EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS
In Chapter 5 we recommended that whenever you notice safety
is at risk, you should step out of the conversation and restore it .
When you have offended others through a thoughtless act, apol
ogize. Or if someone has misunderstood your intent, use
Contrasting. Explain what you do and don’t intend. Finally, if
you’re simply at odds, find a Mutual Purpose.
Now we add one more skill: Explore Others’ Paths. Since
we’ve added a model of what’s going on inside another person’s
head (the Path to Action) , we now have a whole new tool for
helping others feel safe. If we can find a way to let others know
that it’s okay to share their Path to Action-their facts, and yes,
EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS 1 43
even their nasty stories and ugly feelings-then they’ll be more
likely to open up.
But what does it take?
Start with Heart-Get Ready to listen
Be sincere. To get at others’ facts and stories, we have to invite
them to share what’s on their minds. We’ll look at how to do this
in a minute. For now, let’s highlight the point that when you do
invite people to share their views, you must mean it. For exam
ple, consider the following incident. A patient is exiting a health
care facility. The desk attendant can tell that she is a bit uneasy,
maybe even dissatisfied.
“Did everything go all right with the procedure?” the clerk asks.
“Mostly,” the patient replies. (If ever there was a hint that
something was wrong, the term “mostly” has to be it. )
“Good,” the clerk abruptly responds and then fol lows with a
This i s a classic case of pretending to be interested. I t falls under
the “How are you today?” category of inquiries. Meaning: “Please
don’t say anything of substance. I’m really just making small talk.”
When you ask people to open up, be prepared to listen.
Be curious. When you do want to hear from others (and you
should because it adds to the pool of meaning), the best way to get
at the truth is by making it safe for them to express the stories that
are moving them to either silence or violence. This means that at
the very moment when most people become furious, we need to
become curious. Rather than respond in kind, we need to wonder
what’s behind the ruckus.
But how? How can we possibly act curious when others are
either attacking us or heading for cover? People who routinely
seek to find out why others are feeling unsafe have learned that
gett ing at the SOUl-ce or fear and discomfort is the best way to
1 44 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
return to dialogue. Either they’ve seen others do it, or they’ve
stumbled on the formula themselves. In either case, they realize
that the cure to silence or violence isn’t to respond in kind, but
to get at the source. This calls for genuine curiosity-at a time
when you’re likely to be feeling frustrated or angry.
To help turn your visceral tendency to respond in kind into
genuine curiosity, look for opportunities to be curious. Start with
a situation where you observe someone becoming emotional and
you’re still under control-such as a meeting (when you’re not
personally under attack and are less likely to get hooked) . Do
your best to get at the person’s source of fear or anger. Look for
chances to tum on your curiosity rather than kick-start your
To illustrate what can happen as we exercise our curiosity, let’s
return to our nervous patient.
CLERK: Did everything go all right with the procedure?
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.