All posts by Joseph Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

The Painful Truth about Silence and Violence

Dear Joseph,

I took the Style Under Stress test in the Crucial Conversations book during a group discussion class. I was upset and offended that I was classified as “violent” in my communications. Everyone else in the class tended more toward “silence.” We concluded that “silence” was better than “violence.” I was the odd man out and felt embarrassed. I considered leaving the class at that point. I can see that I have been aggressive in my conversations, but not violent. I do not see labeling me as violent as being helpful. Why did you feel it was important to use such an extreme word to encompass any kind of aggressive tendency?

Confused and Offended

Dear Confused,

You wanted an author, now you have one! Over the years, we have had a number of people react the way you have to our decision to use “violence” as the aggression category name in the Style Under Stress test. I appreciate that you stayed, and hope that you benefited from doing so. I am sad to hear we almost lost the chance to share our ideas with you because of your reaction to our word choice. Thanks for the chance to explain.

Provoke Reflection

Our primary reason for choosing this loaded term is to provoke reflection. For some time, I have marveled at the fact that the human consequences of various forms of aggressive communication do not correlate with the magnitude of the aggression. For example, a boss who simply talks condescendingly to a direct report can inflict enormous psychological harm—leaving her feeling inadequate and traumatized. On the other hand, a couple who both come from families who yelled a lot growing up might be able to rage at one another and emerge much less bruised. What matters is not the caliber of the verbal weapon, but the principle it employs. “Violence,” in our way of seeing it, is any attempt to use coercion to achieve my goal. It is a decision I make to use my superior size, position, vocabulary, confidence, or other asset against you in order to get what I want. We believe that the decision to act on this principle has serious moral implications, and our goal in using this word was to invite deeper reflection about that choice. For those who use it out of habit, or due to modeling in their childhood home, we hope that our deliberate use of this term helps them reassess whether this practice is consistent with their own values.

Honor the Wounded

We recoil from the thought of sanitizing this word by using a less value-laden term because we think it masks both the moral truth of aggressive practices, and dishonors those who suffer from them. Interestingly, I have never been pressed by someone with an aggressive boss, spouse, parent or neighbor to soften this word. When we think about how others affect us, this word seems to capture the experience better than a more academic reference.

Unfortunate Consequence

I regret that your group inferred from the labels “Silence” and “Violence” that “Silence” is somehow functionally or morally superior. I would vehemently disagree. Many of the worst horrors in the world were the consequence of the silence of many. Genocide. Workplace injuries and deaths. Toxic work environments. Immoral policies. Unsafe products. Interestingly, the founders of the great world religions are often exemplars of those who speak truth to power. And yet, generations later, worshipers mistakenly equate deference with righteousness—passivity with rectitude. Please know, as an author, this is not the message I intended to send by supporting our use of these two terms. They both cause immense damage. They both destroy relationships. They both are frequently animated by selfishness and dishonesty. I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. Or at least, help you understand where we are coming from.