Crucial Conversations – Chapter 5 section 2 (part 7 of 18)


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:

  • Apologize
  • Contrast
  • Create a Mutual Purpose


Apologize When Appropriate 

When you’ve made a mistake that has hurt others, 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.

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.

Next, 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 on of the more advanced skills that follow in the next few pages. In any case, first make it safe; then return to the issue.


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. 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:

  • Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’tpart).
  • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part)

Of the two parts of Contrasting, the don’tis the more important because it deals with the misunderstanding that has put safety at risk. … 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.

Contrasting is not apologizing. It’s important to understand that Contrasting is notapologizing. It is not a way of taking back something we’ve said that hurt others’ feelings. Rather, it is a ay 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. 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 can be useful both as prevention and as first aid for safety problems. So far our examples have helped us apply first aid to a wounded conversation. 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 – 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.