Crucial Conversations – Chapter 4 (part 5 of 18)

I have known a thousand scamps; but I never met one who considered himself so. Self-knowledge isn’t so common. – Ouida


Chapter 4 – Learn to Look. How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk.


In truth, most of us do have trouble dual-processing (simultaneously watching for content andconditions) – especially 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 others.

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 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 the distorted image of a brown trout that’s underwater while the sun is reflecting in your eyes. … 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 the problems before they become too severe? Actually, it helps to watch for three different conditions: the moment a conversations 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.


Learn to Spot Crucial Conversations 

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 conversations, pay heed to the fact that you’re about to enter the danger zone.

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 physicalsignals – their stomach gets tight or their eyes get dry. Thank about what happens to your body when conversations get tough. Everyone is a 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 emotionsbefore they notice signs in their body. … Some people’s first cue is behavioral. For them 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?


Learn to Look for Safety Problems 

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 becoming fearful. 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. … This is a pretty remarkable claim. Think about it. We’re suggesting that people rarely become defensive simply because of what you’re saying. They only become defensive when they no longer feel safe. The problem is not the contentof your message, but the conditionof the conversation. … That means the first challenge is to simply seeand understandthat safety is at risk.

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. … 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.

Don’t let safety problems lead you astray. Let’s add a note of caution. When others begin to feel unsafe, they start acting in annoying ways. Now, since they’re feeling unsafe, you should be thinking to yourself: “Hey, they’re feeling unsafe. I need to do something – 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 the dumb part of your brain kicks in and you respond in kind. Or maybe you try to escape. Either way, you’re not duel-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. .. and then what? Do something to make it safe.

Obviously, this can be a very difficult undertaking. But it’s worth it. This skill is the pivot point for everything that follows.

In the next chapter we’ll explore how. For now, simply learn to look for safety, and then be curious, not angry or frightened.


Silence and Violence

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.

  • Maskingconsists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching are some of the more popular forms.
  • Avoidinginvolves steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
  • Withdrawingmeans pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either exit the conversation or exit the room.

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.

  • Controllingconsists 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 the subjects, or using directive questions to control the conversation.
  • Labeling is putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category.
  • Attackingspeaks for itself. You’ve moved from winning the argument to making the person suffer. Tactics include belittling and threatening.


Look for Your Style Under Stress 

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.

Become a vigilant self-monitor. 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.


Your Style Under Stress Test

 What kind of 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 at 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.

What your score means.Since these score represent how you typically behaveduring 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’s 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
  • Look for when things become crucial.
  • Learn to watch for safety problems.
  • Look to see if others are moving towards silence or violence.
  • Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.