frime When You’re Getti ng Nowhere
On the other hand, there are times when you may conclude that
others would like to open up but still don’t feel safe. Or maybe
t hey’re s t i l l in violence, haven ‘t come down from the adrenaline,
1 52 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
and aren’t explaining why they’re angry. When this is the case,
you might want to try priming. Prime when you believe that the
other person still has something to share and might do so with a
little more effort on your part.
The power-listening term priming comes from the expression
“priming the pump.” If you’ve ever worked an old-fashioned
hand pump, you understand the metaphor. With a pump, you
often have to pour some water into it to get it running. Then it
works just fine. When it comes to power listening, sometimes
you have to offer your best guess at what the other person is
thinking or feeling. You have to pour some meaning into the
pool before the other person will do the same.
A few years back, one of the authors was working with an
executive team that had decided to add an afternoon shift to one
of the company’s work areas. The machinery wasn’t being fully
utilized, and the company couldn’t afford to keep the area open
without adding a three-to-midnight crew. This, of course, meant
that the people currently working days would now have to rotate
every two weeks to afternoons. It was a tortured but necessary
As the execs held a meeting to announce the unpopular
change, the existing work crew went silent. They were obviously
unhappy, but nobody would say anything. The operations man
ager was afraid that people would misinterpret the company’s
actions as nothing more than a grab for more money. In truth,
the area was losing money, but the decision was made with the
current employees in mind. With no second shift, there would be
no jobs. He also knew that asking people to rotate shifts and to
be away from loved ones during the afternoon and evening
would cause horrible burdens.
As people sat silently fuming, the executive did his best to get
them to talk so that they wouldn’t walk away with unresolved
feelings. He mirrored, “I can see you’re upset-who wouldn’t
EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS 1 53
be? Is there anything we can do?” Nothing. Finally, he primed.
That is, he took his best guess at what they might be thinking,
said it in a way that showed it was okay to talk about it, and then
went on from there. “Are you thinking that the only reason we’re
doing this is to make money? That maybe we don’t care about
your personal lives?”
After a brief pause, someone answered: “Well, it sure looks
like that. Do you have any idea how much trouble this is going
to cause?” Then someone else chimed in and the discussion was
off and running.
Now, this is not the kind of thing you would do unless noth
ing else has worked. You really want to hear from others, and
you have a very strong idea of what they’re probably thinking.
Priming is an act of good faith, taking risks, becoming vulnera
ble, and building safety in hopes that others will share their
But What If They’re Wrong?
Sometimes it feels dangerous to sincerely explore the views of
someone whose path is wildly different from your own. He or
she could be completely wrong, and we’re acting calm and col
lected. This makes us nervous.
To keep ourselves from feeling nervous while exploring others’
paths-no matter how different or wrong they seem-remember
we’re trying to understand their point of view, not necessarily
agree with it or support it. Understanding doesn’t equate with
agreement. By coming to understand another person’s Path to
Action, we are not accepting it as absolute truth. There will be
plenty of time later for us to share our path as well. For now,
wc’re merely trying to get at what others think in order to under
stand why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling and doing what
t hey’rc doing.
1 54 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
EXPLORING WENDY’S PATH
Now let’s put the several skills together in a single interaction. We’ll
return to Wendy. She has just come home from a date with the guy
who has you frightened. You yank the door open, pull Wendy into
the house, and double-bolt your entrance. Then you talk, sort of.
WENDY: How could you embarrass me like that ! 1 get one
boy to like me, and now he’ll never talk to me again! 1
You: That wasn’t a boy. That was a future inmate. You’re
worth more than that. Why are you wasting your time
WENDY: You’re ruining my life. Leave me alone!
After Wendy’s bedroom door slams shut, you drop down
into a chair in the living room. Your emotions are running
wild. You’re terrified about what could happen if Wendy con
tinues to see this guy. You’re hurt that she said she hated you.
You feel that your relationship with her is spiraling out of
So you ask yourself, “What do 1 really want?” As you mull this
question over, your motives change. The goals of controlling
Wendy and defending your pride drop from the top to the bottom
of your list. The goal that’s now at the top looks a bit more inspir
ing: “I want to understand what she’s feeling. 1 want a good rela
tionship with Wendy. And I want her to make choices that will
make her happy.”
You’re not sure if tonight is the best or worst time to talk, but you
know that talking is the only path forward. So you give it a shot.
You: (Tapping on door.) Wendy? May I talk with you
EXPLORE OTHERS’ PATHS 1 55
(You enter her room and sit on her bed. )
YOU: I’m really sorry for embarrassing you like that. That
was a bad way to handle it. [Apologize to build safety]
WENDY: It’s just that you do that a lot. It’s like you want to
control everything in my life.
YOU: Can we talk about that? [Ask]
WENDY: (Sounding angry) It’s no big deal. You’re the par