m missing something, but I often find myself at the end of a week having accomplished a lot, though not everything I wanted to, and not what matters most to me. How can I better be productive at the things I value most?

Rudderless Speedboat

Dear Rudderless,

It’s quite true that once you’ve gotten some experience with GTD, you might be seduced by the positive experience of getting lots of stuff done and, as a result, potentially lose sight of some of the “bigger things.”

Based on my experience over many years with many people, you are probably in a “swing” mode—you’ve discovered and implemented operational productivity that you may have been previously lacking, but are now realizing you need to focus again on your higher horizons and values. It’s quite a natural process. And I’ll bet when you do spend some time reflecting on your bigger game, it will be from a more grounded and confident place.

It’s like learning to drive a car. You begin by getting comfortable with the nitty-gritty details of controlling and managing such a large and complex moving machine. And then at some point you feel confident enough to focus on where you actually want to drive it.

If your higher purpose, goals, and values have come onto your inner radar, it’s as much “GTD” to engage with those appropriately as any of the more mundane aspects of your work and life. What makes you feel like you’re “veering from your values”? What has your attention about any of that? What’s the next action you need to take to move forward for resolution? What’s your desired outcome?

Now that you’ve begun to learn and incorporate the powerful GTD thinking process to manage your everyday workload, you can apply it equally to the more subtle but important levels of what you’re about, and to great effect.

Best of luck,