Discussions are also less predictable. Nobody sends you an
invitation stating: “Would you please engage me in a crucial con
versation next week after the team meeting where you’re going
to make a policy that will miff me?” High-risk discussions don’t
come with notices and reminders. More often than not, they
come as unwelcome surprises.
CHANGE YOUR LIFE 2 1 7
Emotions don’t help much either. And, of course, crucial con
versations are defined by their emotional characteristics . Your
ability to pull yourself out of the content of a discussion and to
focus on the process is inversely proportional to your level of
emotion. The more you care about what’s happening, the less
likely you are to think about how you’re conducting yourself.
It’s almost unfair. The bigger the deal, the less likely you are
to bring your newly acquired skill-set into the conversation. Like
it or not, if your adrenaline is flowing, you’re almost guaranteed
to jump to your Style Under Stress.
Between surprise and emotion, it’s hard to know which is the
bigger enemy of change. Both make it hard to remember to act
in new ways.
Now let’s look at still another enemy of change-scripts . Scripts
are pre bundled phrases we use in common conversations; they
form the very foundation of social habits and often make change
almost impossible. Consider the following.
When we learn to speak, first come words, then phrases, and
then scripts. The larger the bundles of words we carry around, the
less we have to worry about combining them into sensible expres
sions. Also the less we have to fret over syntax or grammar-that
work has already been done for us.
Unfortunately, predetermined expressions also put us into a
sort of mental autopilot. Consider what happens when you walk
into a fast-food restaurant. Do you think about the words you’ll
choose? Probably not. That’s because when you enter familiar
circumstances, you’re carrying not only words and phrases, but
an ent i re script in your head.
2 1 8 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
With a script, you know both sides of the conversation. You
know that the person at the counter is going to ask for your
order. You’re certain that the perky young woman with the paper
hat is going to ask you if you want fries. Even if you include fries
in your original request, she’s still going to ask, “Do you want
fries with that?” And if you say yes, you can bet the farm that
she’s going to ask, “Do you want to super-size that?”
The good news about packing around scripts is that you don’t
have to give conversation much thought. The bad news is that
the more scripted an interaction, the more difficult it is to pull
yourself out of the routine and try something new. For example,
as you walk up to a fast-food counter, your spouse reminds you
to ask for extra ketchup.
You step up to the counter and say: “I’ll have two house spe
cials, three kiddy delights . . . ” and then you slip into autopilot.
The words that pour out of your mouth have no relation to your
thoughts. Your brain is somewhere else entirely. You’re musing
over a menu that sports a sandwich made out of “ribs” that have
no bones. “What poor animal has boneless ribs?” you’re think
ing to yourself.
And guess what? As you robotically state your order, one
word spilling out after another, you forget to ask for extra
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.