Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Motivate an Undervalued Workforce

Dear Joseph,

Currently, the large organization I work for is undergoing a change of ownership. There are many employees and leaders here who have been with the company for 20+ years. With the change of ownership, the financials are being scrutinized. We are told there will be layoffs—which there have been every year for the past six years. Leadership is saying we need to “get on the train” and get behind their message. We are being told all employees are replaceable and there is no need to retain talent. I have a strong team who do an amazing job without asking for more. However, we can’t keep going at this pace. We are going to lose talented employees. They will go to places where they feel valued by executive leadership.

How do I keep morale up while my team is told they are all replaceable?

Signed,
Train Conductor

Dear Train Conductor,

Let me summarize quickly what you’ve told me:

1. Management doesn’t care about retention.

2. Your employees have options that would offer them more job security.

3. You want them to stick around and be engaged anyway.

If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking me to help you manipulate your employees to do something that is not in their best interest. I decline.

But perhaps you are asking me a different question. Perhaps you are saying, “Some of my employees want to stay in full knowledge of the risk. How can I help them derive enjoyment while working for a company that has no commitment to their interests?”

If this is your question, I offer the following vignette and counsel.

I worked with a remarkable leader named Mike Miller years ago. He led a group of 3,000 IT professionals on a mission-critical project to work themselves out of a job. Essentially, they were consolidating billing systems in a large telecom company in such a way that within 18 months, fewer than half of them would be needed. In spite of assured job insecurity, the team delivered on time, on budget, and on spec—and with stellar employee engagement. How?

1. Mutual commitment. Mike demonstrated that he cared about the interests of his employees. Now, Mike was not the CEO of the company. It’s possible those above him saw all of his people as “replaceable.” But Mike saw them as people. He loved and respected them. And he promised to do all he could to give them maximum flexibility in finding their next assignments. So they trusted him.
2. Reframe the deal. He was candid that for many of the team, this would be a project—not a career. Fortunately, many in the IT world are comfortable with this arrangement. He built trust by being honest about what was and was not available.
3. Be transparent. Mike knew that what his team valued was predictability. They could control their financial lives if they could avoid surprises. He ensured that people knew far in advance when layoffs would happen—and whom would be affected.
4. Make it about the work not the company. I once worked for a defense contractor who made some of the coolest military equipment in the world. Many of the employees were deeply cynical about management. They would lumber dejectedly into the massive parking lot outside the factory toward their car after a long day’s work. And yet, if on any particular day, one of their products was being tested in the adjacent proving ground, these same employees would stop in their tracks and stare in pride and awe. They may have hated the company, but they loved the product. Mike built a sense of passion and pride in his team by focusing them on the unprecedented technical challenge they were taking on. He framed it like President Kennedy did about putting a man on the moon. And his argument rang true—he caught talented employees’ imaginations in a way that helped them want to engage in the task itself—in spite of the company that saw them as tools.

If there is meaning to be mined in the work you do, and if you are willing to put the interests of your people on par with the interest of the company, you have every possibility of retaining your morality while engaging your people in the work you do.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations via Email

Dear Steve,

Having successfully used and trained Crucial Conversations for many years, I believe in its efficacy for making difficult communication easier, more respectful, and more productive. My question is around whether it’s ever preferable to preface a crucial conversation by using email. Might this pave the way for a more congenial exchange later on by allowing you to express your ideas without risk of having them interrupted mid-sentence, and also allow the other person time to digest, process, and formulate his or her reactions to your communication without feeling the heat of the moment (and with it, the natural fight or flight response)? Or, because of the one-way, nonverbal nature of email communication, might this approach do more harm than good as a starting point?

Signed,
Pondering a Preface

Dear Pondering,

A while back, I found myself surrounded by unions. I frequently worked in unionized environments in a number of different organizations. The group dynamics in these environments were, well, “interesting” (feel free to insert your descriptor here based on your own experience). Sometimes, it was more interesting and sometimes less. But, regardless of the organization, it always became more interesting the closer it got to contract negotiation time.

At one point, I worked with two different organizations on issues related to hammering out a new contract. And in one of those organizations, it felt like a literal hammering. They referred to the negotiations as, “The blood bath on the lake shore” (it’s original name was too long and not family-friendly, so they shortened it to this).

In the other negotiation, it felt completely different. The atmosphere was collegial, rather than adversarial. Instead of preparing for battle, they prepared for agreement. There was a lot of similarities between the two: Both involved well-established, relatively strong, unions. Both organizations were similar in size. Both were considering touchy subjects and controversial positions. And yet, the whole mood and feel surrounding the negotiations were noticeably different. Why?

I was so taken aback, I asked an HR director at the non-“blood bath” organization if the actual negotiations were as pleasant as normal, everyday interactions seemed to be. The response: “Well, since Randy become Union President, they have been. He’s changed the whole way we go about the negotiations.”

We talked about a number of different things, but the practice she seemed to think made the biggest difference was almost insignificant. She said that before each big negotiation, he emailed exactly what they would ask for in the meeting. “I don’t want there to be any big surprises in the meetings,” he would say. And he always demonstrated his true intent was cooperation by sticking to those items he sent in advance, and/or advising of any shifts or amendments prior to the meetings.

Now, this didn’t take all the crucial out of the conversation, but it went a long way to reduce the strong emotions that arise from feeling like you’ve just been ambushed. And so, while there are some conversations that should never be conducted over email, there are ways you can align your email use with Crucial Conversations principles.

Before we jump in to appropriate uses, let’s pause for a Crucial Conversations caveat. If you think it will become, or has the potential to become crucial, it’s best to hold conversations in-person so you can pick up on non-verbals and adjust the level of safety as necessary. When it’s not possible to have face-to-face meetings, then opt for a tele-conference (phone or video apply here). And as a last option, settle for email. Are you getting an idea of the principle here? Use email to augment, not supplant your in-person discussions. So when and how can email be used?

While the most frequent application for email is as a follow-up to a crucial conversation to ensure we have a documented form of who is going to do what and by when, I think the more interesting application is the way the Union President used email during negotiations. In terms of crucial conversations, I think this approach is especially useful when working with creating Mutual Purpose and STATE-ing your path. And because I think the union example fits nicely as a Mutual Purpose application, I’ll focus on the STATE side of things.

When you have a Left-Hand Column (see the work of Chris Argyris for more on this concept) that’s occupying a lot of your mental capacity, it can be useful to write it out in an email prior to the pending conversation, but only if you complete the following pre-work before hitting the send button.

Write it out and pare it down. When using STATE, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not trying to prove our Left-Hand Column, but rather help the other person understand how we got to that conclusion. You want your perspective to be as concise as possible without losing the meaning of how you really feel. Try to capture the essence of the Left-Hand Column in two to three sentences.

Once you have it distilled to the essence, then work on making sure it’s tentative and that you’ve built enough safety around the concern to avoid having others spiral off into the misinterpretations of intent. And because you won’t be able to be present to see when and if people start to feel unsafe, it’s a good idea to go a little further than usual to create safety. Make sure you clarify your positive intent in sending the email, or provide some context as to why you are sending the email in the first place. Or even send an email indicating your desire to send an email about your Left-Hand Column.

If you try prefacing the actual conversation with an email only to find that you’re spending a good deal of time explaining/justifying why you sent the email, or finding that you’re spending more time than usual working to establish safety during the conversation, then back off the email and return to the face-to-face approach. And just remember, when you’re thinking about whether or not to use a preface, it’s used most effective when it is pre face-to-face. See what I did there?

Best of luck,
Steve

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

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Change Someone’s Opinion of You

Dear Steve,

Last year, our department’s vice president was laid off and the entire group was moved under the Director of Operations, someone I didn’t know very well. Since the change, he has not made much of an effort to get to know our team and I have had only a handful of interactions with him. On a recent performance review, he commented that I, “can come across as close-minded if I offer an alternative to his suggestion.” I am not sure what he is referring to, especially considering our limited interaction. I am a licensed professional engineer, so some things I work on have to be “just so” from a legal perspective but, otherwise, I feel I welcome alternative solutions on my projects. How can I approach this director to get some feedback without it seeming like I’m arguing with his assessment or trying to defend my position? How can I demonstrate to my managers and colleagues alike that I am open to suggestions?

Sincerely,
Open to Suggestions

Dear Open,

Years ago, my colleagues and I found ourselves in a similar situation after we were shifted to a new reporting structure. It was a little different in that our previous boss remained in the organization and we’d still see him. For a while after the change, one of my colleagues would tell him, “You’ll always be the boss of my heart; even though you’re no longer the boss of my now.” At first, I considered it to be a clever quip, but I now understand that it’s more than a clever quip. It reflects the difficulty many experience following a change in leadership. You’re trying to understand new performance expectations, how to best approach your new boss, how he or she will respond to different circumstances, and what his or her preferences are.

I recommend the very next action you take is to schedule a meeting with the Director of Operations. The purpose of the meeting is not to list off a bunch of examples of how you are open and flexible, but rather to understand his perspective shaping the feedback he gave you. I’d start by stating your purpose, something like, “I want to make sure we work well together, so I’d like to take time to really understand how you see our working relationship—especially your views about how open and/or closed-minded you believe I am.”

During the meeting, you’ll want to spend as much time as possible in listening mode rather than explaining or justifying mode. Listen specifically for details and examples of how you have actually been closed-minded. Don’t settle for broad descriptions like, “You’re not open to alternative points of view.” If necessary, probe for more detail. Ask him to describe the last time he experienced that with you. Get specific, observable behaviors. You need to understand where his story came from so that you’re not in the position of trying to talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into. At the conclusion of your meeting, thank him for his time and leave him with an invitation to get back with you with any additional information that might occur to him.

At this point, you should have enough data about the Director to take some action. All that questioning and probing you did is less about you, and more about how he sees the world, as well as how you fit into that world. Look for the times, situations, and circumstances where he most often sees you as closed-minded, and then identify what you can do in those moments to augment the “open-minded” data stream you’d like him to tap into. To do this, I recommend you work with symbolic actions.

A symbolic action is any action you take where other people who are watching will walk away having concluded what you care about, what your priorities are, and even what you value. Now for those of you who have leadership positions, what percentage of your actions would you guess are symbolic? Did you guess 100%? If you did, you would be correct; it’s everything you do, or don’t do. When you show up, if you show up, what you say, what you don’t say, and even how you allocate your budget shapes your specific brand of leadership. All of your actions send messages. While these actions are especially relevant to leaders, they can also be applied to situations where you’re trying to change your boss’s perspective.

Ask yourself, and feel free to extend this question to trusted others as well, “What could I do that demonstrates that I am, in fact, the opposite of closed-minded?” An accompanying question would be, “What could I do or say when I can’t be flexible to help him understand why?” Sometimes it’s as simple as telegraphing your upcoming actions by alerting him to what’s going to happen before you do it.

You’ll also need to put more thought into what behaviors, if seen consistently, would change his current data stream. It may be helpful to think in terms of behaviors that involve sacrifices of time, ego, or even previous priorities.

While changing his mind will require some time and attention, if you’re deliberate about it, you can have much more influence in shaping your overall joint experience with your new boss.

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Respect From the Boss

Dear David,

My boss and I have weekly one-on-one meetings. During these meetings, he frequently takes phone calls from his family, gets up in the middle of a discussion to use his personal restroom, and allows workers to just barge in to talk to him. I’m very frustrated with these interactions but he is the owner of the company and I am a new manager. I’ve discussed it with my peers, but the general consensus is it’s always been this way and he will not change. What can I say to still remain respectful and professional, yet help him understand how devalued this makes me feel?

Sincerely,
New Guy

Dear New Guy,

Thanks for your question. As I see it, this may be a difficult situation to change. The owner has a lot of leeway, and you aren’t describing any overtly hostile behaviors. Begin by asking yourself whether you’re accurately reading your boss’s intent.

Examine your Story: You’re telling yourself a story about his behavior—that his actions are intended to disrespect you. As a result, you feel devalued. Ask yourself the following two questions:

• Do you have all the facts you need to be confident your story is true?
• Is there any other, more positive, story that could fit this same set of facts?
Here are two attempts at different stories:

Story #1: From your boss’s perspective, the company is an extension of his home, and his office is his living room. When he invites you in for your weekly chat, it’s as if you are a guest in his home. He’s not trying to make you feel bad. He’s treating you with the same respect he would any one who entered his home.

Story #2: Your boss wants his company to feel like family, where he is the patriarch. As a result, he downplays some of the professional, impersonal, sterile business practices you see in most organizations. Instead, he creates more personal, informal relationships. Meeting with him is like sharing a beer with your father-in-law, when your father-in-law is buying. He sets the agenda, you’re not exactly his equal, and he takes bathroom breaks and family calls when he feels like it. But none of his behavior is intended to offend.

You mention that your peers don’t think your boss will ever change. Do they want him to? Or do they see his behavior as inclusive and welcoming? Are you the only one who is taking offense?

Master Your Story: I will suggest some actions that may help you change your boss’s behavior. But they don’t come with a guarantee. You can’t control your boss. What you can control is your reaction to his behavior. If you can’t master your story—if you can’t find a way to accept your boss’s behavior and feel good about it—then your choice comes down to either convincing your boss to change or leaving his employment.

Get Your Heart Right: Before you take action, stop and ask yourself what you really want long term for yourself, your boss, and the organization. Your initial question focuses too narrowly on how the situation makes you feel. Ideally, the conversation you have with your boss shouldn’t be about you and your feelings. The conversation should be about how to further your boss’s and the company’s priorities as well as your own.

Detail Your Expectations: You are asking for a change in the way your weekly meetings are handled. What exactly do you want? Don’t ask for something vague, like respect. Instead, make your requests very specific, such as: fewer interruptions, shorter meetings, clear agendas, etc. Decide what it is you are asking for.

Make it Motivating: Write down the pluses and minuses of each request. And include your boss’s perspective. For example, what does your boss gain or lose if he stops taking phone calls during your meetings? How would this change help him achieve his goals? Do your best to anticipate the consequences he values, and to weigh them in your balance sheet. Again, focus on consequences to the business and the boss, instead of talking about how his behaviors makes you feel. Your feelings may be fairly low on his list of priorities.

Make it Easy: Do your part to make your meetings more professional. Make calendar appointments that have beginning and end times. Get him agendas in advance, and bring a copy with you. Stick to the agenda as much as possible. At the same time, take care to avoid offending your boss. He may interpret your actions as signaling that you want only a professional relationship, not a friendship.

During the Meeting: At the beginning of the meeting, let your boss know what you’re stepping away from in order to meet with him. This puts some urgency on keeping the meeting on track and ending it on time. Then, when he interrupts your meeting, consider saying, “Let me know when you’re ready to continue, or if you want to reschedule.” Then leave.

I hope there are nuggets within my answer that will help you move forward. Please let me know how you work it out.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to End a Relationship Stand-Off

Dear Joseph,

I work with clients who are in conflict with each other. Their “stories” about the other person make resolution impossible. They’ve been in conflict with each other for so long that they are convinced that their judgments are facts. For example, they are both convinced the other person is a jerk, a bully, ignorant, or selfish. It’s so bad, they refuse to talk about what’s not working and to listen to the other’s needs. How do I challenge their view of the other person so that they can have the conversation they actually need?

Signed,
Conflicting Facts

Dear Conflicting Facts,

You’ve asked the ultimate question.

The heart of most conflict is not irreconcilable differences, but irreconcilable stories. And to make matters worse, once we begin acting on those stories, we begin to need them to justify the vengeful, fearful, or immoral behavior we’ve chosen. Furthermore, the fact that others behave in the same petty way we do generates more data to reinforce our stories.

There are only three paths I’ve ever seen break people free from such mutually assured self-destruction. Any of these can work. All three combined substantially increase the likelihood of change. But when people are deeply devoted to their stories these roads are unlikely to be taken.

1. Misery fatigue. Sometimes, after an especially discouraging episode, people can reach a point that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Even though they feel entirely justified in their current behavior, they are willing to suspend disbelief for a moment and consider stepping off the treadmill.

2. Shocking data from a beloved source. Most of us have excessive confidence in our own judgment. Which is why it is hard to break free of our judgments. But occasionally our respect for another can exceed our affection for our own ego. I have seen conflict dissolve when an individual who is deeply trusted—even beloved—by both parties is able to do two things: 1) lovingly but forcefully confront their self-deception; 2) bear witness to a conflicting view of their judgments.

3. A surprise encounter with poignant and irrefutable conflicting data. Finally, I’ve seen judgments give way to new data when the one holding them is forced to explain behavior that conflicts violently with their previous view. A quick example from one of the most enduring conflicts in modern history: Shortly after peace accords were signed between Israel and Jordan, a large group of Jewish, school-aged girls traveled to a neighboring Jordanian village to deliver cookies, flowers, and other tokens of peace. Due to some misunderstanding, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on the girls, killing seven of them. Suddenly, decades of deep distrust threatened to return the two countries to a state of war. War was averted, however, by a single striking act taken by the late King Hussein. The King arranged to visit the home of every one of the dead children. He spoke with each grieving parent and personally apologized for the tragedy. As he entered their home, he would kneel on the ground at the feet of each parent and beg their forgiveness. He did not rise until they bid him do so. That one striking act generated irrefutable evidence that conflicted with decades of conflict-fueled stories. And it made it possible for these two enemy countries to quickly heal from the tragedy and find a way forward through their now shared pain.

The good news in this last path is that it demonstrates how the unilateral action of one party can change the calculus of the conflict.

Here are three suggestions for you to consider as you assess whether you can play a role in reconciliation:

1. Can the parties see the price they are paying for the conflict?
2. Do they feel safe enough with you to be profoundly challenged by you?
3. Is one of the parties willing to sacrifice in order to demonstrate his or her sincere desire for peace?

If your answers to these three questions suggests you have some assets to work with, I find it easier to frame my requests with aggrieved parties as experiments not concessions. Ask them if they are willing to make a gesture as an honest test of their current judgments. And if so, encourage them to watch for new data as a result of the experiment. If this works, you can start a virtuous cycle that can slowly unwind the terrible knot of resentment they have cooperatively constructed.

There are far too many storytellers and far too few peacemakers in the world. I am glad you are one of the latter.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Resolving a Sibling Rivalry

Dear David,

My father passed away last summer after a six-month battle from mesothelioma. I was named as financial power and my sister as medical power of attorney in my parents’ will. My older brother went ballistic. Since then, he’s tried taking control of everything surrounding my Dad, my parent’s house, and now my mom. My mom was recently hospitalized and had back surgery. He tried to persuade the doctors to communicate only to him. He’s blown up at my sister, my mom, and me multiple times. His response is always, “No one listens to me!” or, “You’re not understanding me!” How can your books and ideas help this situation?

Signed,
House Divided

Dear Divided,

It’s sad when a family tragedy divides family members. This is a time when your mother needs support and the strife you describe is probably very hard on her. I’ll begin with a caution you’ve heard from us before: You can’t control your brother’s behavior or his feelings. What you can control are your own thoughts and actions.

Determine what you really want.
What are your hopes for the long term? Do you want a close relationship with your brother? Or will it be enough if you can get him to cooperate in your mother’s care and her affairs? I’m not suggesting you will be able to achieve either of these outcomes. You can’t control the way your brother feels and acts. But knowing what you really want will help you determine your own actions.

Understand the story that drives the feelings. Your brother went ballistic when he wasn’t given a greater role in your parents’ will. It’s important that you understand why that action provoked such a strong reaction. He probably saw it as a slap in the face—a sign of disrespect. When he says, “No one listens to me,” it makes me think he’s telling himself a story of ongoing disrespect.

Establish Mutual Respect. In Crucial Conversations, we say that, “Respect is like air.” When it’s there, you don’t even notice it. But when it’s not, it’s all you can think about. Does this sound like your brother? Is there a way to prove to your brother that you and your family respect him?

Let me imagine a tough scenario: Suppose your brother has a history of drug abuse, stealing from family members, and lying, and this is why your parents didn’t make him their executor. Does your brother still deserve respect? Of course he does! Every human deserves respect. But notice that the facts of the situation will determine how you will demonstrate that respect.

Demonstrate respect. There is no best way to demonstrate respect, so I’ll suggest a few that might be relevant to your situation. I’ll start by describing an idea that requires a great deal of trust and end with a few that require less.

    • If your role allows it, give your brother an accountability he can own. This action would demonstrate your trust. Of course, don’t delegate a responsibility unless you believe he can, and will, master it.
    • Involve him in your decisions. Ask for his help in establishing decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions, etc.
    • Give him information in advance about decisions you will make. Clarify decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions you are taking, etc.

Establish ground rules based on Mutual Purpose. In your question, you described several negative behaviors—taking control, excluding family members, and blowing up. You need to establish ground rules that prevent these from recurring. These ground rules will work best if your brother buys in to them. In fact, you’d ideally like him to play a role in creating them.

These ground rules should stem from your Mutual Purpose, which I believe is “Doing what’s best for your mother.” I think that you, your brother, and your sister would all agree on that as your key purpose.

If you find that this is your common ground, then ask the next question: “How should we act toward each other and toward mom to make sure we do what is best for her? What actions should we START doing to improve her experience? What actions should we STOP doing? And what actions should we CONTINUE doing?”

This START, STOP, and CONTINUE exercise should be inclusive. I’m sure your brother will suggest actions you should START or STOP doing as well. Again, make this a respect-building exercise by listening and including his ideas.

I hope some of these suggestions will work for you and your family.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Be on the Receiving End of a Crucial Conversation

Dear Emily,

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?

Sincerely,
Defensive

Dear Defensive,

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,
Emily