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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

try something new.

Master the Content

There’s too much material in this book to try to master in one sit­

ting. Despite the fact that you may have read this book rather

quickly, a rapid once-over rarely generates much of a change in

behavior. You may have a feel for the content, but probably not

enough to propel you to change.

Here are some other steps you can take to help master the





Do something. Years ago, Dale Carnegie recommended that

you read his now classic How to Win Friends and Influence

People one chapter at a time. Then, once you finished the chap­

ter, he suggested you go out and practice what you learned from

it. We agree. Pick a chapter you found relevant (possibly one

with a low score in your Style Under Stress test) and read it

again. This time, implement what you learned over a three- to

five-day period. Look for opportunities. Pounce on every chance

you get. Step up to the plate and give the skills a try. Then pick

another chapter and repeat the process.

Discuss the material. When you first learn something, your

knowledge is “preverbal.” That is, you might recognize the con­

cepts if you see them, but you’re not able to discuss them with

ease. You haven’t talked about them enough to make them part

of your functional vocabulary. You haven’t turned the words

into phrases and the phrases into scripts. To move your knowl­

edge to the next level, read a chapter and then discuss it with a

friend or loved one. Talk about the material until the concepts

come naturally.

Teach the material. If you really want to master a concept,

teach it to someone else. Stick with it until the other person

understands the concept well enough to pass it on to someone


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