Crucial Conversations QA

Why It’s Time to Listen

Over the past two weeks, many of the peaceful protests regarding the horrifying death of George Floyd have grown violent. I am not an expert in racial injustice. When it comes to the issues facing our country right now, I’m a student, not a teacher. I’m reading and watching and listening and learning. And, like many of you, I’m trying to make sense of what is happening.

In Crucial Conversations, we teach that when people leave a shared pool of meaning, they leave because they feel unsafe in the shared pool. And when they leave, they go to either silence (shutting own, withdrawing, etc.) or violence (becoming controlling, angry or intimidating, etc.). Violence then is a set of strategies to compel or coerce people toward our own point of view. Violence, then, can also be viewed as an attempt to be heard.

People don’t always leave that pool of meaning on their own. Sometimes, they are kept out of it purposely and systematically. Human beings have an innate and powerful need to be heard. And when our voices are denied a chance to be heard, we go to silence or to violence.

I don’t know how we will find our way through this as a global community, but I do know that when it comes to conversations, finding our way back from silence or violence is about listening.

Here are three things we can all do today to become better listeners.

1. Check your own story. It’s hard to listen when you have already made up your mind. Our minds are built to make sense of the facts before us. We do that by telling ourselves a story about what those facts mean. But too often, we weave that story based on a limited, narrow, incomplete set of facts. And then we hold onto our story (our perceptions, our judgements, our conclusions) as truth. When presented with additional information that does not fit our narrative, we reject it as fake or wrong. We seek only that information which confirms our original story.

To listen, we have to let go of our own certainty. We acknowledge our story for what it is—our story. Acknowledging our story as a story creates the space for others’ stories. Of course, you will have a different story than I do, because your data stream and your lived experience is different than mine.

2. Identify the limitations of your data stream. We are all in some measure a product of our own data stream. And much of that data stream that has been constructed for us. What we see in social and traditional media is often carefully designed with one goal in mind: to keep us consuming that media. What we like, we see more of until we are living in a virtual echo chamber. As we search for information and truth, often what feels like discovery is in fact by design.

But it is not just media that informs our data stream. It is our lived experience as well. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our coworkers, our environment—all are a part of our data stream.

As a white woman living in a pre-dominantly white community, my data stream is severely limited. It is incumbent upon me to acknowledge the limitations of that data stream and actively make choices to broaden it. I can and do choose media to consume that helps expand rather than constrict my data stream. Choose today to seek out and befriend someone who thinks differently than you, who has a different lived experience, whether in person or on social media. That is just one way we can broaden our data stream.

3. Listen for truth. Too often, when we disagree with someone, we listen carefully to them with a single intent: to find the flaw in their argument so we can point it out. We listen with an intent to disprove them.

Instead, try listening to others with this objective: I will find something in what you are saying that is true. Yes, 99% of what you say, I may disagree with. Strongly. But can I find something that I think is true?

Our fear and self-protective instincts drive us to a place of absolutes. People are righteous or evil. All good or all bad. Yet that’s not true. People are complex. Yes, we can have strong moral convictions of what is right and wrong. But we need to balance that with empathy and understanding.

People will be heard.

I am writing this from a place of privilege. I know that. Listening will not bring back George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, or countless others. But change can and will happen when more voices are heard. When more people are part of the conversation. When the pool of meaning expands. Those voices, powerful and weak, will find a way to be heard. Let’s make it easier by listening.

Trainer QA

COVID-19 Back to Work Basics: How to Speak Up, Listen, and Be Accountable at Work

Dear Emily,

Leaders at my company announced they would like employees to return to the office in July. After working at home in quarantine, what should my company be doing to help employees feel more comfortable about coming back to the office?


Dear Wary,

Like you, for many of us, re-opening the door to business has begun. Our organizations and our communities are taking steps on a fragile path to what promises to be a new normal. There remains tremendous uncertainty: Will there be a vaccine? Will people take it? Will a second wave hit? Will we have to close down again? How long will the recession last? Will I get sick? Will I have a job? In many ways, the re-opening has far less clarity than the closing.

The closing of our economy came quickly and more definitively. For workers in organizations that closed, 10% had only a week’s notice. Within that same week, employees were working in an office one day, and the next they were working from home. But the process of reopening promises to be a longer, rockier experience.

Navigating the ambiguity and uncertainty of reopening requires skilled dialogue. Now, more than ever, we need to talk and listen to people. We need to expand our pool of meaning so we can make better decisions and take more committed actions that help workers and customers feel safe and be safe.

As VitalSmarts Certified Trainers, you are uniquely skilled to help your organizations through this next phase of working in the new normal. You are behavior-change experts and your organizations need the skills you can offer for a transition that promises to be filled with questions. Here are three contributions you can bring to your organization for impact:

Be 200% Accountable. As individuals and organizations feel their way through this next phase of the pandemic, people are being asked to engage in new behaviors with serious guidelines such as: wear a mask, stay six feet apart, wash hands more frequently, sanitize workspaces, etc. The CDC, SHRM, and state and county public health officials are all distributing sound, evidence-backed recommendations for what people need to do differently. But telling people what to do differently is a blunt tool for behavior change (as any of us with teenagers know).

Driving sustainable behavior change requires more than a list of guidelines and practices. It requires 200% percent accountability which means, I need to be 100% accountable in creating behavior change for myself while also being 100% percent accountable for helping and supporting others to create behavior change.

Creating a 200% accountability culture is how you drive lasting behavior change. It starts with being able to speak up when you see someone failing to live the new behavior. The moment someone is held accountable to a new behavior is the moment a norm begins to be established.

We know speaking up and holding others accountable is hard. But as Certified Trainers, you have the skills to do it well. Recently, VitalSmarts launched a new FREE video resource called “How Do I Say That?” to help you and those you serve and teach speak up and create cultures of 200% accountability. You can download the first installment of our Trainer Pack on the Trainer Zone under the Additional Resources section. You can also share the link below with your organization to learn more about what we are offering to the public:

Be a Listener. I spend a lot of my time responding to questions about how to speak up and share truth. Putting meaning into the pool is an essential part of dialogue and one that sometimes overshadows the other essential part of dialogue: hearing and bearing witness to your truth. One of the most powerful things you can offer to your organization right now is your ability to listen. People are scared. People are uncertain. People are suffering. People are processing. The isolation of the pandemic has scarred and is scarring us. Human connection is vital and listening is crucial.

Seeing this need, volunteer members of the VitalSmarts Master Trainer community have created their own “Be Heard” initiative. They are using their skills to offer a place of deep, respectful listening to people in need of a supportive listening presence. This effort is not coaching, counseling, or advice offering. It is simple and powerful listening. You also have these powerful listening skills and we encourage you to consider ways to create listening space within your organization.

Be an Example. We close our Crucial Conversations course with a video titled “The Power of One.” A teenaged Samuel Grenny recreates Solomon Asch’s famous conformity experiment in which he asks people to judge the distance of a line, compared to three others. The answer is obvious, but when others in the group answer incorrectly but uniformly, the research subject is pressured to do the same. Samuel’s results were similar to Asch’s—about two-thirds of people conformed.

But then Samuel changed the experiment. He had one person speak up and say, “I guess I saw it differently . . . ” and then give the correct answer. At that point, after just one person expressed a non-conforming view, 95% of Samuel’s test subjects answered correctly. They expressed their true opinion because someone else had done the same.

True dialogue only happens when there is difference. Conformity kills conversation, but difference sparks dialogue.

There are so many decisions to be made in the next months as our organizations and communities navigate re-opening in a new normal. Now is the time you can create safety for others by simply speaking up in the face of conformity or silence and saying:

  • “I see that differently.”
  • “I’d like to offer a different perspective.”
  • “I wonder if there is a different way we could or should be looking at this problem.”

Inviting different perspectives is not simply an opening for you to offer your contribution to the conversation. It opens the door and creates safety for others to offer theirs.

You have the knowledge and skills your organizations and communities need right now. It’s time to put them to use.

Be well, friends.


Influencer QA

Leading Through COVID-19: How To Get Your People On Board

Dear Joseph,

I am a site manager at a large datacenter. We have clear COVID-related safety policies for employees now coming back to work. Some of my managers are struggling with a handful of employees who disagree with these policies. Some employees are frustrated because they want to sit next to their friends and freely use our game room. When one manager asked an employee to wear a mask the employee responded that the manager was being self-righteous and selling out the Constitution. Frankly, having seen examples of violent confrontation on the news when store clerks remind customers to wear masks, my managers are afraid of provoking a similar incident.

How can we enforce our policies with employees who disagree without being confrontational?

Avoiding Risk

Dear Avoiding Risk,

One of my biggest frustrations currently is that some in the media are feeding the flames of confrontation. Nightly stories of escalating anger pour gas on a fire that would otherwise simply smolder. They politicize honest disagreements by framing them as cataclysmic contests. Your job is already difficult enough as you try to safely manage your workplace. When media makes it seem like rare escalations are common occurrences, stress can feel unbearable.

Fortunately, in spite of this media-enhanced agitation, there are things you can do to help people at work harmoniously adopt commonly accepted safety behaviors. In addition to what I offer below, I urge you to watch my webinar on Back to Business tips or read more about it in my Harvard Business Review article.


  1. Hold a boot camp. The best way to handle a crucial conversation is to prevent it. Design a workshop that introduces the new policies, and have people attend it as they return to work. This gives you a chance to clarify expectations in an advantageous setting. I call this a “boot camp” because, similar to the military induction, it should be leader-led and hands-on. Don’t turn it into a PowerPoint presentation led by HR. Have everyone go through the motions of hand hygiene, mask donning, temperature taking, or whatever your policies are. People are most uncomfortable when trying things for the first time. It’s best to have that “first” be in a controlled group setting where reasoned discussion can take place, rather than in an awkward one-to-one moment with a manager or peer.
  2. Offer a clear moral frame. In the boot camp, leaders should be unapologetic about the intentions of their policies. Leaders should speak personally, where possible, about why they think the policies are appropriate and right. But don’t turn your moral motivation into self-righteousness. Instead . . .
  3. Allow room for disagreement, but not dissent. Leaders should acknowledge that some might disagree with what the company is asking. The truth is that organizations are asking customers and employees to do some inconvenient things that some may disagree with. What else is new? Many workplaces require employees to wear PPE even when some think it’s stupid. Lots of employers require drug testing that some think is invasive. People need not agree with everything in order to consent to it. So, don’t ask them to. Make it clear you are not asking for everyone to agree with leadership’s reasoning; you are simply asking for them to accept it. It is the nature of all social life to make compromises at times to be part of a group. We are all better off because we work together, even if our own ideas don’t win the day every time. If framed in this way, you can avoid unnecessary debates about science or morality.
  4. Ask for 200% Accountability. The only way to ensure new practices are adopted quickly and practiced consistently is to create a culture of “polite reminding.” We’ve created a set of videos you can use to promote this kind of culture. The key to avoiding confrontation is to ensure those issuing reminders do so kindly, and that leaders offer an example of receiving reminders with the utmost grace. The watchwords should be: “It’s kind to remind” and “When reminded, show gratitude not attitude.” Cover this in the Boot Camp, including a lighthearted, playful way of practicing these behaviors.
  5. Sign a commitment. People are far less likely to stray when they’ve made an explicit promise not to. For example, research shows that when we are presented with temptation to cheat, we are far less likely to give in if we have recently signed a promise to be honest. After disclosing and practicing the policies, ask for a commitment to comply. Having people sign a disclosure form that asks for a promise to comply, as an example, can encourage them to police themselves.


If you’ve set expectations in the way I’m describing, you will prevent the vast majority of ugly episodes. Yet correction may occasionally be required. If it is, follow these guidelines to avoid escalation:

  1. Say “Please.” Your motive in issuing a reminder is a huge predictor of the recipient’s response. If you’re coming from a place of judgment (“Put your mask on, you festering cur!”) or control (“You will use that hand gel!”) it doesn’t matter what words you use. People may pick up on your emotions and respond defensively. A good rule of thumb is “If you can say please convincingly, you’re probably in a good place.”
  2. Speak up, then let it go. After reminding your colleague, let it go. Don’t demand instantaneous compliance unless there is an imminent safety risk that justifies it. Give them a moment to work through any embarrassment they might feel. If you’re a leader and are responsible for ensuring compliance, circle back later to ensure they’re committed to doing better.
  3. Escalate without escalating. If someone appears unwilling to comply, pass the concern on to those who should handle it. Don’t turn it into a holy war by escalating matters unnecessarily in the moment. Emotions have tempos to them. Anger is fast. Calmness is slow. If you avoid pressing for a fast resolution, you can often find a more peaceful one.

If you take proper steps to prevent confrontation and then respond patiently but firmly in rare moments of resistance, 99.9% of people will suck it up and do what is asked, even if they don’t agree with it.

I deeply hope that we can all get through this quickly and do so with grace and patience.