How could that be? How could we be smack-dab in the mid
dle of a heated debate and not really see what’s going on? A metaphor might help. It’s akin to going fly fishing for the first
time with an experienced angler. Your buddy keeps telling you to cast your fly six feet upstream from that brown trout “just out there.” Only you can’t see a brown trout “just out there.” He can. That’s because he knows what to look for. You think you do. You
think you need to look for a brown trout. In reality, you need to look for a brown trout that’s under water while the sun is reflect ing in your eyes . You have to look for elements other than the thing that your dad has stuffed and mounted over the fireplace. I t takes both knowledge and practice to know what to look for
and then actually see it. So what do you look for when caught in the middle of a cru
cia l conversation? What do you need to see in order to catch problems before they become too severe? Actually, it helps to watch fot’ three d ifferent cond i t ions : the moment a conversation
48 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
turns crucial, signs that people don’t feel safe (silence or vio
lence), and your own Style Under Stress. Let’s consider each of these conversation killers in turn.
learn to Spot Crucial Conversations
First, stay alert for the moment a conversation turns from a rou tine or harmless discussion into a crucial one. In a similar vein,
as you anticipate entering a tough conversation, pay heed to the fact that you’re about to enter the danger zone. Otherwise, yoti can easily get sucked into silly games before you realize what’s happened. And as we suggested earlier, the further you stray off track, the harder it can be to return.
To help catch problems early, reprogram your mind to pay attention to the signs that suggest you’re in a crucial conversa tion. Some people first notice physical signals-their stomach
gets tight or their eyes get dry. Think about what happens to your body when conversations get tough. Everyone is a little bit dif· ferent. What are your cues? Whatever they are, learn to look at
them as signs to step back, slow down, and Start with Heart before things get out of hand.
Others notice their emotions before they notice signs in theit body. They realize they are scared, hurt, or angry and are begin ning to react to or suppress these feelings. These emotions can also be great cues to tell you to step back, slow down, and take steps to turn your brain back on.
Some people’s first cue is not physical or emotional, but
behavioral. It’s like an out-of-body experience. They see them selves raising their voice, pointing their finger like a loaded weapon, or becoming very quiet. It’s only then that they realize how they’re feeling.
So take a moment to think about some of your toughest con versations. What cues can you use to recognize that your brain
LEARN TO LOOK 49
is beginning to disengage and you’re at risk of moving away from
learn to look for Safety Problems
If you can catch signs that the conversation is starting to tum cru cial-before you get sucked so far into the actual argument that you can never withdraw from the content-then you can start dual-processing immediately. And what exactly should you watch
for? People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety. They pay attention to the content-that’s a given-and they watch for signs that people are afraid. When friends, loved ones, or colleagues move away from healthy dialogue (freely adding to the pool of meaning)-either forcing their opinions
into the pool or purposefully keeping their ideas out of the pool they immediately tum their attention to whether or not others feel safe.
When it’s safe, you can say anything. Here’s why gifted com municators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning-period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning
like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both these reactions-to fight and to take flight-are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people wi1l lis ten. If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.
Think about your own experience. Can you remember receiv ing really blistering feedback from someone at some point in your
l i fe, but in this instance you didn’t become defensive? Instead, you absorbed the feedback. You reflected on it. You allowed it to influence you. If so, ask yourself why. Why in this instance were
50 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
you able to absorb potentially threatening feedback so well? If you’re like the rest of us, it’s because you believed that the other person had your best interest in mind. In addition, you respected the other person’s opinion. You felt safe receiving the feedback because you trusted the motives and ability of the other person. You didn’t need to defend yourself from what was being said.
On the other hand, if you don’t feel safe, you can’t take any feedback. It’s as if the pool of meaning has a lid on it. “What do you mean I look good? Is that some kind of joke? Are you rib
bing me?” When you don’t feel safe, even well-intended com ments are suspect.
When it’s unsafe, you start to go blind. By carefully watching
for safety violations, not only can you see when dialogue is in danger, but you can also reengage your brain. As we’ve said before, when your emotions start cranking up, key brain func tions start shutting down. Not only do you prepare to take flight, but your peripheral vision actually narrows. In fact, when you
feel genuinely threatened, you can scarcely see beyond what’s right in front of you. Similarly, when you feel the outcome of a conversation is being threatened, you have a hard time seeing beyond the point you’re trying to make. By pulling yourself out of the content of an argument and watching for fear, you reen
gage your brain and your full vision returns. Don’t let safety problems lead you astray. Let’s add a note of
caution. When others begin to feel unsafe, they start doing nasty things. Now, since they’re feeling unsafe, you should be thinking to yourself: “Hey, they’re feeling unsafe. I need to do some
thing-maybe make it safer.” That’s what you should be think ing. Unfortunately, since others feel unsafe, they may be trying to make fun of you, insult you, or bowl you over with their argu ments. This kind of aggressive behavior doesn’t exactly bring out the diplomat in you. So instead of taking their attack as a sign that safety is at risk, you take it at its face-as an attack. ” I’m
LEARN TO LOOK 5 1
under attack! ” you think. Then you respond in kind. Or maybe you try to escape. Either way you’re not dual-processing and
then pulling out a skill to restore safety. Instead, you’re becom
ing part of the problem as you get pulled into the fight. Imagine the magnitude of what we’re suggesting here. We’re
asking you to recode silence and violence as signs that people are feeling unsafe. We’re asking you to fight your natural tendency
to respond in kind. We’re asking you to undo years of practice, maybe even eons of genetic shaping that prod you to take flight or pick a fight (when under attack), and recode the stimulus. “Ah, that’s a sign that the other person feels unsafe.” And then what? Do something to make it safe. In the next chapter we’ll explore how. For now, simply learn to look for safety and then be curious, not angry or frightened.
Si lence and Violence
As people begin to feel unsafe, they start down one of two unhealthy paths. They move either to silence (withholding mean ing from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the pool). That part we know. But let’s add a little more detail. Just as a little knowledge of what to look for can tum blurry water into a brown trout, knowing a few of the common forms of silence and violence helps you see safety problems when they fi rst start to happen. That way you can step out, restore safety, and return to dialogue-before the damage is too great.