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?

Sincerely,
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,
Steve

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