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And guess what? As you robotically state your order, one

word spilling out after another, you forget to ask for extra

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ketchup. What do you expect from a person who’s devoting no

real brain time to the interaction? In fact, your spouse’s request

never even makes it onto your radar screen-which is currently

filled with images of Jell-O-like, ribless creatures mooing and

slithering across a backdrop painted by Salvador Dali.

Scripts place us on a smooth and familiar track. They take us

across known territory and at a comfortable pace-freeing our

brains for more novel work. But then again, when we’re on rails,

we travel along the prescribed route with such finesse and ease

that it’s almost impossible to make an unscheduled turn.





So let’s see what we’re facing when we try to change our Style

Under Stress. Tough conversations come at us out of nowhere,

fill us with adrenaline, and evoke comfortable (but not neces­

sarily good) routines. They are spontaneous, emotional, and

backed by years of practice.

Consequently, when you examine people working through

crucial conversations, they look a lot more like racehorses charg­

ing out of the gate than human beings making choices . Conver­

sationalists are shocked into motion by surprise, whipped up to

speed by high stakes and strong emotions, and propelled along a

completely predictable course by scripts that offer few if any



Given the challenges of altering routine scripts, can people

actually change? Early in our research, we (the authors) once

examined forty-eight front-line supervisors who were learning

how to hold crucial conversations. As we watched the trainees

back at work, it became clear to us that only a few of them

transferred what they had learned in the classroom back to

their work site. The bad news is that most of them didn’t

change an iota. The good news is that some of them did. In

fact, they used the new skills precisely as instructed.

The supervisors who found a way to apply the new skills

taught us the following four principles for turning ideas into


• First, master the content. That means not only do you have

to be able to recognize what works and why, but you have to

generate new scripts of your own.




• Second, master the skills. You must be able to enact these new

scripts in a way that is consistent with the supporting princi­

ples . As it turns out, simply understanding a concept isn’t

enough. While it’s helpful, even necessary to talk the talk, you

have to be able to walk the talk. You have to be able to say the

right words with the right tone and nonverbal actions. When

it comes to social skills, knowing and doing are two different


• Third, enhance your motive. You must want to change. This

means that you have to care enough about improving your

crucial conversation skills to actually do something. You have

to move from a passive sense that it would be a good idea to

change, to an active desire to seek opportunities . Ability with­

out motive lies dormant and untapped.

• Fourth, watch for cues. To overcome surprise, emotion, and

scripts, you must recognize the call to action. This is usually

people’s biggest obstacle to change. Old stimuli generate old

responses. If a problem doesn’t cue your new skills, you’ll return

to your old habits without even realizing you missed a chance to

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