4 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
this discussion is crucial. I’d better pay close attention” and then trot out our best behavior? Or when we’re anticipating a poten
tially dangerous discussion, do we step up to it rather than scam per away? Sometimes. Sometimes we boldly step up to hot topics, monitor our behavior, and offer up our best work. We mind our Ps and Os. Sometimes we’re just flat-out good.
And then we have the rest of our lives. These are the moments when, for whatever reason, we either anticipate a crucial conver sation or are in the middle of one and we’re at our absolute worst-we yell; we withdraw; we say things we later regret. When conversations matter the most-that is, when conversations move from casual to crucial-we’re generally on our worst behavior.
Why is that?
We’re designed wrong. When conversations tum from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble. That’s because emotions don’t
exactly prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gen tle attentiveness.
For instance, consider a typical crucial conversation. Someone says something you disagree with about a topic that matters a great deal to you and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The hairs you can handle. Unfortunately, your body does more. Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidneys pump adrenaline
into your bloodstream. You don’t choose to do this. Your adrenal glands do it, and then you have to live with it.
And that’s not all. Your brain then diverts blood from activi ties it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting
and running. Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less. As a result, you end up facing challenging
conversations with the same equipment available to a rhesus monkey.
WHAT’S A CRUCIAL CONVERSATION? 5
We’re under pressure. Let’s add another factor. Crucial con versations are frequently spontaneous. More often than not, they come out of nowhere. And since you’re caught by surprise, you’re forced to conduct an extraordinarily complex human interaction in real time-no books, no coaches, and certainly no
short breaks while a team of therapists runs to your aid and pumps you full of nifty ideas.
What do you have to work with? The issue at hand, the other
person, and a brain that’s preparing to fight or take flight. It’s lit tle wonder that we often say and do things that make perfect sense in the moment, but later on seem, well, stupid.
“What was I thinking?” you wonder.
The truth is, you were real-time multitasking with a brain that was working another job. You’re lucky you didn’t suffer a stroke.
We’re stumped. Now let’s throw in one more complication. You don’t know where to start. You’re making this up as you go along because you haven’t often seen real-life models of effec tive communication skills . Let’s say that you actually planned
for a tough conversation-maybe you’ve even mentally rehearsed. You feel prepared, and you’re as cool as a cucumber. Will you succeed? Not necessarily. You can still screw up, because practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.
This means that first you have to know what to practice. Sometimes you don’t. After all, you may have never actually seen how a certain problem is best handled. You may have seen what not to do-as modeled by a host of friends, colleagues, and, yes, even your parents. In fact, you may have sworn time and again not to act the same way.
Left with no healthy models, you’re now more or less stumped. So what do you do? You do what most people do. You wing it. You piece together the words, create a certain mood, and otherwise make up what you think will work-all the while
6 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
multiprocessing with a half-starved brain. It’s little wonder that
when it matters the most, we’re often at our worst behavior. We act in self-defeating ways. In our doped-up, dumbed-down
state, the strategies we choose for dealing with our crucial con
versations are perfectly designed to keep us from what we actu
ally want. We’re our own worst enemies-and we don’t even realize it. Here’s how this works.
Let’s say that your significant other has been paying less and less attention to you. You realize he or she has a busy job, but you still would like more time together. You drop a few hints about the issue, but your loved one doesn’t handle it well. You
decide not to put on added pressure, so you clam up. Of course, since you’re not all that happy with the arrangement, your dis pleasure now comes out through an occasional sarcastic remark.
“Another late night, huh? Do you really need all of the
money in the world?”