Crucial Conversations – Chapter 8 section 1 (part 15 of 18)

One of the best ways to persuade other is with your ears – by listening to them. – Dean Rusk.


Chapter 8 – Explore Others’ Paths. How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up

When others do damage to the pool of meaning by clamming up (refusing to speak their minds) or blowing up (communicating in a way that is abusive and insulting), is there something you can do to get them back into dialogue? … The answer is a resounding “It depends.” … You can’t take responsibility for someone else’s thoughts and feelings.

Then again, you’ll never work through your differences until all parties freely add to the pool of meaning. That requires the people who are blowing up or clamming up to participate as well. And while it’s true that you can’t force others to dialogue, you can take steps to make it safer for them to do so. After all, that’s why they’ve sought the security of silence or violence in the first place. They’re afraid that dialogue will make them vulnerable. Somehow they believe that if they engage in real conversation with you, bad things will happen to them. … Restoring safety is your greatest hop to get your relationship back on track.



In Chapter 5, we recommended that whenever you notice safety is at risk, you should step out of the conversation and restore it. When you have offended others through a thoughtless act, apologize. Or if someone has misunderstood your intent, use Contrasting. Explain what you do and don’t intend. Finally, if you’re simply at odds, find a Mutual Purpose.

Now we add one more skill: Explore Others’ Paths. Since we’ve added a model of what’s going on inside another person’s head (the Path to Action), we now have a whole new tool for helping others feel safe. If we can find a way to let others know that it’s okay to share their Path to Action – their facts and, yes, even their nasty stories and ugly feelings – then they’ll be more likely to open up. … But what does it take?


Start with Heart – Get Ready to Listen

Be sincere. To get others’ facts and stories into the pool of meaning, we have to invite them to share what’s on their minds. … For now, let’s highlight the point that when you do invite people to share their views, you must mean it.

Be curious. When you do want to hear from others (and you should because it adds to the pool of meaning), the best way to get at the truth is by making it safe for them to express the stories that are moving them to either silence or violence. This means that at the very moment when most people become furious, we need to become curious. Rather than respond in kind, we need to wonder what’s behind the ruckus. … This calls for genuine curiosity – at a time when you’re likely to be feeling frustrated or angry. … Do your best to get at the person’s source of fear or anger. Look for chances to turn on your curiosity rather than kick-start your adrenaline.

Stay curious. When people begin to share their volatile stories and feelings, we now face the risk of pulling out our own Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories to help us explain why they’re saying what they’re saying. Unfortunately, since it’s rarely fun to hear other people’s unflattering stories, we begin to assign negative motives to them for telling the stories. … To avoid overreacting to others’ stories, stay curious. Give your brain a problem to stay focused on. Ask: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person say this?” This question keeps you retracing the other person’s Path to Action until you see how it all fits together. And in most cases, you end up seeing that under the circumstances, the individual in question drew a fairly reasonable conclusion.

Be patient. When others are acting out their feelings and opinions through silence or violence, it’s a good bet they’re starting to feel the effects of adrenaline. Even if we do our best to safely and effectively respond to the other person’s verbal attack, we still have to face up to the fact that it’s going to take a little while for him or her to settle down. … So be patient when exploring how others think and feel. Encourage them to share their path and then wait for their emotions to catch up with the safety that you’ve created.


Encourage Others to Retrace Their Path

Once you’ve decided to maintain a curious approach, it’s time to help the other person retrace his or her Path to Action. Unfortunately, most of us fail to do so. That’s because when others start playing silence or violence games, we’re joining the conversation at the endof their Path to Action. They’ve seen and heard things, told themselves a story or two, generated a feeling (probably a mix of fear and anger or disappointement), and now they’re starting to act out their story. That’s where we come in. Now, even though we may be hearing their first words, we’re coming in somewhere near the end of their path.

Every sentence has a history. To get a feel for how complicated and unnerving this process is, remember how you felt the last time your favorite mystery show started late because a football game ran long. As the game wraps up, the screen cross-fades from a trio of announcers to a starlet standing over a murder victim. Along the bottom of the screen are the discomforting words, “We now join this program already in progress.”

Crucial conversations can be similarly mysterious and frustrating. When others are in either silence or violence, we’re actually joining their Path to Action already in progress. Consequently, we’ve already missed the foundation of the story and we’re confused. If we’re not careful, we can become defensive. After all, not only are we joining late, but we’re also joining at a time when the other person is starting to act offensively.

Break the cycle. And then guess what happens? When we’re on the receiving end of someone’s retributions, accusations, and cheap shots, rarely do we think: “My, what an interesting story he or she must have told. What do you suppose led to that?” Instead, we match this unhealthy behavior. Our genetically shaped, eons-old defense mechanisms kick in, and we create our own hasty and ugly Path to Action.

People who know better cut this dangerous cycle by stepping out of the interaction and making it safe for the other person to talk about his or her Path to Action. They perform this feat by encouraging him or her to move away from harsh feelings and knee-jerk reactions and toward the root cause. In essence, they retrace the other person’s Path to Action together. At their encouragement, the other person moves from his or her emotions, to what he or she concluded, to what he or she observed.

When we help others retrace their path to its origins, not only do we help curb our reactions, but we also return to the place where the feelings can be resolved – at the source, that is, the facts and the story behind the emotion.