“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High
I have met with the same mentor every week for the past seven years. He is a an avid reader and is constantly bringing me books and telling me, “You need to read this.” They are almost always good books that I need to read, but sometimes they are so good that I turn into an evangelist pushing what I have learned onto every friend and family member. This book has been so helpful for me because I often withdraw when it comes to conflict. I learned from my parents, “You can get glad in the same pants you got mad in.” So instead of handling conflict with skill, I learned to stuff it down and act like I wasn’t upset. Ever been there?
Another friend of mine said his mom would send him to his room when he was angry. We are taught that emotions are either good or bad. Anger is often considered a “Bad” emotion, when anger is a natural response and is often used in a positive way. We can use anger to step up and fight for those that can’t fight for themselves. We use anger to motivate us to change. When anger is controlled it can be a positive force. But most of the time we stuff our anger down and eventually it comes out like a volcano spewing hot lava and ash all over everyone around us – often the people we care about the most.
Communication – Today’s Most Important Skill
If you Google “Communication” you will find article after article touting the importance of communication, one article is titled: “Why Communication is Today’s Most Important Skill.” Others include stats about the importance of communication as well as tips on improving communication in an ever-changing culture that uses technology to communicate more and more. But what about those basic conversations we have with our children or our spouses? What about the conversations we have with our bosses and co-workers? Great communication skills are necessary in the workforce, but they start in our homes and in our most intimate relationships. In Crucial Conversations they start with this phrase, “When conversations move from casual to crucial, we are usually at our worst.” Hard conversations, crucial conversations, are usually the ones that come out of nowhere and cause us to become emotional. Our flight or fight instinct kicks in and with the blood moving from our head to our arm and leg muscles we are no longer able to think clearly in emotional and critical situations. While we are often taught to work hard, do the right thing, be honest, we are rarely taught how to communicate when the conversation is critical.
Some examples of Crucial Conversations may include:
- Ending a relationship
- Asking a friend to repay a loan
- Talking to a boss about their behavior
- Critiquing a Colleague’s work
- Asking a roommate to move out
- Custody issues with an ex-spouse
- Discussing problems with intimacy
- Confronting a loved one about substance abuse
This is a very short list of difficult situations. In the book they use the story about a woman who sees a charge for a hotel room on her husband’s credit card statement. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is having an affair, but she is afraid to bring it up in conversation. She knows that whatever his answer is going to be, that it could cause loss or change in her life. Is she willing to take that risk? Would it be easier to just explain it away in her mind and act like it isn’t happening? How often does this happen in our culture? Instead of addressing an issue, because of it’s potentially devastating impact, it is ignored, often for years, sometimes forever. When the woman finally confronted her husband about the hotel bill he explained that he had to pay for a client to stay the night in a hotel and forgot to mention it to her. It ended up being a small problem, but she had already started to tell herself a story and come to an incorrect conclusion. The stakes were high and “the higher the stakes the less likely we are to handle it well.” (17) So how do we master crucial conversations?
Mastering Crucial Conversations: The Power of Dialogue
“The mistake many of us make in our crucial conversations is we believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend.” Through our own experiences we learn at an early age that often times telling the truth or having a crucial conversation will cause us to lose something or someone we love. It’s like that age old question, “Do these pants make me look fat?” The real heart of the question is, “do you love and accept me no matter what I look like on the outside?” In an effort to not offend someone, we often lie or sidestep the question. So how do we move from lying to truth and still keep our friends? Dialogue.
“At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information.” (23)
Dialogue is the sharing of information whether it is popular or not. People must be willing to share information and ideas in a safe space. When I’ve shared content from this book I see the skeptical look on their faces and so I ask them, “What do you think about what I’ve said?” And they usually respond with, “Well, all of this sounds good in theory, but what if the other person hasn’t read this book?” It’s a good question and the book addresses it. Most people when they are in a tough spot and they don’t know how to proceed in a conflict resort to either silence or violence. I know that I have experienced this in my own life. I have a tendency to withdraw when I am not sure how to proceed in a conversation. I think time will make the problem go away, but it rarely does. Years ago, I was working out with a close friend and I corrected his math on his number of reps and he shouted back at me as he slammed the weights to the ground, “It was 25 not 18!” I honestly couldn’t believe his attitude, it was a side of him that I’d never seen and my response was “No one talks to me this way, I’m outta here.” So I stormed off in a huff. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it is the truth and I felt justified in my behavior. I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, but what I should have done was kept the dialogue going. The book puts it this way, “When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition we don’t share the same pool. Our opinions differ. I believe one thing. You believe another.” My example is a simple one. I believed that my friend had only done 18 reps, he believed that he had done 25. It really didn’t matter to me how many reps he did, I thought I was doing him a favor by helping him with his workout. He believed that he had counted correctly. (I was actually perplexed at how he could be off by 7 reps!) I ended the dialogue by storming off and retreating to silence.
If I had continued the dialogue it would have saved me a few hours of stewing on the problem and then later having to have a hard conversation where I had to apologize for my immature behavior – the storming out. But I did have the opportunity to explain to him how his explosive response was not the way that he and I could continue to be friends. Our shared desire was to be friends and to continue to make each other better. How we could accomplish that would be to learn to communicate better and less explosively. He told me in his dialogue that his outburst was just the way he and his brother grew up talking to each other and that he didn’t think it was that big of a deal. For me his outburst was something I only saw when my dad was angry and so I withdrew from angry outburst and tense situations instead of engaging in them.
Another key piece of communication and dialogue is creating a safe space where truthful dialogue is valued and appreciated. From a separate BulletProof Radio podcast featuring marketing guru Joe Polish, he said, “Intimacy is the exploration of a safe space between two individuals.” I bring that up now only because in order to have good dialogue, you need to have a safe space for dialogue to occur. Since the person we are dealing with is out of our control, the responsibility for creating a safe space for conversation rests upon the one that knows how to create that environment. That is why this book is so critical and so helpful. I cannot change the people around me, but I can change myself and my response to others actions. Furthermore, I can create a space that is safe for them to share and ultimately reach our shared goal. So how do you create a safe space? Start with Heart.
Start with Heart: How to Stay Focused on What You Really Want
You can’t expect people to change overnight and creating meaningful flow of dialogue is hard work. The first person that you have to start with is yourself. “The first step to achieving the results we really want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us.”(35) “People who believe that they need to work on themselves do just that. As they work on themselves, they also become the most skilled at dialogue.” This seems counterintuitive doesn’t it. If I know how to have a good conversation then why am I the one that needs work? By working on ourselves we can become like a skilled fighter, because that is what often happens when we start a crucial conversation, the opposing party starts looking for ways to “punish, win or keep the peace”. (38) Our desire to win drives us away from healthy dialogue.
When our belief of what we think is true or correct is challenged then the purpose of our dialogue changes. We no longer seek to come to a healthy outcome but instead to prove ourselves right. We jump to stats, we call on all our our resources, our intelligence, personal experience, other friends, social media – all to prove that the other person is wrong and you are right. This often times moves to punishing. We no longer want to just win the argument, we want to punish them. Another tactic we often use in a crucial conversation is to resort to silence in an effort to keep the peace. The argument might have started about whether or not to go to dinner and then escalated into “why can’t you ever make a decision.” Before you know it, your dinner plans are out the window and you are stuck eating leftovers and going to bed angry. The desired outcome of the conversation was no longer even on the table, instead, you were more concerned about being right. The question you should be asking is, “What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? What do I really want for the relationship.” The last telling question you should be asking yourself is, “How would I behave if I really wanted these results.” Asking these questions helps keep us focused on our goals and keeps our brain focused on what we really want.
This is just a start to learning how to have crucial conversations. The book delves into all those questions you probably have boiling up inside of you like, “How does this really hold up in my personal situation?” Some conversations seem impossible, but the book has a variety of ways to approach the most complex conversations and gives great and clear examples of how to get better results in your life through better communication.
To recap, this is from page 46 in Crucial Conversations:
Work on Me First, Us Second
Remember that the only person you can directly control is yourself.
Focus on What You Really Want
- When you find yourself moving toward silence or violence stop and pay attention to your motives
- Ask Yourself: “What does my behavior tell me about what my motives are?”
- Then, clarify what you really want. Ask yourself: “What do I want for myself? For others? For the relationship?”
- And finally, ask: “How would I behave if this were what I really wanted?”
Refuse the Fool’s Choice
- As you consider what you want, notice when you start talking yourself into a Fool’s Choice. (The Fool’s Choice is believing that you have to choose between telling the truth or losing a friend.)
- Watch yourself to see if you’re telling yourself that you must choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing and so on.
- Clarify what you don’t want, add it to what you do want, and ask you brain to start searching for healthy option to bring you dialogue.