Category Archives: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations QA

Healing Past Wounds in the Present

Dear Joseph,

In 1995, I gave up my parental rights to a child I fathered so that she could be adopted. At the time, I reasoned the child would do better in a two-parent home. Now, my daughter is twenty-one and would like to contact me. Here are my biggest concerns:

1. Conversing with my wife of the last seventeen years. She feels resentment toward me regarding this situation. How do I reassure her and get her to talk through her feelings?
2. When I do speak with my daughter, how should I proceed? If she asks why I gave up my parental rights, how do I explain it to her?
3. How do I introduce my daughter to my family and friends, and field all the questions that will come?

Awkward Reunion

Dear Awkward,

You’re swimming in some deep waters at the moment. I imagine it must feel pretty overwhelming to have so much of the past, present, and future tossing in and around you simultaneously. I’m glad you would reach out for some companionship. None of us makes it alone.

There are no easy answers to your questions, but let me reflect for a moment with you in hopes of giving you friendly support more than simple prescriptions.

1. Talking with your wife. You say she feels resentful. You ask, “How can I get her to talk?” You can’t. All you can do is offer a safe place. It’s up to her to take advantage of it. I’m interested in the fact that you believe she is feeling resentment. I’d encourage you to reflect on anything in your past or present behavior that would contribute to that emotion. Have you been emotionally unfaithful? Does she fear that your daughter will compete for your limited emotional availability? Or is she concerned that you have unresolved feelings toward your ex—and might be drawn that direction? One of the ways you can create safety for your wife is to acknowledge things you have done that might contribute to her resentment (if that’s what she is feeling). By offering that acknowledgement, you will validate her feelings and help her know she can safely share them with you.

It is also possible her resentment stems from trauma or fears she has that are unrelated to you. Your response to that would be the same—to validate her feelings. You needn’t take the “blame” for her feelings in either case. Her feelings are hers, not yours. Even if you have contributed to them. Your actions are yours; that is what you need to own. But in all cases, let her know you care about how she feels and are willing to hear and empathize with her regardless of what she is feeling. Your goal is not to make her feelings “go away.” It is simply to witness them and stand by her in them.

2. Talking with your daughter. Don’t overthink the conversation with your daughter. Just as with your wife, your job in this conversation is simply to begin a relationship, not fix her feelings. You don’t need to defend yourself. You don’t need to control her feelings. You have no idea where she is emotionally. And where she is when she arrives is no predictor of where she’ll be in the second, third, or tenth meeting. She may show up resentful, curious, needy, open, hurt, or compassionate. You need only be vulnerable and honest. Ask her what topics she would like to explore. Let her know if there are things you’re not yet able to deal with. Take it a step at a time. If the time comes that she asks about your decision to surrender your parental rights, be honest. The only truth that could hurt her is her misperception that your decision means anything about her. Tell her what it meant about you. Tell her about you twenty-one years ago. Tell her how you feel about the decision in hindsight. She may choose to personalize your choices—and assume they have implications for her own lovability or worth—but she can do that as easily without you as with you. Give her the best chance of separating your choices from her worth by being honest.

3. Talking with others. Answering questions from others will only be awkward to the degree you are uncomfortable yourself. If you feel a need to project a false image of yourself, you will be anxious about questions. If you have accepted the truth about your past and present, you will show up that way when questions arise. Here’s the truth: You made some right and wrong decisions in the past. You have a precious twenty-one-year-old daughter. Your life is complex. Accept it. Find the beauty and truth in it. When you do, your anxiety about presenting it authentically to others will disappear. If others have judgments about your past choices, you must decide if you are willing to let your peace be a product of their approval.

These momentous conversations offer you the possibility of greater growth and a more abundant life. You have my best wishes to that end!


Crucial Conversations QA

Effectively Mediating Group Conversations

Dear Emily,

I lead a support group for single/widowed/divorced individuals for people aged forty to eighty. Meetings are informal and focused on sharing, so an agenda is not usually necessary. However, lately we have had a problem with sidebar conversations. One member in particular, who has little or nothing to say when it is her turn, will make a statement to the person speaking that has nothing to do with the topic. Or she will have a sidebar with her neighbor during another person’s turn. This being an informal support group, I don’t want to establish a lot of rules that would harm our purpose of listening to each other and to offer suggestions when needed. How can I address this without offending the “offenders”?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

As your question demonstrates, leading informal groups is often far more challenging than holding a formal leadership position. It’s often difficult to strike the delicate balance between leading and participating.

In a situation like this, I would first consider whether this should be a public or a private conversation. If the problem is pervasive and many people are having sidebar conversations, it may be best to hold the conversation as a group. If the problem is limited to one or two members, it may be better to simply address your concern with those individuals. A couple of suggestions for both situations:

Group Conversation

If you decide to hold the conversation with the entire group, consider carefully what your intent is and make sure to clarify that up front. Then, describe the behavior you are noticing and its impact without identifying specific people by name. Calling someone out specifically will damage your efforts for building safety. Finally, ask the group for their perspective. For example, you may consider starting with something like this: “When we started this group, our goal was to provide a safe and respectful place where we could listen and learn from one another. Over the past few months, I have noticed that our group has started a pattern of side conversations that may distract from the person speaking. I am wondering if others have noticed this and felt the same impact that I have. What do you think?”

With that, you have successfully handled the easy part of the conversation. Now comes the hard part: waiting for, listening to, and discussing the meaning that others share. At this point, the conversation could go in many different directions. Everyone could remain stoically silent, unwilling to speak up and address the behavior. Some could become defensive, thinking you are publicly criticizing them. Others, who agree with you, could start calling people out by name for having sidebars, destroying safety.

So, what is your role at this point? You have initiated the topic and it is up to the group to add meaning. Your responsibility will be to maintain the conditions of safety that will lead to a productive discussion. If others become defensive, make sure to point out that this is not about specific people, it is about a group pattern and ultimately about how the group wants to interact. If others don’t see it as a problem, accept that you may be alone in your feelings and be grateful that the group is still working well and serving its purpose for the members. Above all, remember that your intent is to start a dialogue and maintain the safety people need in order to add their perspective.

Individual Conversation

Should you decide that the issue is only with one or two individuals, you may choose to discuss this privately with them. Doing so naturally creates more safety for the other person. Not surprisingly, the approach is similar: focus on your good intent, share your observations about the behavior and what you see as the impact on the group, then ask for their perspective and be open to hearing their point of view.

Two cautions with this type of conversation:

1. Don’t overrepresent what you have heard from others. Your focus should be on sharing what you have noticed. For example, “I noticed last week that you were talking with Todd while it was Suzie’s turn to speak. Ann and other members of the group seemed distracted by your conversation and weren’t able to fully listen to Suzie.” What you don’t want to say is, “Lots of people have talked to me about this and are concerned about how distracting it was when you were talking to Todd last week.” Share your perspective and leave it at that.

2. Consider both what is occurring and what is not occurring. Sometimes we get over-focused on the impact of the behavior—in this case, that group members are distracted and feel disrespected—and fail to understand what is not happening because of the behavior. Here, the group is neither hearing from this person, nor gaining the benefit of her experience and perspective. When she shares comments primarily in sidebar, everyone is losing out on her insights. Make sure to point out not only what is happening but what is not happening as well, and how that impacts the group.

Whichever way you choose to hold the conversation, with the group or with the individual, let us know how it goes!

Best Regards,

Crucial Conversations QA

Navigating Differences in Language

Dear Joseph,

One of my direct reports has a very thick accent. His job is to define business needs for our customers and hand them off to our database techs. When he does this orally, none of us understand much of what he is saying. I sense he is exasperated as well because he is trying his best and cares about his work. He has good writing skills, but he is not confident and resists writing anything unless pressed. The rest of the team tries to be patient, but gives up after a point. He is also very sensitive and feels hurt when we ask him to repeat himself. How can I tell him he needs to improve his communication skills?

Lost in Translation

Dear Lost,

This will be much, much, much easier than you think. And as soon as you believe that—it will be much, much, much easier!

You are making two mistakes here that are easy to fix:

1. You are having content conversations when you need to have a relationship one.

2. You are feeding his defensiveness with your own.

First, it sounds like you are talking about database requirements when you need to talk about your working relationship. One of the most common mistakes in crucial conversations is talking about the wrong thing. If your real concern is, “we need a more efficient way of communicating,” but what you’re discussing is, “what kind of user interface does the client need?”—the real issue will drive everything. You’ll be discussing screen designs but underlying it will be nervousness, defensiveness, and hyper-sensitivity, because you’re not talking about what’s truly going on. Everyone senses it. Everyone knows it. But no one is saying it. So set aside a special time to have this very specific relationship conversation. Don’t wait until there is another frustrating interaction about customer requirements. If you do, then the conversation will be clouded and confused with the content issue on the table.

Second, stop focusing on your fears and start focusing on your goals. One of the reasons he is defensive about this issue is because he senses your fear of it. Research shows that when you feel fear, your body language telegraphs it to others—causing them to become protective. For example, if as you approach him, your voice is tight, you blink a bit too fast, and your arms are crossed over your stomach—he picks up these little behavioral signals and senses there is looming danger. It’s kind of like when you watch someone walk face first into a closed glass door and you reflexively put your hand to your own nose. Specialized neurons in our brains enable us to empathize by triggering shadows of the sensations we would feel if our bodies were in the same circumstances as someone we are watching. The same is true of emotions. You know what embarrassment feels like. It’s when you deliver the opening joke to your speech and no one laughs. Crickets. In fact, most break off eye contact with you and begin looking at their mobile phones. It’s painful. We feel something similar when we watch it happen to someone else (I call it ex-barrassed). Your stomach turns in knots even though it’s not you at the front of the room. This principle works in reverse during crucial conversations. When you show up all in knots, others sense it and begin to feel protective about the topic you are now stammering your way into.

So how can you avoid making the conversation harder than it needs to be? Focus on your goals. This is a mental exercise first, and a conversational one second. Ask yourself, “What awesome, wonderful, out-of-this-world gift can this conversation give to the other person if it goes well?” Get that goal clear in your mind.

For years, I marveled at Kerry Patterson’s ability to give me incredibly direct feedback without making me feel defensive. I remember the first joint writing project I did with him twenty-five years ago. I handed him my first draft. He read it and basically said, “This is awful.” But it didn’t hurt. I wondered why. Over time, I came to realize it was because he had a clear vision in his mind of how good a writer I could be. And he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of helping me get there. When he approached me, he wasn’t fidgety, worried, or clenched up. He was open, excited, and optimistic. He’d start peppering me with instructions about how to improve it, and since he didn’t seem to think the current dismal state of the piece was a big deal—I didn’t either.

You have an incredible gift to offer your colleague. Come into the conversation enthusiastically. Focus on the thought, “I want to have a fabulous and productive working relationship with you for many years. And I want you to be able to succeed with every other English-based team you work with in the future. This conversation can help you do that—isn’t that awesome!”

Then get to the point. Don’t beat around the bush or you’ll telegraph fear. Say, “Our unfamiliarity with your accent makes it really inefficient to communicate sometimes. I want to find a way to make it much, much easier for you and all of us to get things done. Let’s talk!”

I can promise you that if this is your attitude coming in, you’ll generate safety rather than sensitivity.

Best Wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Approach a Suspected Thief

The following article was first published on January 23, 2008.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Someone stole money from me and I have a hunch it was a roommate. How would you approach this confrontation? Our relationship is neither strong nor bad, just fairly new.

I’m not sure how to ask her without making her feel unsafe. And I definitely can’t imagine her saying “yes” even if she really did take the money. What should I say?


Dear Baffled,

I sympathize with your situation. Something bad has happened. You can’t generate any plausible explanation other than theft. And yet, it’s hard to see this new roommate as a thief.

One of the hardest times to motivate yourself to speak up is when you aren’t whipped-up in righteous indignation. You doubt yourself and you don’t want to cause pain to a potentially innocent person. On the other hand, this is also the best time to speak up because you are in exactly the right frame of mind for real dialogue. You’re humble enough to be wrong and caring enough to worry about the impact of your approach.

Of course, what you do depends upon the strength of the story you’re currently telling yourself. So I’ll offer some advice for three scenarios. You choose which fits:

1. No evidence. The only reason you’re even thinking your roommate may have taken your money is by process of elimination. In other words, you don’t think she stole it but you can’t think of any other explanation.

In this circumstance you should bring up the missing money. Share the facts—not your story (that you wonder if your roommate stole it). If your roommate had nothing to do with it, this will help involve her in the search or alert her to problems that could continue to plague both of you. Simply say something like, “Last night, I had two $100 bills in my purse. I left it in the kitchen and this morning they were gone. Have you had anything come up missing recently?” If your roommate was involved, this conversation will either put her on notice that you’re aware of something fishy or lay the groundwork for a future, more direct, conversation. But, I don’t recommend this very vague approach if you have more reason to suspect your roommate.

2. A little more evidence but a lot of fear. You have a number of reasons to suspect her (e.g., she had two $100 bills when you went out to eat last night) but have reasons to believe a conversation would do more harm than good (she has a hot temper and carries a Taser).

In this situation, you’ve concluded that the potential upside of a conversation is not worth the downside risk of conflict. The big mistake people make in this situation is indecision. They waste time feeling resentful about reality rather than simply accepting their own assessment and making a hard choice to either a) adapt to the insecure environment by securing your valuables; or b) move. Get over it—if you’ve decided you aren’t going to speak up, accept responsibility for that choice and decide how you’ll deal with the future.

3. A little more evidence but nothing to lose. You have a number of reasons to suspect her and nothing to lose by trying the conversation. The worst that can happen is that she denies it, resents you, and you move out. The only difference from the second option is that you’ve opened up the possibility for her to acknowledge her actions and for you to come to some resolve. Here are some ideas for holding the conversation.

  • Don’t open your mouth until you’ve committed to Plan B. Decide what you’ll do if either she denies it and you’re still suspicious or she denies it and the relationship sours. If you’re prepared for this eventuality, you’ll feel a bit less stress in the conversation.
  • Begin with a sincere and emphatic apology. “I have a concern and I feel terrible about even bringing it up. But I know if I don’t, it will nag and bug me and get in the way of our relationship. May I talk with you about it?”
  • Take her carefully down your path to action. Carefully and non-judgmentally share your data. Take all the time you need and don’t skip any element of what feeds your concern. Then, very tentatively, share your conclusion. “The other night I had two $100 bills in my purse when I left it on the counter. I know I did because I opened my billfold to remove $5 for cab fare when I got home. The next morning it was gone. I racked my brains to think of what could have happened to it. Then when you and I went out to eat that night you had two $100 bills.”
  • Acknowledge your suspicion but be tentative. At this point she knows what you’re leading to. You must very quickly restore safety in two ways: 1) by letting her know you hate this conclusion—even though you worry about it; and 2) by letting her know if she made a mistake you can still respect her. “I know this sounds horrible for me to even ask. But can you see why I’d be wondering? Since I can’t come up with any other explanation about how it could be missing, I decided I needed to talk to you rather than leave it festering between us. And I want you to know if you did make a mistake, I’ve done so in my life too.”
  • Open the dialogue. Now it’s her turn. “Did you—for any reason—take the money from my purse?” Be prepared for her to be hurt and defensive. If she is, do not back down. Continue to ask her to help you reconcile the concerns while assuring her all you want to do is work it out.

This is tough, but the costs of not speaking up will be much higher than the risks of taking action now. Be humble and honest and you’ll have done all you can. Finally, if you decide to leave, do so quickly and graciously. When you refuse to let others paint you as a villain, you enable them to examine themselves rather than justify their transgressions using your vengeful response.

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

Owning Up To a Crucial Conversation

The following article was first published on March 12, 2008.

Dear Al,

A relatively new male hire in my wife’s company invited the other men out to a “male bonding lunch.” He asked a female coworker at equal level for advice on where to go and to call in their reservation.

While the men were gone the women discussed this occurrence and felt it was rude and sexist. Some of the men were embarrassed as well when they realized none of the women were invited. Now, there is a sexual discrimination feeling that did not exist before.

What crucial conversations need to happen and who needs to be involved? How can these conversations be handled sensitively?

What To Do?

Dear What To Do,

Knowing when to speak up and how? And who needs to be involved? Ah, those are the tough, life-changing questions. Let me address a couple of points.

First, who owns a crucial conversation? And, how do you know when you should own it? Over the years, I have found two principles that help answer these questions:

1. That little voice in your head either screams or won’t go away. When the “new male hire” asked the question, the “female coworker” probably had a little voice that said, “Male bonding lunch? Is this a good thing?” or “Me call in the reservation? This is not a good thing!” She could have brought up one or both issues right then. She could have also caught herself getting ticked and asked the humanizing question (“Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human ask this?”), concluded he was new, and then simply asked if they could talk about both issues.

Or, the male hire could have noted his female coworker’s subtle non-verbal signals (rolled eyes and white knuckles wrenching a budget document) and noted that she seemed upset and asked why. Either person could have owned the conversation in real time, which is the ideal situation.

2. We start acting it out, instead of talking it out. This is another indicator that we are failing to own up to a crucial conversation. When this happens, we talk about people instead of to people.

The two biggest ways we act it out instead of talk it out are 1) gossip and 2) non-verbal signals like avoidance, frowning, sarcasm, etc. Bystanders can defuse the situation by helping others realize that their gossip or non-verbals are a sign that they are avoiding a crucial conversation.

In this case, instead of keeping her conclusions to herself and talking to her male cowoker, she talked to others about the issue. She opened that proverbial can of worms and now everyone is dealing with numerous trust and respect issues. Any colleague could have stopped her by saying, “Whoa. He’s new. Let’s help him understand when he comes back,” but that also didn’t happen.

Second, how do you start such a conversation? Since both of the coworkers failed to catch the mistake before lunch, it needs to be addressed as soon as it is safe. To create safety, she must first master her story by reminding herself that she doesn’t really know why he did what he did. This will help her control her emotions and conclusions.

The first crucial conversation needs to be a private conversation between the female coworker and her male coworker. She must lead with observations and questions, rather than emotions and conclusions. This one step alone can make a huge difference.

The second crucial conversation should be with the entire company. To help defuse the tension that has been introduced into the culture, gather the entire company together and set clear expectations around what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Make sure you reach complete agreement between everyone before concluding the meeting. This conversation is the first step to avoiding future instances, creating guidelines to hold others accountable to, and ensuring that everyone operates under common expectations. Make sure to communicate these expectations to new employees upon hire.

I have only scratched the surface. But what I have covered is powerful. Anyone can own a crucial conversation—whether it’s real time (the best) or next time (which is still good).

Best wishes,

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Be Both Assertive and Diplomatic

Dear David,

I am a young executive who has managed to climb the corporate ladder at a rapid pace. My current boss of seven years has been part of my success as he closely mentored me and exposed me to the right individuals—allowing them to see my work and leadership. With my recent promotion, he is expecting me to be more assertive with colleagues and even customers.

My dilemma is that I tend to have a diplomatic rather than assertive approach, and believe this leadership style has contributed to my success. My boss is more aggressive, outspoken, and even intimidating. In previous conversations, he has made it very clear that I need to speak up and assert myself. How do I balance assertiveness with diplomacy?

Mr. Nice Guy

Dear Mr. Nice Guy,

I like your question, because I’ve had to answer it myself. I want to be successful, but not if it means being a bully. I want to be nice, but not if it means being taken advantage of. Fortunately, these are Fool’s Choices—false dichotomies that only appear to be trade-offs. In reality, you can be successful without being a bully, and you can be nice without opening yourself up to exploitation. It’s a question of skills.

The What: Your manager thinks you are compromising the organization’s interests in order to maintain positive relationships. This is a common trap you can avoid. The key is to know what you want out of an agreement. Below are a few tips:

1. Focus on interests, rather than positions. Hold firm to your core interests, while being flexible about how these Interests are achieved. Remember, it’s about achieving your interests, not about winning an argument.

2. Involve your manager in determining core interests. The two of you need to agree on what you want to achieve.

3. When determining interests, encourage your manager to take a broad and long-term perspective. Don’t get caught up in silo warfare. Instead, ask what’s best for the enterprise.

4. Know your BATNA—your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Have a clear Plan-B that you will follow if you can’t achieve your interests. The more confidence you have in your BATNA, the more comfortable you will be walking away from an unacceptable agreement.

5. Challenge others to look beyond their position. Help them identify their interests and broader purpose. In addition, inquire about their fears or their worst-case scenarios. Focus on creative ways to achieve their interests as well as yours, while insuring against their fears.

The How: Find ways to be both tenacious and sensitive. Be clear and specific without becoming disrespectful or abusive. Below are a few tips:

1. Be assertive and outspoken when describing your interests. Not mean, but passionate, specific, and resolute. Make sure people know you are committed to your interests. This doesn’t make you a bully, unless you shut down their ability to respond.

2. Encourage others to be equally assertive and outspoken in describing their interests. Don’t allow your strong opinions to prevent them from sharing their perspectives. Their silence might produce short-term compliance, but create long-term problems. We suggest the following guideline: “The only limit to how strongly you can express your opinion is your willingness to be equally vigorous in encouraging others to challenge it.”

3. Be clear about your BATNA. Show that you are ready to walk away from unacceptable agreements. This puts pressure on others, without making it personal.

4. Be Factual. Don’t exaggerate, spin the facts, or speak beyond the facts. Explain the source and relevance of the facts you employ. The facts establish common ground and are the foundation of your credibility.

5. Recognize when others are moving to silence or violence. When others are withdrawing or becoming overly aggressive, stop what you are doing, and step out of the content. Take the time to determine why they are feeling under attack. Have they lost sight of your common purpose? Do they feel disrespected?

6. Restore safety, but don’t compromise your interests. The mistake would be to restore peace by giving in. The better solution is to restore safety by reaffirming your common goals and your respect for them. Once they realize you are a friend, not a foe, they will be ready to return to dialogue. Then, when you return to the content, you do so without having compromised your interests.

I hope these ideas help you be both sensitive and tenacious. I’d love to hear how others manage this dance between passionate, outspoken commitment and reasoned, diplomatic dialogue.

Best of Luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Five Secrets for Mastering Conflict

Dear Joseph,

I find that I struggle with successful interpersonal relationships at work. I continually run into conflict with my teammates as well as my boss, and they don’t end well. I’m starting to feel like a total communications failure. Can you help me understand better ways to rebuild trust and connection with my team?

Deflated Team Member

Dear Deflated,

Thank you for asking such an insightful question. I’ve invited my good friend Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, to help me respond to this question. Between the two of us, we’ve spent fifty years studying what makes people successful at work. A persistent finding in both of our research is that your ability to handle moments of conflict has a massive impact on your success. How you handle conflict determines the amount of trust, respect, and connection you have with your colleagues.

Conflict typically boils down to crucial conversations—moments when the stakes are high, emotions run strong, and opinions differ. And you cannot master crucial conversations without a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ).

With a mastery of conflict being so critical to your success, it’s no wonder that, among the million-plus people that Travis and his team at TalentSmart have tested, more than 90 percent of top performers have high EQs. So how can you use emotional intelligence to master crucial conversations? There are five common mistakes you must avoid, and five alternative strategies you can follow that will take you down the right path.

Mistake #1: Being Brutally Honest

You’ve suffered in silence long enough. Your colleague continues to park so close to your car that you have to enter through the passenger door. You’ve asked her before to stop. After a dozen more violations of your request, you decide you’ve suffered long enough. Clearly, she needs to know what you think of her intentional disrespect. So you let her have it. You get right in her face and tell her what an inconsiderate jerk she is.

How to beat this? Honesty without brutality. From a young age, we’re taught to believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend—that the only options are brutality or harmony. With emotional intelligence, you can speak the truth without burning a bridge. Have you ever noticed how some conversations—even ones about very risky subjects—go very well? And others, even ones about trivial things, can degenerate into combat? The antidote to conflict is not diluting your message. It’s creating safety. Many people think the content of the conversation is what makes people defensive, so they assume it’s best to just go for it and be brutally honest. It isn’t. People don’t get defensive because of the content—they get defensive because of the intent they perceive behind it. It isn’t the truth that hurts, it’s the malice used to deliver the truth.

Mistake #2: Robotically Sharing Your Feelings

Some well-intentioned “communication” professionals suggest that when it’s time to speak up, the diplomatic way to do so is to start by sharing your feelings. For example, you tell your parking-impaired colleague, “I feel rage and disgust.” Somehow that’s supposed to help. It doesn’t. People don’t work this way. Robotically sharing your feelings only alienates, annoys, and confuses them.

How to beat this? Start with the facts. Our brains often serve us poorly during crucial conversations. In order to maximize cognitive efficiency, our minds store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. That’s why, when you give your colleague negative feedback and he asks for an example, you often hem and haw. You truly can’t remember. So you repeat your feelings or conclusions, but offer few helpful facts. Gathering the facts beforehand is the homework required to master crucial conversations. Before opening your mouth, think through the basic information that helped you think or feel the way you do—and prepare to share it first.

Mistake #3: Defending Your Position

When someone takes an opposing view on a topic you care deeply about, the natural human response is “defense.” Our brains are hard-wired to assess for threats, but when we let feelings of being threatened hijack our behavior, things never end well. In a crucial conversation, getting defensive is a surefire path to failure.

How to beat this? Get curious. A great way to inoculate yourself against defensiveness is to develop a healthy doubt about your own certainty. Then, enter the conversation with intense curiosity about the other person’s world. Give yourself a detective’s task of discovering why a reasonable, rational, and decent person would think the way he or she does. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “The best way to persuade others is with your ears, by listening.” When others feel deeply understood, they become far more open to hearing you.

Mistake #4: Blaming Others for Your Situation

Your boss tells you she’ll go to bat for you for a promotion. You hear later that she advocated for your colleague instead. You feel betrayed and angry. Certainly, your boss is the one responsible for your pain—right? Truth is, she’s not the only one.

How to beat this? Challenge your perspective. When we feel threatened, we amplify our negative emotions by blaming other people for our problems. You cannot master conflict until you recognize the role you’ve played in creating your circumstances. Your boss may have passed you over, but she did so for a reason. Half your pain is the result of her betrayal; the other half is due to your disappointment over not performing well enough to win the promotion.

Mistake #5: Worrying About the Risks of Speaking Up

It’s easy for crucial conversations to fill you with dread. Under the influence of such stress, your negative self-talk takes over and you obsess over all the bad things that might happen if you speak up. You conjure images of conflict, retribution, isolation, and pain until you retreat into silence.

How to beat this? Determine the risks of not speaking up. The fastest way to motivate yourself to step up to difficult conversations is to simply articulate the costs of not speaking up. VitalSmarts research shows that those who consistently speak up aren’t necessarily more courageous; they’re simply more accurate. First, they scrupulously review what is likely to happen if they fail to speak up. Second, they ponder what might happen if they speak up and things go well. And finally (the order is important), they consider what may happen if the conversation goes poorly. Once they have an accurate understanding of the possibilities, saying something is their typical choice.

Bringing It All Together

The only way to win an argument is to never have one in the first place. Successful people know this—they don’t avoid conflict. They know that they can do something productive with it before things get out of hand. Apply these strategies the next time you’re facing a challenging situation and you’ll be amazed by the results.

Good Luck,
Joseph and Travis