Good Night and Good-Bye!
To see how to discuss sensitive issues, let’s look at an enormously
difficult problem. Bob has just walked in the door, and his wife,
Carole, looks upset. He can tell from her swollen eyes that she’s
been crying. Only when he walks in the door, Carole doesn’t turn
to him for comfort. Instead, she looks at him with an expression
that says “How could you?” Bob doesn’t know it yet, but Carole
thinks he’s having an affair. He’s not.
How did Carole come to this dangerous and wrong con
clusion? Earlier that day she had been going over the credit card
statement when she noticed a charge from the Good Night
Motel-a cheap place located not more than a mile from their
home. “Why would he stay in a motel so close to home?” she
wonders. “And why didn’t I know about it?” Then it hits her
“That unfaithful jerk! ”
Now what’s the worst way Carole might handle this (one that
doesn’t involve packing up and moving back to Wisconsin)?
What’s the worst way of talking about the problem? Most peo
ple agree that jumping in with an ugly accusation followed by a
threat is a good candidate for that distinction. It’s also what most
people do, and Carole is no exception.
STATE MY PATH 1 23
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” she says in a painful
“Doing what?” Bob asks-not knowing what she’s talking
about but figuring that whatever it is, it can’t be good.
“You know what I’m talking about,” she says, continuing to
keep Bob on edge.
“Do 1 need to apologize for missing her birthday?” Bob won
ders to himself. “No, it’s not even summer and her birthday is on
. . . well, it’s sweltering on her birthday.”
“I’m sorry, 1 don’t know what you’re talking about,” he
responds, taken aback.
“You’re having an affair, and 1 have proof right here! ” Carole
explains holding up a piece of crumpled paper.
“What’s on that paper that says I’m having an affair?” he asks,
completely befuddled because ( 1 ) he’s not having an affair and (2)
the paper contains not a single compromising photo.
“It’s a motel bill, you jerk. You take some woman to a motel,
and you put it on the credit card? ! 1 can’t believe you’re doing
this to me! ”
Now if Carole were certain that Bob was having an affair, per
haps this kind of talk would be warranted. It may not be the best
way to work through the issue, but Bob would at least understand
why Carole made the accusations and hurled threats.
But, in truth, she only has a piece of paper with some num
bers on it. This tangible piece of evidence has made her suspi
cious. How should she talk about this nasty hunch in a way that
leads to dialogue?
STATE MY PATH
I f Carole’s goal is to have a healthy conversation about a tough
top ic (e.g. , I think you ‘re having an affair), her only hope is to
1 24 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
stay in dialogue. That holds true for anybody with any crucial
conversation (i.e., It feels like you micromanage me; I fear you’re
using drugs). That means that despite your worst suspicions, you
shouldn’t violate respect. In a similar vein, you shouldn’t kill
safety with threats and accusations.
So what should you do? Start with Heart. Think about what you
really want and how dialogue can help you get it. And master your
story-realize that you may be jumping to a hasty Victim, Villain,
or Helpless Story. The best way to fmd out the true story is not to
act out the worst story you can generate. That will lead to self
destructive silence and violence games. Think about other possible
explanations long enough to temper your emotions so you can get
to dialogue. Besides, if it turns out you’re right about your initial
impression, there will be plenty of time for confrontations later on.
Once you’ve worked on yourself to create the right conditions
for dialogue, you can then draw upon five distinct skills that can
help you talk about even the most sensitive topics. These five tools
can be easily remembered with the acronym STATE. It stands for:
• Share your facts
• Tell your story
• Ask for others’ paths
• Talk tentatively
• E.ncourage testing
The first three skills describe what to do. The last two tell how
to do it.
The “What” Ski lls