Make It Safe
How to Make It Safe to Talk about Almost Anything

They had lived together for so many years that they mistook their arguments for conversation.

The last chapter contained a promise: If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety, and then find a way to dialogue about almost anything. In this chapter we’ll fulfill that promise by teaching what it takes to restore safety.

To get started, let’s examine a situation where safety is at risk. We’ll eavesdrop on a couple as they try to discuss one of the most delicate of topics—physical intimacy.

First a little background. Jotham thinks he and Yvonne are intimate with each other far too seldom. Yvonne is satisfied with their physical relationship. For years the two have acted out rather than talked out their concerns. When Jotham wants to be amorous and Yvonne doesn’t respond, he goes to silence. He pouts, says almost nothing, and avoids Yvonne for the next few days.

Yvonne knows what’s going on with Jotham. Occasionally she’ll go along with him even when she’s not feeling particularly romantic. She does this in hopes of avoiding Jotham’s pouting. Unfortunately, she then feels resentful toward Jotham, and it’s much longer before she feels genuinely romantic toward him.

So here’s the game. The more Jotham insists and pouts, the less attractive and interesting he is to Yvonne. The more Yvonne succumbs and then resents, the less she’s interested in the entire relationship. The more both of them act out rather than talk out this crucial conversation, the more likely they are to end up going their separate ways. Yvonne has decided to broach the subject with Jotham. Rather than waiting until they’re both upset, she’s picked a time when they’re relaxing on the couch. Here goes.

YVONNE: Jotham, can we talk about what happened last night—you know, when I told you that I was tired?

JOTHAM: I don’t know if I’m in the mood.

YVONNE: What’s that supposed to mean?

JOTHAM: I’m sick and tired of you deciding when we do what!

YVONNE: (walks out)


Okay, let’s look at Yvonne. She tried to tackle a tough topic. Good for her. She was already uncomfortable and her partner took a cheap shot at her. Some help he was. Now what should she do? How can she get back to honest and healthy dialogue? What do you do when you don’t feel like it’s safe to share what’s on your mind?

The key is to step out of the content of the conversation. Don’t stay stuck in what’s being said. Yvonne exited because she was focused on what Jotham was saying. If she had been looking at Jotham’s behavior, she would have spotted his use of sarcasm—a form of masking. Rather than talking out his concern, he’s taking a potshot. Why would he do that? Because he doesn’t feel safe using dialogue. But Yvonne missed this point.

Now, we’re not suggesting that Jotham’s behavior is acceptable, or that Yvonne should put up with it. But first things first—Start with Heart. The first question is: “What do I really want?”

If you really want to have a healthy conversation about a topic that will make or break your relationship, then for a moment or two you may have to set aside confronting the current issue—i.e., Jotham’s sarcasm.

Yvonne’s challenge here is to build safety—enough so that she can talk about their physical relationship, about the way Jotham is dealing with it, or about any other concerns. But if she doesn’t make it safe, all she’s going to get is a continuation of the silence and violence games.

So, what should she do?

In these circumstances, the worst at dialogue do what both Jotham and Yvonne did. Like Jotham, they totally ignore the crying need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds—with no regard for how it will be received. Or like Yvonne, they conclude the topic is completely unsafe and move to silence.

The good realize that safety is at risk, but they fix it in exactly the wrong way. They try to make the subject more palatable by sugarcoating their message. “Oh, honey, I really want to be with you but I’m under a lot of pressure at work, and the stress makes it hard for me to enjoy our time together.” They try to make things safer by watering down their content. This strategy, of course, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.

The best don’t play games. They know that dialogue is the free flow of meaning—with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking. So they do something completely different. They step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.

Once you’ve spotted safety problems, you can talk about the most challenging of topics by stepping out of the content and building enough safety that almost anything becomes discussable. For example: “Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk about what happens when we’re not romantically in sync. It would be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t. My goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to become defensive. What I’d really love is for us to come up with a solution that makes us both satisfied in our relationship.”


Now, let’s look at a couple of pieces that help us establish safety—even when the topic is high risk, controversial, and emotional. The first step to building more safety is to understand which of the two conditions of safety is at risk. Each requires a different solution.

Mutual Purpose

Why Talk in the First Place?

Remember the last time someone gave you difficult feedback and you didn’t become defensive? Say a friend said some things to you that most people might get upset over. In order for this person to be able to deliver the delicate message, you must have believed he or she cared about you, or about your goals and objectives. That means you trusted his or her purposes so you were willing to listen to some pretty tough feedback.

Crucial conversations often go awry not because of the content of the conversation, but because others believe that the painful and pointed content means that you have a malicious intent. How can they feel safe when they believe you’re out to do them harm? Soon, every word out of your mouth is suspect.

Consequently, the first condition of safety is Mutual Purpose. Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that we are working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that we care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. We believe they care about ours. Consequently, Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue. Find a shared goal and you have both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.

For example, if Jotham believes that Yvonne’s purpose in raising this topic is to make him feel guilty or to get her way, this conversation is doomed from the outset. If he believes she really cares about making things better for him and herself, she may have a chance.

Watch for signs that Mutual Purpose is at risk. How do we know when the safety problem we’re seeing is due to a lack of Mutual Purpose? It’s actually fairly easy to spot. First and foremost, when purpose is at risk, we end up in debate. When others start forcing their opinions into the pool of meaning, it’s often because they figure that we’re trying to win and they need to do the same. Other signs that purpose is at risk include defensiveness, hidden agendas (the silence form of fouled-up purpose), accusations, and circling back to the same topic. Here are some crucial questions to help us determine when Mutual Purpose is at risk:

image Do others believe I care about their goals in this conversation?

image Do they trust my motives?

Remember the Mutual in Mutual Purpose. Just a word to the wise. Mutual Purpose is not a technique. To succeed in crucial conversations, we must really care about the interests of others—not just our own. The purpose has to be truly mutual. If our goal is to get our way or manipulate others, it will quickly become apparent, safety will be destroyed, and we’ll be back to silence and violence in no time. Before you begin, examine your motives. Ask yourself the Start with Heart questions:

image What do I want for me?

image What do I want for others?

image What do I want for the relationship?

Look for the mutuality. Let’s see how Mutual Purpose applies to a tough example—one where, at first glance, it might appear as if your purpose is to make things better for yourself. How can you find Mutual Purpose in this? Let’s say you’ve got a boss who frequently fails to keep commitments. How could you tell the boss you don’t trust him? Surely there’s no way to say this without the boss becoming defensive or vengeful, because he knows that your goal is merely to make your life better.

To avoid disaster, find a Mutual Purpose that would be so motivating to the boss that he’d want to hear your concerns. If your only reason for approaching the boss is to get what you want, the boss will hear you as critical and selfish—which is what you are. On the other hand, if you try to see the other person’s point of view, you can often find a way to draw the other person willingly into even very sensitive conversations. For example, if the boss’s behavior is causing you to miss deadlines he cares about, or incur costs he frets over, or lose productivity that he worries about, then you’re onto a possible Mutual Purpose.

Imagine raising the topic this way: “I’ve got some ideas for how I can be much more reliable and even reduce costs by a few thousand dollars in preparing the report each month. It’s going to be a bit of a sensitive conversation—but I think it will help a great deal if we can talk about it.”

Mutual Respect

Will We Be Able to Remain in Dialogue?

While it’s true that there’s no reason to enter a crucial conversation if you don’t have Mutual Purpose, it’s equally true that you can’t stay in the conversation if you don’t maintain Mutual Respect. Mutual Respect is the continuance condition of dialogue. As people perceive that others don’t respect them, the conversation immediately becomes unsafe and dialogue comes to a screeching halt.

Why? Because respect is like air. If you take it away, it’s all people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose—it is now about defending dignity.

For example, you’re talking with a group of supervisors about a complicated quality problem. You really want to see the problem resolved once and for all. Your job depends on it. Unfortunately, you also think the supervisors are overpaid and underqualified. You firmly believe that not only are they in over their heads, but they do stupid things all the time. Some of them even act unethically.

As the supervisors throw out ideas, you roll your eyes. The disrespect you carry in your head creeps out in one unfortunate gesture. And it’s all over. What happens to the conversation despite the fact that you still share a common objective? It tanks. They take shots at your proposals. You add insulting adjectives in describing theirs. As attention turns to scoring points, everyone loses. Your Mutual Purpose suffers for a lack of Mutual Respect.

Telltale signs. To spot when respect is violated and safety takes a turn south, watch for signs that people are defending their dignity. Emotions are the key. When people feel disrespected, they become highly charged. Their emotions turn from fear to anger.

Then they resort to pouting, name-calling, yelling, and making threats. Ask the following question to determine when Mutual Respect is at risk:

image Do others believe I respect them?

Can You Respect People You Don’t Respect?

Some people fear they’ll never be able to maintain Mutual Purpose or Mutual Respect with certain individuals or in certain circumstances. How, they wonder, can they share the same purpose with people who come from completely different backgrounds or whose morals or values differ from theirs? What do you do, for example, if you’re upset because another person has let you down? And if this has repeatedly happened, how can you respect a person who is so poorly motivated and selfish?

Yvonne is struggling with this exact point. There are times when she doesn’t even like Jotham. She sees him as whiny and self-centered. How can you speak respectfully with someone like that?

Dialogue truly would be doomed if we had to share every objective or respect every element of another person’s character before we could talk. If this were the case, we’d all be mute. We can, however, stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and regard another person’s basic humanity. In essence, feelings of disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking for ways we are similar. Without excusing their behavior, we try to sympathize, even empathize, with them.

A rather clever person once hinted how to do this in the form of a prayer—"Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I.” When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s easier to find a way to respect others. When we do this, we feel a kinship, a sense of mutuality between ourselves and even the thorniest of people. It is this sense of kinship and connection to others that motivates us to enter tough conversations, and it eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.

Consider the following example. A manufacturing company has been out on strike for over six months. Finally, the union agrees to return to work, but the represented employees have to sign a contract that is actually worse than what they were originally demanding. The first day back it’s clear that although people will work, they won’t do so with a smile and a spring in their step. Everyone is furious. How are people ever going to move ahead?

Concerned that although the strike is over, the battle isn’t, a manager asks one of the authors to lend a hand. So he meets with the two groups of leaders (both managers and union heads) and asks them to do one thing. Each group is to go into a separate room and write out its goals for the company on flip-chart-sized paper. For two hours each group feverishly lays out what it wants in the future and then tapes the lists to the wall. When they finish their assignment, the groups then swap places with the goal of finding anything—maybe just a morsel—but anything they might have in common.

After a few minutes the two groups return to the training room. They’re positively stunned. It was as if they had written the exact same lists. They didn’t merely share the shadow of an idea or two. Their aspirations were nearly identical. All wanted a profitable company, stable and rewarding jobs, high-quality products, and a positive impact on the community. Given a chance to speak freely and without fear of attack, each group laid out not simply what it wanted, but what virtually every person wanted.

This experience caused each group to seriously question how it had seen the other side. The groups began to see others as more similar to themselves. They realized the petty and political tactics the others had used were embarrassingly similar to the ones they themselves had employed. The “sins” of others were different from their own more because of the role they played than because of a fundamental blight on their character. They restored Mutual Respect, and dialogue replaced silence and violence for the first time in decades.


When you see that either Mutual Respect or Purpose is at risk, we’ve suggested that you shouldn’t ignore it. We’ve also argued that you should be able to find a way to both find Mutual Purpose and enjoy Mutual Respect—even with people who are enormously different.

But how? What are you supposed to actually do? We’ve shared a few modest ideas (mostly things to avoid), so let’s get into three hard-hitting skills that the best at dialogue use:

image Apologize

image Contrast

image CRIB

Each skill helps rebuild either Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose. First, we’ll study them in action. Then, we’ll see if they might help Yvonne get things back on track.

Where were you? You’re talking with a group of hourly employees who worked all night preparing for a factory tour. You were supposed to bring the division vice president by, and the team members were then going to update him on a new process they’ve put into place. They’re proud of some improvements they’ve recently made—enough so that they willingly worked straight through the night to finish the last details.

Unfortunately, when it came time to swing by their area, the visiting VP dropped a bomb. He laid out a plan you’re convinced would hurt quality and potentially drive away your biggest customers. Since you only had another hour with the VP, you chose to talk through the issue rather than conduct the tour. Your future depended on that particular conversation. Fortunately, you were able to avert the plan. Unfortunately, you forgot to get word to the team that had worked so hard.

As you walked back to your office after escorting the executive to his car, you bumped into the team. Bleary-eyed and disappointed, all six of them were now fuming. No visit, no phone call, and now it was clear from the way you were sprinting on by that you weren’t even going to stop and give them a simple explanation.


That’s when things started turning ugly. “We pulled an allnighter, and you didn’t even bother to come by! That’s the last time we’re busting our hump for you!”

Time stands still. This conversation has just turned crucial. The employees who had worked so hard are obviously upset. They feel disrespected.

But you miss that point. Why? Because now you feel disrespected. They’ve attacked you. So you stay stuck in the content of the conversation—thinking this has something to do with the factory tour.

“I had to choose between the future of the company and the plant tour. I chose our future, and I’d do it again if I had to.”

Now both you and they are fighting for respect. This is getting you nowhere fast. But what else could you do?

Instead of getting hooked and fighting back, break the cycle. See their aggressive behavior for what it is—a sign of violated safety—then step out of the conversation, build safety, and step back into the content. Here’s how.

Apologize When Appropriate

When you’ve made a mistake that has hurt others (e.g., you didn’t call the team), start with an apology. An apology is a statement that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing—or at least not preventing—pain or difficulty to others.

“I’m sorry I didn’t give you a call when I learned that we wouldn’t be coming by. You worked all night, it would have been a wonderful chance to showcase your improvements, and I didn’t even explain what happened. I apologize.”

Now, an apology isn’t really an apology unless you experience a change in heart. To offer a sincere apology, your motives have to change. You have to give up saving face, being right, or winning in order to focus on what you really want. You have to sacrifice a bit of your ego by admitting your error. But like many sacrifices, when you give up something you value, you’re rewarded with something even more valuable—healthy dialogue and better results. Then watch to see if this sincere show of respect has helped restore safety. If it has, you can now explain the details of what happened. If it hasn’t, you’ll need to use one of the more advanced skills that follow in the next few pages. In any case, first make it safe; then return to the issue.

When your behavior has given someone clear cause to doubt your respect or commitment to Mutual Purpose, your conversation will end up in silly game-playing and frustrating misunderstandings until you offer a sincere apology.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

Sometimes others feel disrespected during crucial conversations even though we haven’t done anything disrespectful. Sure, there are times when respect gets violated because we behave in clearly hurtful ways. But just as often, the insult is entirely unintended.

The same can happen with Mutual Purpose. You can start by innocently sharing your views, but the other person believes your intention is to beat him or her up or coerce him or her into accepting your opinion. Clearly an apology is not appropriate in these circumstances. It would be disingenuous to admit you were wrong when you weren’t. How, then, can you rebuild Mutual Purpose or Mutual Respect in order to make it safe to get back to dialogue?

When others misinterpret either your purpose or your intent, step out of the argument and rebuild safety by using a skill called Contrasting.

Contrasting is a don’t/do statement that:

image Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part).

image Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part).

For example:

[The don’t part] “The last thing I wanted to do was communicate that I don’t value the work you put in or that I didn’t want to share it with the VP.

[The do part] I think your work has been nothing short of spectacular.”

Now that you’ve addressed the threat to safety, you can return to the issue of the visit itself and move to remediation:

“Unfortunately, just when I was starting to make the trip out here, an issue came up with the VP that I needed to address right then and there, or it could have cost us a huge piece of our business. I tell you what—I’ll see if I can get him down here sometime tomorrow to review your work. He’ll be here for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Let’s see if we can show off the process improvements you came up with.”

Of the two parts of Contrasting, the don’t is the more important because it deals with the misunderstanding that has put safety at risk. The employees who worked so hard are acting on the belief that you don’t appreciate their efforts and didn’t care enough to keep them informed—when the opposite was true. So you address the misunderstanding by explaining what you don’t intend. Once you’ve done this, and safety returns to the conversation, then you can explain what you do intend. Safety first.

Let’s go back to Yvonne and Jotham. Yvonne is trying to get the conversation going, and Jotham suspects her motives. Let’s see how Contrasting might help her.

YVONNE: I think it makes things worse when you withdraw and won’t talk to me for days at a time.

JOTHAM: So you expect me not only to put up with regular rejection, but also to be sociable and happy when I do?

Jotham appears to believe that Yvonne’s motive is to reshape him. It’s unsafe. Mutual Purpose is at risk. Rather than responding to his sarcasm, she should step out of the content and clarify her real motives.

YVONNE: I don’t want to suggest that this problem is yours. The truth is, I think it’s ours. I’m not trying to put the burden on you. I don’t even know what the solution is. What I do want is to be able to talk so that we can understand each other better. Perhaps that will help me change how I’m responding to you, too.

JOTHAM: I know where this is going. We talk, I continue to get rejected, but you get to feel good about yourself because “we’ve communicated.” Have you been watching Oprah again?

Obviously Jotham still believes that Yvonne merely wants to confirm that their existing relationship is okay and if she does, she’ll be able to continue to reject Jotham—but feel good about it. Jotham still feels unsafe. So Yvonne continues to step out and build safety, using Contrasting.

YVONNE: Seriously, Honey. I’m not interested in discussing why our current relationship is really okay. I can see that it isn’t. I merely want to talk about what each of us likes and doesn’t like. That way we’ll be able to see what we need to improve and why. My only goal is to come up with some ideas that will make both of us happy.

JOTHAM: (Changing tone and demeanor) Really? I’m sorry to be so insecure about this. I know I’m being a bit selfish about things, but I don’t know how to make myself feel differently.

Contrasting is not apologizing. It’s important to understand that Contrasting is not apologizing. It is not a way of taking back something we’ve said that hurt others’ feelings. Rather, it is a way of ensuring what we said didn’t hurt more than it should have. Once Yvonne clarified her genuine goals (and not merely some trumped-up goal that appeals to Jotham), Jotham felt safer acknowledging his own contribution, and the two were back in dialogue.

Contrasting provides context and proportion. When we’re in the middle of a touchy conversation, sometimes others hear what we’re saying as bigger or worse than we intend. For example, you talk with your assistant about his lack of punctuality. When you share your concern, he appears crushed.

At this point you could be tempted to water down your content—"You know it’s really not that big a deal.” Don’t do it. Don’t take back what you’ve said. Instead, put it in context. For instance, at this point your assistant may believe you are completely dissatisfied with his performance. He believes that your view of the issue at hand represents the totality of your respect for him. If this belief is incorrect, use Contrasting to clarify what you don’t and do believe. Start with what you don’t believe.

“Let me put this in perspective. I don’t want you to think I’m not satisfied with the quality of your work. I want us to continue working together. I really do think you’re doing a good job. This punctuality issue is important to me, and I’d just like you to work on that. If you will be more attentive to that, there are no other issues.”

Use Contrasting for prevention or first aid. Contrasting is useful both as a prevention and as first aid for safety problems. So far our examples have been of the first-aid type. Someone has taken something wrong, and we’ve intervened to clarify our true purpose or meaning.

When we’re aware that something we’re about to drop into the pool of meaning could create a splash of defensiveness, we use Contrasting to bolster safety—even before we see others going to either silence or violence.

“I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate the time you’ve taken to keep our checkbook balanced and up to date. I do appreciate it, and I know I certainly couldn’t have done nearly as well. I do, however, have some concerns with how we’re using the new electronic banking system.”

When people misunderstand and you start arguing over the misunderstanding, stop. Use Contrasting. Explain what you don’t mean until you’ve restored safety. Then return to the conversation. Safety first.

You Try

Let’s practice. Read the situations below and then come up with your own Contrasting statements. Remember, contrast what you don’t want or intend with what you actually do want or intend. Say it in a way that helps make it safe for the other person.

Angry roommate. You asked your roommate to move her things in the refrigerator off your shelves and onto her shelves. You thought it was no big deal, simply a request to share the space evenly. You have no hidden agenda. You like this roommate a great deal. She came back with: “There you go again, telling me how to run my life. I can’t change the vacuum cleaner bag without you jumping in and giving me advice.”

Formulate a Contrasting statement.


Touchy employee. You’re about to talk to Jacob, an employee who continually blows up when people try to give him feedback. Yesterday a coworker told Jacob that she’d prefer it if he would clean up after himself in the lunchroom (something that everyone else does), and Jacob blew up. You’ve decided to say something. Of course, you’ll be giving him feedback, and that’s what usually sets him off, so you’ll need to be careful up front. You’ll want to set the right tone and lay out the context carefully. After all, you like Jacob a lot. Everyone does. He has a great sense of humor and is the most competent and hard-working employee around. If he could only be less touchy.

Formulate a Contrasting statement.


Chatty teenager. Your teenage nephew moved in with you when his father (your brother) passed away and your sister-inlaw could no longer handle him. He was starting to hang with the wrong crowd. He has always gotten along with you, and things have been going well except in one area: He spends hours on the phone and Internet—most of his waking hours. In light of what he could be doing, you’re not really disturbed, but it has been hard for you to make calls and check your email. You said something to him about cutting back his time on the phone and online, and he came back with: “Please don’t send me to a youth home! I’ll be good! I promise. I’ll stop talking to my friends; just don’t send me away.”

Formulate a contrasting statement.



Let’s add one more skill. Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of a debate because we clearly have different purposes. There is no misunderstanding here. Contrasting won’t do the trick. We need something sturdier for this job.

For instance, you’ve just been offered a promotion that will help propel your career along a faster track and bring you a great deal more authority, and it pays enough to help soften the blow of displacement. That last part is important because you’ll have to move the family across the country and your spouse and kids love where you currently live.

You expected your spouse to have feelings of ambivalence over the move, but he or she doesn’t seem to be bivaling even a tiny bit. To your spouse the promotion is a bad news/bad news event. First, you have to move, and second, you’ll work even longer hours. That whole thing about more money and power doesn’t seem to be compensating. Now what?

The worst at dialogue either ignore the problem and push ahead or roll over and let others have their way. They opt for either competition or submission. Both strategies end up making winners and losers, and the problem continues long beyond the initial conversation.

The good at dialogue move immediately toward compromise. For example, the couple facing the transfer sets up two house-holds—one where one spouse will be working and one where the family currently lives. Nobody really wants this arrangement, and frankly, it’s a pretty ugly solution that’s bound to lead to more serious problems, even divorce. While compromise is sometimes necessary, the best know better than to start there.

The best at dialogue use four skills to look for a Mutual Purpose. The four skills they use form the acronym CRIB.

Commit to Seek Mutual Purpose

As is true with most dialogue skills, if you want to get back to dialogue, you have to Start with Heart. In this case, you have to agree to agree. To be successful, we have to stop using silence or violence to compel others to our view. We must even surrender false dialogue, where we pretend to have Mutual Purpose (calmly arguing our side until the other person gives in). We Start with Heart by committing to stay in the conversation until we come up with a solution that serves a purpose we both share.

This can be tough. To stop arguing, we have to suspend our belief that our choice is the absolute best and only one, and that we’ll never be happy until we get exactly what we currently want. We have to open our mind to the fact that maybe, just maybe, there is a different choice out there—one that suits everyone.

We also have to be willing to verbalize this commitment even when our partner seems committed to winning. We act on faith that our partner is stuck in silence or violence because he or she feels unsafe. We assume that if we build more safety—by demonstrating our commitment to finding a Mutual Purpose—the other person will feel more confident that dialogue could be a productive avenue.

So next time you find yourself stuck in a battle of wills, try this amazingly powerful but simple skill. Step out of the content of the struggle and make it safe. Simply say, “It seems like we’re both trying to force our view. I commit to stay in this discussion until we have a solution both of us are happy with.” Then watch whether safety takes a turn for the better.

Recognize the Purpose behind the Strategy

Wanting to come up with a shared goal is a wonderful first step, but it’s not enough. Once we’ve had a change of heart, we need to change our strategy. Here’s the problem we have to fix: When we find ourselves at an impasse, it’s because we’re asking for one thing and the other person is asking for something else. We think we’ll never find a way out because we equate what we’re asking for with what we want. In truth, what we’re asking for is the strategy we’re suggesting to get what we want. We confuse wants or purpose with strategies. That’s the problem.

For example, I come home from work and say that I want to go to a movie. You say that you want to stay home and relax. And so we debate: movie, TV, movie, read, etc. We figure we’ll never be able to resolve our differences because going out and staying home are incompatible.

In such circumstances we can break the impasse by asking others, “Why do you want that?” In this case,

“Why do you want to stay home?”

“Because I’m tired of running around and dealing with the hassle of the city.”

“So you want peace and quiet?”

“Mostly. And why do you want to go to a movie?”

“So I can spend some time with you away from the kids.”

Before you can agree on a Mutual Purpose, you must know what people’s real purposes are. So step out of the content of the conversation—which is generally focused on strategies—and explore the purposes behind them.

When you do this, new options become possible. When you release your grip on your strategy and focus on your real purpose, you open up the possibility of finding new alternatives that can serve Mutual Purpose.

“You want peace and quiet, and I want time with you away from the kids. So if we can come up with something that is quiet and away, we’ll both be happy. Is that right?”

“Absolutely. What if we were to take a drive up the canyon and . . .”

Invent a Mutual Purpose

Sometimes when we recognize the purposes behind our strategies, we discover that we actually have compatible goals. From there you simply come up with common strategies. But we’re not always so lucky. For example, you find out that your genuine wants and goals cannot be served except at the expense of the other person’s. In this case you cannot discover a Mutual Purpose, so you must actively invent one.

To invent a Mutual Purpose, move to more encompassing goals. Find an objective that is more meaningful or more rewarding than the ones that divide the various sides. For instance, you and your spouse may not agree on whether or not you should take the promotion, but you can agree that the needs of your relationship and the children come before career aspirations. By focusing on higher and longer-term goals, you can find a way to transcend short-term compromises, build Mutual Purpose, and get to dialogue.

Brainstorm New Strategies

Once you’ve built safety by finding a shared purpose, you should now have enough safety to return to the content of the conversation. It’s time to step back into the dialogue and brainstorm strategies that meet everyone’s needs. If you’ve committed to finding something everyone can agree on, and surfaced what you really want, you’ll no longer be spending your energy on unproductive conflict. Instead, you’ll be actively coming up with options that can serve everyone.

Suspend judgment and think outside the box for new alternatives. Can you find a way to work in a job that is local and still meets your career goals? Is this job with this company the only thing that will make you happy? Is a move really necessary in this new job? Is there another community that could offer your family the same benefits? If you’re not willing to give creativity a try, it’ll be impossible for you to jointly come up with a mutually acceptable option. If you are, the sky’s the limit.

CRIB to Get to Mutual Purpose

So when you sense that you and others are working at cross-purposes, here’s what you can do. First, step out of the content of the conflict. Stop focusing on who thinks what. Then CRIB your way to Mutual Purpose.

image Commit to seek Mutual Purpose. Make a unilateral public commitment to stay in the conversation until you come up with something that serves everyone.

“This isn’t working. Your team is arguing to stay late and work until we’re done, and my team wants to go home and come back on the weekend. Why don’t we see if we can come up with something that satisfies everyone?”

image Recognize the purpose behind the strategy. Ask people why they want what they’re pushing for. Separate what they’re demanding from the purpose it serves.

“Exactly why don’t you want to come in Saturday morning? We’re feeling fatigued and are worried about safety issues and a loss of quality. Why do you want to stay late?”

image Invent a Mutual Purpose. If after clarifying everyone’s purposes you are still at odds, see if you can invent a higher or longer-term purpose that is more motivating than the ones that keep you in conflict.

“I certainly don’t want to make winners and losers here. It’s far better if we can come up with something that doesn’t make one team resent the other one. We’ve voted before or flipped a coin, and the losers just ended up resenting the winners. I’m more worried about how we feel about each other than anything else. Let’s make sure that whatever we do, we don’t drive a wedge in our working relationship.”

image Brainstorm new strategies. With a clear Mutual Purpose, you can join forces in searching for a solution that serves everyone.

“So we need to come up with something that doesn’t jeopardize safety and quality and allows your team to attend their colleague’s wedding on Saturday. My team members don’t care about the game a bit. What if we were to work the morning and early afternoon, and then you come in after the game and take over from there? That way we’ll be able . . .”


Let’s end where we started. Yvonne is going to try to move to dialogue with Jotham. Let’s see how she does at making it safe in her crucial conversation. First, she’ll use Contrasting to prevent misunderstanding of her purpose.

YVONNE: Jotham, I’d like to talk about our physical relationship. I’m not doing it to put you on the spot or to suggest the problem is yours. I’m completely clear that it’s as much my problem as yours. I’d really like to talk about it so we can make things better for both of us.

JOTHAM: What’s there to talk about? You don’t want it. I want it. I’ll try to deal with it.

YVONNE: I think it’s more complicated than that. The way you act sometimes makes me want to be with you even less.

JOTHAM: If that’s how you feel, why are we pretending we have a relationship at all?

Okay, what just happened? Remember, we’re exploring Yvonne’s side of the conversation. She’s the one initiating the talk. Clearly there’s a lot Jotham could be doing to make things go better. But she’s not Jotham. What should Yvonne do? She should focus on what she really wants: to find a way to make things better for both of them. Consequently, she shouldn’t respond to the content of Jotham’s discouraging statement. Rather, she should look at the safety issue behind it. Why is Jotham starting to withdraw from the conversation? Two reasons:

image The way Yvonne made her point sounded to him like she was blaming him for everything.

image He believes her concern in one small area reflects her total feelings toward him.

So she’ll apologize and use Contrasting to rebuild safety.

YVONNE: I’m sorry I said it that way. I’m not blaming you for how I feel or act. That’s my problem. I don’t see this as your problem. I see it as our problem. Both of us may be acting in ways that make things worse. I know I am at least.

JOTHAM: I probably am too. Sometimes I pout because I’m hurting. And I also do it hoping it’ll make you feel bad. I’m sorry about that, too.

Notice what just happened. Since Yvonne dealt well with the safety issue and kept focused on what she really wanted out of this conversation, Jotham returned to the conversation. This is far more effective than if Yvonne had gone into blaming.

Let’s continue.

JOTHAM: I just don’t see how we can work this out. I’m wired for more passion than you are—it seems like the only solution is for me to put up with it the way it is or for you to feel like a sex slave.

The problem now is one of Mutual Purpose. Jotham thinks he and Yvonne are at cross-purposes. In his mind, there is no possibility of a mutually satisfactory solution. Rather than move to compromise or fight for her way, Yvonne will step out of the issue and CRIB to get to Mutual Purpose.

YVONNE: [Commit to seek Mutual Purpose] No, that isn’t what I want at all. I don’t want anything with you that isn’t great for both of us. I just want to find a way to have us both feel close, appreciated, and loved.

JOTHAM: That’s what I want, too. It just seems like we get those feelings in different ways.

(Notice how Jotham is leaving the game behind and joining the dialogue. Safety—specifically Mutual Purpose—is making this possible.)

YVONNE: [Recognize the purpose behind the strategy] Maybe not. What makes you feel loved and appreciated?

JOTHAM: Making love with you when you really want to makes me feel loved and appreciated. And you?

YVONNE: When you do thoughtful things for me. And, I guess, when you hold me—but not always sexually.

JOTHAM: You mean, if we’re just cuddling that makes you feel loved?

YVONNE: Yes. And sometimes—I guess when I think you’re doing it because you love me—sex does that for me, too.

JOTHAM: [Invent a Mutual Purpose] So we need to find ways to be together that make both of us feel loved and appreciated. Is that what we’re looking for here?

YVONNE: Yes. I really want that, too.

JOTHAM: [Brainstorm new strategies] Well, what if we . . .


Reading a complicated interaction like this one might lead to two reactions. First, you might think, “Wow, these ideas could actually work!” And at the same time, you could be thinking, “But there’s no way I could think that clearly in the middle of that kind of delicate conversation!”

We admit that it’s pretty easy for us to put all the skills together when we’re sitting at a computer typing a script. But the good news is, that’s not where these examples came from. They came from real experiences. People do act like this all the time. In fact, you do on your best days.

So don’t overwhelm yourself by asking whether you could think this clearly during every heated and emotional conversation. Merely consider whether you could think a little more clearly during a few crucial conversations. Or prepare in advance. Before a crucial conversation begins, think about which skills will help you most. Remember, when it comes to these high-stakes conversations, a little progress can produce a lot of benefit.

Finally, as is the case with most complicated problems, don’t aim for perfection. Aim for progress. Learn to slow the process down when your adrenaline gets pumping. Carry a few of the questions we’re suggesting with you as you go. Pick the ones that you think are most relevant to the topic at hand. And watch yourself get better a little at a time.


Step Out

When others move to silence or violence, step out of the conversation and Make It Safe. When safety is restored, go back to the issue at hand and continue the dialogue.

Decide Which Condition of Safety Is at Risk

image Mutual Purpose. Do others believe you care about their goals in this conversation? Do they trust your motives?

image Mutual Respect. Do others believe you respect them?

Apologize When Appropriate

image When you’ve clearly violated respect, apologize.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

image When others misunderstand either your purpose or your intent, use Contrasting. Start with what you don’t intend or mean. Then explain what you do intend or mean.

CRIB to Get to Mutual Purpose

image When you are at cross-purposes, use four skills to get back to Mutual Purpose:

image Commit to seek Mutual Purpose.

image Recognize the purpose behind the strategy.

image Invent a Mutual Purpose.

image Brainstorm new strategies.

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