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Recovering from a Crucial Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently had an encounter with an aggressive and abusive flight attendant that required me to use all my Crucial Conversations skills. I feel satisfied that I successfully carried out most of the teachings I have learned through your articles—meaning I did not get escorted off the plane.

During the encounter, I was shaking and flushed, but I kept my conversation cool and productive. However, I must admit, even 24 hours after the episode I am still feeling victimized instead of like a great communicator.

When you do what is right to not escalate a situation but come away less than whole, is there a magic trick that helps you overcome that feeling of victimization? I need a mantra . . . do you have one?

Thank you,
Still Flying

Dear Still Flying,

To begin, let me give you heart-felt congratulations. One good measure of a successful crucial conversation is not getting kicked off an airplane. Well done!

Let’s back up a bit. On the airplane, consider the moment your flight attendant was abusive. After complying with the attendant’s request, you may have decided that getting safely to your destination was the only result that mattered and so you chose to not address the abusive behavior. After all, you will not have an on-going relationship with this person. That’s a legitimate choice. Or, you may have chosen to comply, get the issue settled, and then say, “Before you return to your other duties, I’d like to talk with you about the way you just treated me.” Then you’d have a crucial conversation about respect and your expectations.

In cases such as this, you may choose not to address the abuse and get on with your life. However, what do you do when the bad feelings persist and you still feel disrespected, mistreated, or victimized?

Strong feelings and emotions usually come from the stories we tell ourselves. Something occurs and we jump to conclusions and make assumptions to explain what just happened. We tell ourselves either a villain story about others or a victim story about ourselves.

For example, when we assume the flight attendant intentionally abused us, is evil, or is perhaps just selfish, we are telling a villain story. It’s as if we say to ourselves, “The flight attendant is abusive on purpose to hurt me and enjoys making me suffer.” A villain story can create strong feelings of anger and resentment.

When we assume the flight attendant was entirely at fault and we played no part in creating the tense situation, we are turning ourselves into victims, and can be left feeling indignant and helpless.

If any of these emotions persist after the crucial conversation is over, you need to address them to let them go.

One of the best ways to address your emotions is to challenge your stories with questions. To challenge a villain story, ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act this way?” Why would a decent flight attendant raise his or her voice at me? Why would a reasonable person disregard me with the wave of a hand?

Asking questions will help you see that there are many possible explanations for bad behavior. It could be that the flight attendant is evil. But is there another possible explanation? Maybe there was a dangerous situation and he or she felt extremely stressed. Maybe he or she had just dealt with a belligerent passenger and assumed you were one also. It could be that the flight attendant doesn’t know how to deal with tough people problems so he or she gets frustrated. Perhaps he or she just found out he or she was going to be laid off and was very agitated.

We’ve just identified five possible explanations for the flight attendant’s behavior. Here’s the million dollar question: Which is the real explanation? The answer is: We don’t know! So why do we assume the worst?

To challenge a victim story, ask the question, “What am I pretending not to know about my role in the situation?” Are you truly a victim or did you have a role in what happened? Were you resistant to the attendant’s direction? Did you make it easy or hard? Did you allow the attendant’s abusive behavior to continue rather than address it?

Maybe we have some responsibility for what happened and maybe we could have turned things in a different direction. If we can see our role in the problem, we are no longer victims, we are actors. We can influence our situations.

As your stories change to questions regarding behavior, your emotions change from anger or resentment to curiosity or even concern. By mastering your stories, you have mastered your emotions.

Now is the time to ask, “What do I really want?” Can you let it go and learn from your experience? If the answer is yes, you’re done. If the answer is no, ask, “What can I do right now to move toward what I really want?” Could you track down the attendant and have a crucial conversation? Could you write a letter to the CEO? Could you phone in a complaint with the airline? What action could you take to help resolve the situation? Now take that action.

Unfortunately, unresolved feelings following a crucial conversation will not be resolved entirely by a mantra. Instead, use questions to challenge your stories and change your feelings.

All the best in your crucial conversations,
Ron

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Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Ron has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the American Society of Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Management. Ron’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

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