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Good Night and Good-Bye!

To see how to discuss sensitive issues, let’s look at an enormously

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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.




“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?


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




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

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