CLERK: It sounds like you had a problem of some kind. Is
PATIENT: I’ll say. It hurt quite a bit. And besides, isn’t the
doctor, like, uh, way too old?
In this case, the patient is reluctant to speak up. Perhaps if
she shares her honest opinion, she will insult the doctor, or
maybe the loyal staff members will become offended. To deal
with the problem, the desk attendant lets the patient know
that it’s safe to talk (as much with his tone as with his words) ,
and she opens up.
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 say-
EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS 1 45
ing what they’re saying. Unfortunately, since it’s rarely fun to
hear other people’s unflattering stories, we begin to assign nega
tive motives to them for telling the stories. For example:
CLERK: Well aren’t you the ungrateful one! The kind doctor
devotes his whole life to helping people and now that he’s
a little gray around the edges, you want to send him out
To avoid overreacting to others’ stories, stay curious. Give
your brain a problem to stay focused on. Ask: “Why would a rea
sonable, 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 possible
onslaught, 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. Say, for exam
ple, that a friend dumps out an ugly story and you treat it with
respect and continue on with the conversation. Even if the two
of you now share a similar view, it may seem like your friend is
still pushing too hard. While it’s natural to move quickly from
one thought to the next, strong emotions take a while to sub
side. Once the chemicals that fuel emotions are released, they
hang around in the bloodstream for a time-in some cases, long
after thoughts have changed.
So be patient when exploring how others think and feel.
Encourage them to share their path and then wait for their emo
t ions to catch up with the safety that you’ve created.
1 46 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
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 oth
ers start playing silence or violence games, we’re joining the con
versation at the end of their Path to Action. They’ve seen and
heard things, told themselves a story or two, generated a feeling
(possibly a mix of fear and anger or disappointment) , 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. On the Path to
Action model, we’re seeing the action at the end of the path-as
shown in Figure 8-1 . Every sentence has a history. To get a feel for how complicat
ed 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 vic
tim. Along the bottom of the screen are the discomforting words,
“We now join this program already in progress.”
&eel TeU a Hear —too- Story –…,… Feel
Figure 8- 1 . The Path to Action
EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS 1 47
You shake the remote in exasperation. You’ve missed the
entire setup! For the rest of the program you end up guessing
about key facts. What happened before you joined in?
Crucial conversations can be equally mysterious and frustrat
ing. 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 con
fused. 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 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 emo
tions, 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 reaction, but we also return to the place
where the feelings can be resolved-at the source, or the facts
and the story behind the emotion.