“Crucial Conversations” – Make it safe

If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety, and then return to the conversation.

Step out. Make it safe. Then step back in

The worst at dialogue totally ignore the crying need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds – with no regard to how it will be received. Or 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. They try to make things safer by watering down or dressing up their content. This strategy, of course, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.

The best don’t play games. Period. They know that in order to solve their problem, they’ll need to talk about their problem – 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 safety is restored, they can talk about nearly anything.

Notice which condition is at risk – Mutual Purpose or Mutual Respect

Mutual Purpose – the Entrance Condition
Crucial conversation often go awry not because others dislike the content of the conversation, but because they believe the content (even if it’s delivered in a gentle way) suggests that you have a malicious intent.


Mutual Respect – the Continuance Condition – will we be able to remain in dialogue?
As people perceive that others don’t respect them, the conversation immediately becomes unsafe and dialogue comes to a screeching halt.

Mutual Purpose – the Entrance Condition
The first condition of safety is Mutual Purpose. Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that you’re working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. You believe they care about yours. 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.

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, when Mutual 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 two crucial questions to help us determine when Mutual Purpose is at risk:
* Do others believe I care about their goals in this conversation?
* Do they trust my motives?

Mutual Purpose is not a technique. To succeed in crucial conversations, we must really care about the interests of others – not just our own. Ask yourself the Start with Heart questions:
* What do I want for me?
* What do I want for others?
* What do I want for the relationship?

Mutual Respect – the Continuance Condition
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. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that 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.

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:
* 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 came 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?
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. However, we can 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 others’ behavior, we try to sympathize, even empathize, with them.

What to do once you step out

When you see that either Mutual Respect or Purpose is at risk, you shouldn’t ignore it. 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:
1 Apologize
2 Contrast
3 Create a Mutual Purpose


They’ve attacked you. So you stay stuck in the content of the conversation.
“I had to choose between the future of the company and a facility 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.

  1. Apologize when appropriate
    • When your behavior has given someone cause to doubt your respect or commitment to Mutual Purpose, your conversation is likely to end up in silly game playing and frustrating misunderstandings until you offer a sincere apology.
  2. Contrast
    • Contrast to fix misunderstanding
      • Sometimes others feel disrespected during crucial conversations even though you haven’t done anything disrespectful. Sure, there are times when respect gets violated because you 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 people believe your intention is to harm them or coerce them 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.
        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:
        • Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part)
          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.”
      • 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. Once you’ve done this, and safety returns to the conversation, then you can explain what you do intend. Safety first.
    • 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 that what we said didn’t hurt more than it should have.
    • Contrasting provides context and proportion
      • When you’re in the middle of a touchy conversation, sometimes others experience your words as bigger or worse than you 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 give into the temptation. Don’t take back what you’ve said. Instead, put your remarks 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. It 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 can be useful both as prevention and as first aid for safety problems. 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 – 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.
  3. Create a Mutual Purpose
    • 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. The best at dialogue use 4 skills to create Mutual Purpose and they form the acronym CRIB.
      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 create a Mutual Purpose.
    • CRIB
      • Commit to seek mutual purpose
        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 fore our view on each other. I commit to stay in this discussion until we have a solution that satisfies both of us.” Then watch whether safety takes a turn for the better.
      • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy
        We confuse wants or purpose with strategies. That’s the problem.
        Step out of the content of the conversation – which is generally focused on strategies – and explore the purposes behind them. When you do separate strategies from purpose, new options become possible.
        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. We can break the cycle of debate by asking others “Why do you want that?”
        “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 drive to …”
      • Invent a Mutual Purpose
        Sometimes when you recognize the purposes behind another person’s strategies, you discover that you actually have compatible goals. From there you simple come up with common strategies. But you’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. That means you’ll have to actively invent one.
        By focusing on higher and longer-term goals, you often find ways to transcend short-term compromises, build Mutual Purpose, and return to dialogue.
      • Brainstorm New Strategies
        With a clear Mutual Purpose, you can join forces in searching for a solution that serves everyone.

As in the case with most complicated problems, don’t aim for perfection. Aim for progress. Learn to slow the process down when your adrenaline get pumping.

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