Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

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

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Address Bad Body Odor

Dear Joseph,

My son tells me his roommate at college has a body odor issue. It has become so bad that my son stays at his girlfriend’s more often than not. He has mentioned to his roommate that there is a terrible odor in the room, but hasn’t gone much farther than that. He did speak to the R.A. who said he would speak to the roommate. I haven’t heard back as to next steps. Your thoughts?

Sincerely,
Addressing Odor

Dear Addressing Odor,

Let me back up. I’m going to address your son, rather than you, and assume he is starting over again. He has already dug himself into a hole by being disingenuous—pretending the issue was disembodied odor rather than body odor. He needs to clean that up and start fresh.

Here’s my advice to him.

1. What do you want? What are your options? First, don’t step into this until you know what you really want. Do you like this roommate? Are you willing to invest in the relationship? Are you stuck no matter what? Do you have a housing contract that will not release you unless you claim this is a health and safety issue? If you have an easy exit path and aren’t willing to invest in the relationship, the answer is easy. Get out. If getting out is unlikely and you like this guy, this will be a great opportunity to learn how to deal maturely with relationship problems.

2. Master your story. You won’t be able to have a decent conversation with your roommate until you strip all of your judgments and personalization out of your story. If you feel resentment and disgust toward him, that will drive the entire interaction. So . . . own the fact that your emotions and judgments are just that—yours. You are entitled to not enjoy the smell. But, if you want a shot at making it go away, you need to accept that you are amplifying the experience through the story you’re telling yourself about why he smells.

For example, Rachel Herz studies the psychology of smells. She once did an experiment where subjects were asked to whiff the same odor and then rate its pleasant- or unpleasant-ness. Some were told it was Parmesan cheese. Others were told it was vomit. And guess what? In spite of the fact that they were having the same sensory experience, the Parmesan group judged it as pleasant. The others recoiled in revulsion.

Before you talk with him, examine the judgments you are making. Are you loading up your story with beliefs about his intentions (he’s inconsiderate), his character (he’s lazy), or his morality (smelling this way is bad). Remind yourself that most of the seven billion people in the world think differently about hygiene than you do. Also, open yourself to the fact that these odors may have nothing to do with hygiene. Certain medications generate different body odors as do different physiologies. Your goal is not to dismiss your own desires or preferences but to come to a place of curiosity and compassion from which you can converse rather than coerce.

3. Create safety and clarify purpose. Start the conversation by honoring both your need and his humanity. “I’d like to talk about something that is affecting me. But I’m worried that in doing so, I’ll communicate disrespect, judgment, or intolerance of you. That’s not what I want or how I feel. I just want to find a solution that works for you and me.” Having done so, realize that discussing something as personal as how someone smells is very likely to provoke defensiveness. Which leads to my next point . . .

4. Your actions are yours. His feelings are his. Even if you do your best to approach him with curiosity and respect, he may react to his vulnerability by recoiling in hurt or blame. If he does, do not apologize for your needs. Simply clarify your intentions. For example, if he says, “I don’t have to listen to this!” and heads for the door, offer something like, “I am not trying to attack or insult you. Please let me know if we can talk about this later—I just want to work it out for both of us. I’d like to be your roommate.” Then let it go.

A primary reason many of us stay in silence rather than connecting honestly is that we misunderstand our responsibility for others’ emotions. We are responsible to care about how others feel, but we are not responsible for how they feel. Their emotions are their choices. How we act can affect them—and we should always act with compassion and respect. But that is where our duty stops. When you take responsibility for others’ feelings, you begin to live dishonestly. You begin to calculate and manipulate in order to control others’ feelings. And by so doing, you surrender the possibility of both solving problems and connecting deeply.

I wish you the best and assure you that how you approach this moment is important practice for every future relationship of your life.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Tips to Battle Unconscious Bias

Dear David,

Five months ago, I started a job at an all-girls private, Catholic, school. I work as a technician and accepted the job because it combines my interest in instructional education and computer hardware and software troubleshooting. It also pays well above what I’ve earned in the past.

I’m a woman, and my teammates are all men. I’m feeling uncomfortable, but not because of the guy-to-girl ratio (4:1). It’s because I feel like all of my actions are being scrutinized under a microscope. I understand that this is a high-demand field. I’ve worked in schools before, but never as part of a team. So I’ve been introduced to things like team meetings and monthly feedback reports.

Lately, whenever I get feedback, I feel like my teammates are “fishing” for things I’ve done wrong. For example, the latest feedback was about what the expression on my face conveys. Help?

Sincerely,
Feeling Judged

Dear Judged,

Thanks for an interesting question. It combines a thought-provoking mix of issues: succeeding as a new employee, responding to feedback, and dealing with unconscious bias. I’ll suggest a few approaches.

Succeeding as a New Employee. Congratulations on your new job. It’s also a great opportunity for laying the grassroots of a successful career. Here is my advice:

Create your Personal Brand. Your brand is your reputation—the image you project. You need to take charge to make it the right brand. Our research for Change Anything uncovered three elements that are essential to your brand:

  • You know your stuff. In your case, this means that you are seen as a master of the different technologies you support. If you aren’t already a master, then put in the time and effort it takes to quickly rise to the challenge.
  • You work on the right stuff. This means that you focus on high-priority, mission-critical tasks, rather than staying in your comfort zone.
  • You have a reputation for being helpful. People need to see you as generous with your time and expertise.

Build Relationships. Reach out to build relationships beyond your immediate team. Schedule two to three appointments per week with your customers—teachers and administrators—across the school. Ask them about their priorities related to the technology services your team provides. Listen for improvements they’d like to see, and take notes. Try to find at least one concrete action you can take to respond to their suggestions.

At the same time, work to build stronger relationships within your team. This is where you need to build your reputation for being helpful. Volunteer for the tough jobs, pitch in when you see a teammate putting in extra time or effort, and ask others how you can help.

Get a Mentor. Find a person who is willing to both challenge you and advocate for you. This could be a teacher or administrator, or it could be your manager. The essential ingredients in the relationship are safety and trust. You need someone who can help you navigate the political complexities of your new job.

Responding to Feedback.
You are getting a lot more feedback than you’re used to, and it feels as if people are using a microscope to search for negative things to say. How should you deal with their criticisms? Here are a few suggestions.

Avoid Defending. It’s hard not to defend, especially when criticisms seem picky, unfair, or inaccurate. But do your best to become curious, instead of defensive. Respond with, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Can you give me an example, so I can understand it better?”

Seek Clarity. Often, when feedback feels unfair, the real problem is that it’s vague. A person says, “You’re not very customer-focused,” when what they mean is, “After yesterday’s service call, you didn’t check back to see if your solution solved all of their problems.” Getting down to specifics will take the heat out of the feedback, and will also make it easier to act on.

Go Public. Here is a secret: People will continue to send you feedback until they are sure you’ve gotten the message. So, once you’ve decided how to respond to a piece of feedback, make your plans public. Going public communicates that you’ve taken the feedback seriously, have made changes, and that the person who gave you the feedback can move on.

Dealing with Unconscious Bias. As a woman in a team of men, you stand out. You get noticed. And, because we humans have our assumptions, your successes may seem a bit surprising to some, and your failures may seem a bit confirming. In addition, you may find that the work environment has been optimized for its prior residents—all men. How should you deal with these kinds of bias?

We recently studied the damaging effects of bias and found that subtle biases like what you describe are pervasive and soul-destroying. I am sorry you find yourself in this kind of environment. Luckily, there are skills you can use to confront what is likely an unconscious bias. I’ll suggest three from our Crucial Conversations book and training.

Speak Up. Don’t just grin and bear it. When you experience an interaction that leaves you wondering—like feedback about what the expression on your face conveys—step out of the content and have a conversation about your concerns. “Can I talk about what we’re talking about? I’ve noticed a pattern. Sometimes you give me feedback that seems more personal than the feedback you give each other. For example, feedback about my clothes, my glasses, and now my expressions. As men, do you ever receive feedback from each other on these things?” The goal is to begin an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that builds understanding and respect.

Make it Safe. Avoid labeling or accusing others. Instead, assume that people have positive intentions unless proven otherwise. Achieving a better outcome for the future requires that we help others and ourselves feel safe while addressing uncomfortable issues. For example, you might begin with, “I don’t think you realize how that came across . . .”

State My Path. Skilled individuals are careful to describe their concerns absent the judgments and accusations the rest of us hold when we speak up. For example, replace, “What you said was sexist and abusive,” with, “Last Friday, you said, ‘That’s the last time I send a woman to do a man’s job.’” Describe what really just happened—no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations, and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you, then invite others to a dialogue where you both can learn. For a recap of these skills, watch our latest Crucial Skills Live video below.

I know this is a lot to process, but that’s what you get when you ask a really good question! I hope you find a few nuggets in my response that will help.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Decline A Friend’s Invitation

Dear Steve,

My friend and I have been close for many years. However, my husband and I really dislike her husband; being in the same room feels like a chore and is emotionally exhausting. She is aware that I do not like her husband but she likes hosting Christmas dinner and insists we are like family and therefore should attend. The previous three years, I have been able to graciously decline, stating we had previous commitments. Earlier this year, she reminded me that Christmas was thirty-four weeks away and asked what would I like for dinner? I resent the idea of her asking me so soon and we really do not want to attend. How can I address this issue without losing her friendship?

Sincerely,
Trying to Be Friendly

Dear Trying,

You do have a tough decision, but you have a couple of options for proceeding. The tough part is, as I see it, each option has a downside. While this is not an exhaustive list, the main point to realize is that you’re choosing a consequence bundle—a mix of positive, negative, shorter-, and longer-term consequences. In the end, you need to choose the bundle you feel you can live with. So, as with most important journeys, let’s start with a little detour.

How to Choose

Stay with me here, because what happens before you choose is usually the most important bit. This pre-choice will help you select which of the options is the best fit for you.
If you’re not careful, it will be easy to get sucked into an option that appeals in the short-term while going against what you really want in the long-term. Stopping to clarify what you really want allows you to fully explore the range of consequences bundled in any particular option. Doing this the right way usually requires thoughtfully asking (emphasis on the word thoughtfully here) three to four times, “What do I really want?” Your answer to this question will help clarify, up front, the type of strategy you’re looking for and make the selection process a little easier.

I’ve found it helpful to examine what it is I really want in terms of both the desired relationship and the results. Make sure to consider these two factors for you, for your friend, and for the relationship. If you decide you will decline the invitation, then proceed with the following options for gracefully doing so.

Option 1: The outright NO.
This one is the most direct, straightforward, and potentially damaging of the options. It involves telling your friend that you will not be accepting her invitation for dinner. It may also involve declining any and all future invitations to engage with your friend. The benefit of this easy response is counterbalanced with the high potential to sever all ties with your friend (whose only crime is being married to a person with whom you don’t want to spend time). It’s also hard to do when it comes right down to it because who really wants to say “no” when that means disappointing your friend.

This option doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, and yet, it may very well feel that way to your friend if you don’t take time to establish and reinforce safety with her—especially Mutual Purpose. You’ll want to make sure she understands that you’re not trying to sever all ties, AND that you’re not interested in spending time with her and her partner on Christmas Day. Establishing your commitment to seek a mutual purpose will be key, and the big barrier to this will be your friend’s insistence that your mutual purpose is to spend Christmas dinner together. She needs to know that you’re interested in finding one-on-one activities that provide an opportunity to foster the friendship.

Option 2: Only this ONCE!

While this option satisfies your friend, it does mean that you’ll be spending an evening managing your emotions. This option can also be tough because it’s never just once. By attending the dinner once, a precedent is established. Your friend learns that you are persuadable with the right mix of pre-notice and constant follow-up.
Now, there are good reasons that might pull you toward this option. After all, it sounds like it’s only once a year for the span of an evening. If the friendship is really valuable to you, and the only way you see to maintain that friendship is to occasionally endure her husband in small, controlled doses, then this bundle may be the right choice for you.

If you find yourself leaning toward this option, make sure you are very clear with yourself on acceptable amounts, types, and lengths of interaction with her and her partner. This will allow you to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries so as to avoid being roped-in to interactions that weigh on you.

Regardless of which option you choose, or even if you decide that a different option suits you better, remember to take time to reinforce your positive feelings for your friend and the value that you hold for your friendship. In the end, you’ll want to create the conditions under which this friendship has the best chance to continue forward, in whatever form that might take.

Best of luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations with a Defensive Spouse

Dear Joseph,

My wife and I have a communication issue. We don’t talk enough about problems. Our conversation never lasts longer than forty-five seconds. This pattern has left a lot of issues unresolved that I feel are detrimental to the long-term health of our family. As soon as there is some indication of responsibility or accountability on her part—a behavior change she needs to make or a promise she broke—she responds with something like “Oh come on!” or “I can’t right now!” or, “Why do you always bring that up?” At this point, the conversation escalates and I back off.

How can I hold a safe space when this happens and ensure that we actually resolve something? What else can I do to create healthy communication practices when I can’t even get past the first forty-five seconds?

Signed,
Got a Minute?

Dear Got a Minute,

I can sense your frustration—and even despair. You crave the opportunity to get closure on concerns that are important to you and feel powerless to engage your wife sufficiently to do so. I’ve felt similarly stymied in cherished relationships in my life. Here are some reflections from those difficult times.

1. Work on me first.
First, I would invite you to consider your own behavior. Look courageously for habits or incidents where your behavior might have given her cause to feel unsafe, disrespected, or even despairing about communicating with you. If appropriate, you might even make this a focused topic of conversation with her. Perhaps beginning with, “I’ve been thinking about how I complain that you won’t stay in conversation with me about issues that are important to me. I’ve been thinking about ways I have brought that frustration on myself. I want to learn how to make our conversations work for you. I have recognized several things I do that I believe are hurtful to you. If you are willing, I’d like to ask you to add to my list. Could we talk about that sometime?”

2. Talk about talking. Having examined and owned your part, ask for an opportunity to talk about how both of you talk. Ask for permission to share things she could do to make it easier for you to discuss sensitive issues. Frame the conversation as a way of coming to agreement on ground rules for how, when, and where you’ll deal with topics that are difficult for both of you. The ground rule of this conversation is that both of you are “right.” The goal is not to agree on needs but to validate any need and ground rule the other person wants. Don’t criticize hers. Similarly, assert your own. Stand up for yourself in expressing your needs and the ground rules that will help you assure them. For example, if you struggle to share your concerns without being interrupted, you might ask for a ground rule that says, “We won’t interrupt each other—even if we disagree with what the other is saying. We will hear each other out before responding.”

3. Give her a reason to want to. Crucial conversations only work when there is a Mutual Purpose. In your question, you articulate how communication failures are affecting you. You make no mention of how they might be affecting her. Do your best to empathize deeply with what is and isn’t working for her in the relationship. Frame the request to talk in terms that sincerely appeal to her needs as well. At some level, her choice to limit her communication with you at times is rational. It is accomplishing some purpose for her. Clearly, it also has downsides—but there must be an upside. How can you present a request for communication that is more appealing than what her limits are getting her? For example, “I know at times you feel I am insensitive and unaware of your needs. I want to do better at that. I believe if I can find a way to communicate better with you, that would help. Can we take some time to talk about what is and isn’t working in our communication? My hope is that this will help me be more connected with you and be a better husband—and it will also help me feel heard and cared about as well.”

4. Influence with your ears.
The best way to help her feel safe, and feel as though conversation can actually serve her needs, is to listen. Hold yourself accountable to validating everything you hear from her, and confirming you have heard it well, before you share anything. If she shares very little, validate what she does share and reassure her you are committed to offering her more safety in the future than she has experienced in the past. As Stephen Covey said, “You can’t talk your way out of problems you behave yourself into.” Be willing to demonstrate your sincerity until she believes it.

I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you. Communication is life. It is the only vehicle we have for connecting meaningfully with others. I wish you the best as you improve yours.

Warmly,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations in a Crowd and Other Less Than Ideal Circumstances

Dear Emily,

I have enjoyed reading your guidance. Your advice and books tend to assume an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM / phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act.

In these conditions, a conversation is more likely to turn crucial. That has happened to me recently. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation. Please describe how to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.

Best,
Living in the Real World

Dear Real World,

What a great way to describe this—a constrained crucial conversation! Constrained by all the realities of life. Here is what I love about your question: you are putting the power of Crucial Conversations to the test. If crucial conversations skills only work under ideal circumstances, they aren’t really all that valuable. If, on the other hand, crucial conversations skills can stand up to the test of real life, then they are of immense value.

Consider a spectrum of conditions in which you face a crucial conversation. On one end of the spectrum, you have the ideal conditions; on the other, you have the suboptimal conditions you describe above. When faced with those suboptimal conditions, it can be easy to use the situation as a rationalization for our silence: “I can’t have a crucial conversation with this person because it won’t be private, quiet, in-person,” . . . fill in the blank. Or, we attempt the conversation, it doesn’t go well, and then we use those suboptimal conditions to justify our poor results: “Of course it didn’t go well! It was so noisy, distracting, stressful,” etc. Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions to appear or using less than ideal conditions as an excuse, I would suggest you ask yourself, “How can I move along the spectrum, even a step or two, toward improved conditions?”

Ideal conditions are those that make it easier to engage in the core principles of crucial conversations: creating safety, mastering our stories, and encouraging others to share their meaning. They allow us to be present and focused, attuned to the responses of ourselves and others in the conversation. Certainly, those things are easier to do under some conditions than others, but if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can creatively solve most conditional challenges.

Here are four quick tips you can consider for some common challenging conditions:

1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds. We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.

2. Walk and talk. One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.

3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter. Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:

“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”

Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.

4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals. We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.

These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others. What other tips have you found for holding constrained crucial conversations in your life? There are more than 350,000 very wise readers of this newsletter. I invite you to share your experiences and tips with us by adding a comment below.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Emily

One note: Some crucial conversations demand complete privacy. For example, a conversation in a hospital about a patient should not be held in a place where someone else might overhear confidential and legally protected information. In cases like these, you must delay the conversation until an appropriate location can be secured.