I have known a thousand scamps; but I never met one who considered himself so. Self-knowledge isn’t so common.
Let’s start this chapter by visiting a crucial conversation. You’ve just ended a heated debate with a group of people you supervise. What started out as a harmless discussion about your new shift rotations ended up as a nasty argument. After an hour of carping and complaining, you finally went to your separate corners.
You’re now walking down the hall wondering what happened. In a matter of minutes an innocent discussion had transformed into a crucial conversation, and then into a failed conversation—and you can’t recall why. You do remember a tense moment when you started pushing your point of view a bit too hard (okay, maybe way too hard) and eight people stared at you as if you had just bitten the head off a chicken. But then the meeting ended.
“It happened again. The boss started pushing so hard for personal agenda items that we all began to act defensively. Did you notice how at one point all of our jaws dropped simultaneously? Of course, I was just as bad as the boss. I spoke in absolutes, only pointed out facts that supported my view, and then ended with a list of outlandish claims. I got hooked like a marlin.”
Later that day as you talk to your friends about the meeting, they let you in on what happened. You were there, but somehow you missed what actually happened.
“That’s because you were so caught up in the content of the conversation,” your buddy explains. “You cared so deeply about the shift rotation that you were blind to the conditions. You know—how people were feeling and acting, what tone they were taking, stuff like that.”
“You saw all that while still carrying on a heated conversation?” you ask.
“Yeah,” your coworker explains, “I always dual-process. That is, when things start turning ugly, I watch the content of the conversation along with what people are doing. I look for and examine both what and why. If you can see why people are becoming upset or holding back their views or even going silent, you can do something to get back on track.”
“You look at the ‘conditions,’ and then you know what to do to get back on track?”
“Sometimes,” your friend answers. “But you’ve got to learn exactly what to look for.”
“It’s a form of social first aid. By watching for the moment a conversation starts turning unhealthy, you can respond quickly. The sooner you catch a problem, the sooner you’ll be able to work your way back to healthy dialogue, and the less severe the damage.”
You can’t believe how obvious this advice is—and yet you’ve never thought of such a thing. Weirder still, your friend has. In fact, he has a whole vocabulary for what’s going on during a crucial conversation. It’s as if you’ve been speaking another language.
In truth, most of us do have trouble dual-processing (watching for content and conditions)—especially when it comes to a crucial conversation. When both stakes and emotions are high, we get so caught up in what we’re saying that it can be nearly impossible to pull ourselves out of the argument in order to see what’s happening to ourselves and to others. Even when we are startled by what’s going on, enough so that we think: “Yipes! This has turned ugly. Now what?” we may not know what to look for in order to turn things around. We may not see enough of what’s happening.
How could that be? How could we be smack-dab in the middle of a heated debate and not really see what’s going on? A metaphor might help. It’s akin to going fly fishing for the first time with an experienced angler. Your buddy keeps telling you to cast your fly six feet upstream from that brown trout “just out there.” Only you can’t see a brown trout “just out there.” He can. That’s because he knows what to look for. You think you do. You think you need to look for a brown trout. In reality, you need to look for a brown trout that’s under water while the sun is reflecting in your eyes. You have to look for elements other than the thing that your dad has stuffed and mounted over the fireplace. It takes both knowledge and practice to know what to look for and then actually see it.
So what do you look for when caught in the middle of a crucial conversation? What do you need to see in order to catch problems before they become too severe? Actually, it helps to watch for three different conditions: the moment a conversation turns crucial, signs that people don’t feel safe (silence or violence), and your own Style Under Stress. Let’s consider each of these conversation killers in turn.
First, stay alert for the moment a conversation turns from a routine or harmless discussion into a crucial one. In a similar vein, as you anticipate entering a tough conversation, pay heed to the fact that you’re about to enter the danger zone. Otherwise, you can easily get sucked into silly games before you realize what’s happened. And as we suggested earlier, the further you stray off track, the harder it can be to return.
To help catch problems early, reprogram your mind to pay attention to the signs that suggest you’re in a crucial conversation. Some people first notice physical signals—their stomach gets tight or their eyes get dry. Think about what happens to your body when conversations get tough. Everyone is a little bit different. What are your cues? Whatever they are, learn to look at them as signs to step back, slow down, and Start with Heart before things get out of hand.
Others notice their emotions before they notice signs in their body. They realize they are scared, hurt, or angry and are beginning to react to or suppress these feelings. These emotions can also be great cues to tell you to step back, slow down, and take steps to turn your brain back on.
Some people’s first cue is not physical or emotional, but behavioral. It’s like an out-of-body experience. They see themselves raising their voice, pointing their finger like a loaded weapon, or becoming very quiet. It’s only then that they realize how they’re feeling.
So take a moment to think about some of your toughest conversations. What cues can you use to recognize that your brain is beginning to disengage and you’re at risk of moving away from healthy dialogue?
If you can catch signs that the conversation is starting to turn crucial—before you get sucked so far into the actual argument that you can never withdraw from the content—then you can start dual-processing immediately. And what exactly should you watch for? People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety. They pay attention to the content—that’s a given—and they watch for signs that people are afraid. When friends, loved ones, or colleagues move away from healthy dialogue (freely adding to the pool of meaning)—either forcing their opinions into the pool or purposefully keeping their ideas out of the pool—they immediately turn their attention to whether or not others feel safe.
When it’s safe, you can say anything. Here’s why gifted communicators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning—period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both these reactions—to fight and to take flight—are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen. If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.
Think about your own experience. Can you remember receiving really blistering feedback from someone at some point in your life, but in this instance you didn’t become defensive? Instead, you absorbed the feedback. You reflected on it. You allowed it to influence you. If so, ask yourself why. Why in this instance were you able to absorb potentially threatening feedback so well? If you’re like the rest of us, it’s because you believed that the other person had your best interest in mind. In addition, you respected the other person’s opinion. You felt safe receiving the feedback because you trusted the motives and ability of the other person. You didn’t need to defend yourself from what was being said.
On the other hand, if you don’t feel safe, you can’t take any feedback. It’s as if the pool of meaning has a lid on it. “What do you mean I look good? Is that some kind of joke? Are you ribbing me?” When you don’t feel safe, even well-intended comments are suspect.
When it’s unsafe, you start to go blind. By carefully watching for safety violations, not only can you see when dialogue is in danger, but you can also reengage your brain. As we’ve said before, when your emotions start cranking up, key brain functions start shutting down. Not only do you prepare to take flight, but your peripheral vision actually narrows. In fact, when you feel genuinely threatened, you can scarcely see beyond what’s right in front of you. Similarly, when you feel the outcome of a conversation is being threatened, you have a hard time seeing beyond the point you’re trying to make. By pulling yourself out of the content of an argument and watching for fear, you reengage your brain and your full vision returns.
Don’t let safety problems lead you astray. Let’s add a note of caution. When others begin to feel unsafe, they start doing nasty things. Now, since they’re feeling unsafe, you should be thinking to yourself: “Hey, they’re feeling unsafe. I need to do some-thing—maybe make it safer.” That’s what you should be thinking. Unfortunately, since others feel unsafe, they may be trying to make fun of you, insult you, or bowl you over with their arguments. This kind of aggressive behavior doesn’t exactly bring out the diplomat in you. So instead of taking their attack as a sign that safety is at risk, you take it at its face—as an attack. “I’m under attack!” you think. Then you respond in kind. Or maybe you try to escape. Either way you’re not dual-processing and then pulling out a skill to restore safety. Instead, you’re becoming part of the problem as you get pulled into the fight.
Imagine the magnitude of what we’re suggesting here. We’re asking you to recode silence and violence as signs that people are feeling unsafe. We’re asking you to fight your natural tendency to respond in kind. We’re asking you to undo years of practice, maybe even eons of genetic shaping that prod you to take flight or pick a fight (when under attack), and recode the stimulus. “Ah, that’s a sign that the other person feels unsafe.” And then what? Do something to make it safe. In the next chapter we’ll explore how. For now, simply learn to look for safety and then be curious, not angry or frightened.
As people begin to feel unsafe, they start down one of two unhealthy paths. They move either to silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the pool). That part we know. But let’s add a little more detail. Just as a little knowledge of what to look for can turn blurry water into a brown trout, knowing a few of the common forms of silence and violence helps you see safety problems when they first start to happen. That way you can step out, restore safety, and return to dialogue—before the damage is too great.
Silence consists of any act to purposefully withhold information from the pool of meaning. It’s almost always done as a means of avoiding potential problems, and it always restricts the flow of meaning. Methods range from playing verbal games to avoiding a person entirely. The three most common forms of silence are masking, avoiding, and withdrawing.
“I think your idea is, uh, brilliant. Yeah, that’s it. I just worry that others won’t catch the subtle nuances. Some ideas come before their time, so expect some, uh, minor resistance.”
Meaning: Your idea is insane, and people will fight it with their last breath.
“Oh yeah, that’ll work like a charm. Offer people a discount, and they’ll drive all the way across town just to save six cents on a box of soap. Where do you come up with this stuff?”
Meaning: What a dumb idea.
Avoiding involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
“How does your new suit look? Well, you know that blue’s my favorite color.”
Meaning: What happened? Did you buy your clothes at the circus?
“Speaking of ideas for cost cutting—did you see Friends last night? Joey inherited a bunch of money and was buying stupid stuff. It was a hoot.”
Meaning: Let’s not talk about how to cut costs. It always leads to a fight.
Withdrawing means pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either exit the conversation or exit the room.
“Excuse me. I’ve got to take this call.”
Meaning: I’d rather gnaw off my own arm than spend one more minute in this useless meeting.
Meaning: We can’t talk about even the simplest of topics without arguing.
Violence consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view. It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool. Methods range from name-calling and monologuing to making threats. The three most common forms are controlling, labeling, and attacking.
Controlling consists of coercing others to your way of thinking. It’s done through either forcing your views on others or dominating the conversation. Methods include cutting others off, overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects, or using directive questions to control the conversation.
“There’s not a person in the world who hasn’t bought one of these things. They’re the perfect gift.”
Meaning: I can’t justify spending our hard-earned savings on this expensive toy, but I really want it.
“We tried their product, but it was an absolute disaster. Everyone knows that they can’t deliver on time and that they offer the worst customer service on the planet.”
Meaning: I’m not certain of the real facts so I’ll use hyperbole to get your attention.
Labeling is putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category.
“Your ideas are practically Neanderthal. Any thinking person would follow my plan.”
“You’re not going to listen to them are you? For crying out loud! First, they’re from headquarters. Second, they’re engineers. Need I say more?”
Meaning: If I pretend that all people from headquarters and all engineers are somehow bad and wrong, I won’t have to explain anything.
Attacking speaks for itself. You’ve moved from winning the argument to making the person suffer. Tactics include belittling and threatening.
“Try that stupid little stunt and see what happens.”
Meaning: I will get my way on this even if I have to bad-mouth you and threaten some vague punishment.
“Don’t listen to a word Jim is saying. I’m sorry Jim, but I’m on to you. You’re just trying to make it better for your team while making the rest of us suffer. I’ve seen you do it before. You’re a real jerk, you know that? I’m sorry, but someone has to have the guts to tell it like it is.”
Meaning: To get my way I’ll say bad things about you and then pretend that I’m the only one with any integrity.
Let’s say you’ve been watching for both content and conditions. You’re paying special attention to when a conversation turns crucial. To catch this important moment, you’re looking for signs that safety is at risk. As safety is violated, you even know to watch for various forms of silence and violence. So are you now fully armed? Have you seen all there is to see?
Actually, no. Perhaps the most difficult element to watch closely as you’re madly dual-processing is your own behavior. Frankly, most people have trouble pulling themselves away from the tractor beam of the argument at hand. Then you’ve got the problem other people present as they employ all kinds of tactics. You’ve got to watch them like a hawk. It’s little wonder that paying close attention to your own behavior tends to take a back-seat. Besides, it’s not like you can actually step out of your body and observe yourself. You’re on the wrong side of your eyeballs.
Low self-monitors. The truth is, we all have trouble monitoring our own behavior at times. We usually lose any semblance of social sensitivity when we become so consumed with ideas and causes that we lose track of what we’re doing. We try to bully our way through. We speak when we shouldn’t. We do things that don’t work—all in the name of a cause. We eventually become so unaware that we become a bit like this fellow of Jack Handy’s invention.
“People were always talking about how mean this guy was who lived on our block. But I decided to go see for myself. I went to his door, but he said he wasn’t the mean guy, the mean guy lived in that house over there. ‘No, you stupid idiot,’ I said, ‘that’s my house.’”
Unfortunately, when you fail to monitor your own behavior, you can look pretty silly. For example, you’re talking to your spouse about the fact that he or she left you sitting at the auto repair shop for over an hour. After pointing out that it was a simple misunderstanding, your spouse exclaims: “You don’t have to get angry.”
Then you utter those famous words: “I’m not angry!”
Of course, you’re spraying spit as you shout out your denial, and the vein on your forehead has swelled to the size of a teenage python. You, quite naturally, don’t see the inconsistency in your response. You’re in the middle of the whole thing, and you don’t appreciate it one bit when your spouse laughs at you.
“Nothing’s wrong,” you whimper. Then you shuffle your feet, stare at the floor, and look wounded.
What does it take to be able to step out of an argument and watch for process—including what you yourself are doing and the impact you’re having? You have to become a vigilant self-monitor. That is, pay close attention to what you’re doing and the impact it’s having, and then alter your strategy if necessary. Specifically, watch to see if you’re having a good or bad impact on safety.
What kind of a self-monitor are you? One good way to increase your self-awareness is to explore your Style Under Stress. What do you do when talking turns tough? To find out, fill out the survey on the following pages. Or, for easier scoring, visit. It’ll help you see what tactics you typically revert to when caught in the midst of a crucial conversation. It’ll also help you determine which parts of this book can be most helpful to you.
Instructions. The following questions explore how you typically respond when you’re in the middle of a crucial conversation. Before answering, pick a specific relationship at work or at home. Then answer the items while thinking about how you typically approach risky conversations in that relationship.
At times I avoid situations that might bring me into contact with people I’m having problems with.
I have put off returning phone calls or emails because I simply didn’t want to deal with the person who sent them.
Sometimes when people bring up a touchy or awkward issue, I try to change the subject.
When it comes to dealing with awkward or stressful subjects, sometimes I hold back rather than give my full and candid opinion.
Rather than tell people exactly what I think, sometimes I rely on jokes, sarcasm, or snide remarks to let them know I’m frustrated.
When I’ve got something tough to bring up, sometimes I offer weak or insincere compliments to soften the blow.
In order to get my point across, I sometimes exaggerate my side of the argument.
If I seem to be losing control of a conversation, I might cut people off or change the subject in order to bring it back to where I think it should be.
When others make points that seem stupid to me, I sometimes let them know it without holding back at all.
When I’m stunned by a comment, sometimes I say things that others might take as forceful or attacking—comments such as “Give me a break!” or “That’s ridiculous!”
Sometimes when things get heated, I move from arguing against others’ points to saying things that might hurt them personally.
If I get into a heated discussion, I’ve been known to be tough on the other person. In fact, the person might feel a bit insulted or hurt.
When I’m discussing an important topic with others, sometimes I move from trying to make my point to trying to win the battle.
In the middle of a tough conversation, I often get so caught up in arguments that I don’t see how I’m coming across to others.
When talking gets tough and I do something hurtful, I’m quick to apologize for mistakes.
When I think about a conversation that took a bad turn, I tend to focus first on what I did that was wrong rather than focus on others’ mistakes.
When I’ve got something to say that others might not want to hear, I avoid starting out with tough conclusions, and instead start with facts that help them understand where I’m coming from.
I can tell very quickly when others are holding back or feeling defensive in a conversation.
Sometimes I decide that it’s better not to give harsh feedback because I know that it’s bound to cause real problems.
When conversations aren’t working, I step back from the fray, think about what’s happening, and take steps to make it better.
When others get defensive because they misunderstand me, I quickly get us back on track by clarifying what I do and don’t mean.
There are some people I’m rough on because, to be honest, they need or deserve what I give them.
I sometimes make absolute statements like “The fact is . . .” or “It’s obvious that . . .” to be sure I get my point across.
If others hesitate to share their views, I sincerely invite them to say what’s on their mind, no matter what it is.
At times I argue hard for my view—hoping to keep others from bringing up opinions that would be a waste of energy to discuss.
Even when things get tense, I adapt quickly to how others are responding to me and try a new strategy.
When I find that I’m at cross-purposes with someone, I often keep trying to win my way rather than looking for common ground.
When things don’t go well, I’m more inclined to see the mistakes others made than notice my own role.
After I share strong opinions, I go out of my way to invite others to share their views, particularly opposing ones.
When others hesitate to share their views, I do whatever I can to make it safe for them to speak honestly.
Sometimes I have to discuss things I thought had been settled because I don’t keep track of what was discussed before.
I find myself in situations where people get their feelings hurt because they thought they would have more of a say in final decisions than they end up having.
I get frustrated sometimes at how long it takes some groups to make decisions because too many people are involved.
Please fill out the score sheets in Figures 4-1 and 4-2. Each domain contains two to three questions. Next to the question number is either a (T) or an (F). For example, under “Masking,” question 5 on Figure 4-1, you’ll find a (T). This means that if you answered it true, check the box. With question 13 on Figure 4-2, on the other hand, you’ll find an (F). Only check that box if you answered the question false—and so on.
Your Style Under Stress score (Figure 4-1) will show you which forms of silence or violence you turn to most often. Your Dialogue Skills score (Figure 4-2) is organized by concept and chapter so you can decide which chapters may benefit you the most.
Your silence and violence scores give you a measure of how frequently you fall into these less-than-perfect strategies. It’s actually possible to score high in both. A high score (one or two checked boxes per domain) means you use this technique fairly often. It also means you’re human. Most people toggle between holding back and becoming too forceful.
The seven domains in Figure 4-2 reflect your skills in each of the corresponding seven skill chapters. If you score high (two or
three boxes) in one of these domains, you’re already quite skilled in this area. If you score low (zero or one), you may want to pay special attention to these chapters.
Since these scores represent how you typically behave during stressful or crucial conversations, they can change. Your score doesn’t represent an inalterable character trait or a genetic propensity. It’s merely a measure of your behavior—and you can change that. In fact, people who take this book seriously will practice the skills contained in each chapter and eventually they will change. And when they do, so will their lives.
What next? Now that you’ve identified your own Style Under Stress, you have a tool that can help you Learn to Look. That is, as you enter a touchy conversation, you can make a special effort
to avoid some of your silence or violence habits. Also, when you’re in the middle of a crucial conversation, you can be more conscious of what to watch for.
When caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on and why. When a discussion starts to become stressful, we often end up doing the exact opposite of what works. We turn to the less healthy components of our Style Under Stress.
To break from this insidious cycle, Learn to Look.
Learn to look at content and conditions.
Look for when things become crucial.
Learn to watch for safety problems.
Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence.
Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.
Assess your own “Style Under Stress” Online
To access a self-scoring version of the Style Under Stress test, as well as other free resources to help you master crucial conversations, visit.