Maria has been feeling humiliated and angry throughout this
project. First, Louis took their suggestions to the boss and dis
cussed them behind her back. Second, he completely monopo
lized the presentation. Consequently, Maria believes that Louis is
downplaying her contribution because she’s the only woman on
She’s getting fed up with his “boys’ club” mentality. So what
does she do? She doesn’t want to appear “oversensitive,” so most
of the time she says nothing and just does her job. However, she
does manage to assert herself by occasionally getting in sarcastic
jabs about the way she’s being treated.
“Sure I can get that printout for you. Should I just get your
coffee and whip up a bundt cake while I’m at it?” she mutters,
and rolls her eyes as she exits the room.
Louis, in tum, finds Maria’s cheap shots and sarcasm puz
z l ing. He’s not sure what has Maria upset but is beginning to
despise her smug attitude and hostile reaction to most everything
96 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
he does. As a result, when the two work together, you could cut
the tension with a knife.
What’s Making Maria Mad?
The worst at dialogue fall into the trap Maria has fallen into.
Maria is completely unaware of a dangerous assumption she’s
making. She’s upset at being overlooked and is keeping a pro
fessional silence. She’s assuming that her emotions and behavior
are the only right and reasonable reactions under the circum
stances. She’s convinced that anyone in her place would feel the
Here’s the problem. Maria is treating her emotions as if they are
the only valid response. Since, in her mind, they are both justified
and accurate, she makes no effort to change or even question
them. In fact, in her view, Louis caused them. Ultimately, her
actions (saying nothing and taking cheap shots) are being driven
by these very emotions. Since she’s not acting on her emotions, her
emotions are acting on her-controlling her behavior and driving
her deteriorating relationship with Louis. The worst at dialogue
are hostages to their emotions, and they don’t even know it.
The good at dialogue realize that if they don’t control their
emotions, matters will get worse. So they try something else.
They fake it. They choke down reactions and then do their best
to get back to dialogue. At least, they give it a shot.
Unfortunately, once they hit a rough spot in a crucial conver
sation, their suppressed emotions come out of hiding. They show
up as tightened jaws or sarcastic comments. Dialogue takes a hit.
Or maybe their paralyzing fear causes them to avoid saying what
they really think. Meaning is cut off at the source. In any case,
their emotions sneak out of the cubbyhole they’ve been crammed
into and find a way into the conversation. It’s never pretty, and
it always kills dialogue.
MASTER MY STORIES 97
The best at dialogue do something completely different. They
aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or
suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when
they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their
emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their
emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors
that create better results.
This, of course, is easier said than done. How do you rethink
yourself from an emotional and dangerous state into one that
puts you back in control?
Where should Maria start? To help rethink or gain control of
our emotions, let’s see where our feelings come from in the first
place. Let’s look at a model that helps us first examine and then
gain control of our own emotions.
Consider Maria. She’s feeling hurt but is worried that if she
says something to Louis, she’ll look too emotional, so she alter
nates between holding her feelings inside (avoiding) and taking
cheap shots (masking).
As Figure 6-1 demonstrates, Maria’s actions stem from her feel
ings. First she feels and then she acts. That’s easy enough, but it
Feel –…… Act hurt silence
worried cheap shots
Figure 6-1 . How Feelings Drive Actions
98 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
begs the question: What’s causing Maria’s feelings in the first
Is it Louis’s behavior? As was the case with the nacho-mother
in-law, did Louis make Maria feel insulted and hurt? Maria
heard and saw Louis do something, she generated an emotion,
and then she acted out her feelings-using forms of masking and
So here’s the big question: What happens between Louis act
ing and Maria feeling? Is there an intermediate step that turns
someone else’s actions into our feelings? If not, then it has to be
true that others make us feel the way we do.
Stories Create Feelings
As it turns out, there is an intermediate step between what oth
ers do and how we feel. That’s why, when faced with the same
circumstances, ten people may have ten different emotional
responses. For instance, with a coworker like Louis, some might
feel insulted whereas others merely feel curious. Some become
angry and others feel concern or even sympathy.
What is this intermediate step? Just after we observe what
others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell
ourselves a story. That is, we add meaning to the action we
observed. To the simple behavior we add motive. Why were they
doing that? We also add judgment-is that good or bad? And
then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with
Pictorially it looks like the model in Figure 6-2. We call this
model our Path to Action because it explains how emotions,
thoughts, and experiences lead to our actions.
You’ll note that we’ve added telling a story to our model. We
observe, we tell a story, and then we feel. Although this addition
complicates things a bit, it also gives us hope. Since we and only
See! Tell a Feel Hear —…. Story –….
Figure 6-2. The Path to Action
MASTER MY STORIES 99
we are telling the story, we can take back control of our own
emotions by telling a different story. We now have a point of
leverage or control. If we can find a way to control the stories we
tell, by rethinking or retelling them, we can master our emotions
and, therefore, master our crucial conversations.
“Nothing in this world is good or bad,
but thinking makes it so. ”
Stories explain what’s going on. Exactly what are our stories?
They are our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what
we see and hear. They’re theories we use to explain why, how,
and what. For instance, Maria asks: “Why does Louis take over?
l ie doesn’t trust my ability to communicate. He thinks that
because I’m a woman, people won’t listen to me.”
Our stories also help explain how. “How am I supposed to
j uuge al l of this? Is this a good or a bad thing? Louis thinks I’m
incompetent. and this is bad.”
1 00 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
Finally, a story might also include what. “What should I do
about all this? If I say something, he’ll think I’m a whiner or
oversensitive or militant, so it’s best to clam up.”
Of course, as we come up with our own meaning or stories, it
isn’t long until our body responds with strong feelings or emo
tions-they’re directly linked to our judgments of right/wrong,
good/bad, kind/selfish, fair/unfair, etc. Maria’s story yields anger
and frustration. These feelings, in turn, drive Maria to her
actions-toggling back and forth between clamming up and tak
ing an occasional cheap shot (see Figure 6-3) .
Even if you don’t realize it, you are telling yourself stories.
When we teach people that it’s our stories that drive our emotions
and not other people’s actions, someone inevitably raises a hand
and says, “Wait a minute! I didn’t notice myself telling a story.
When that guy laughed at me during my presentation, I just felt
angry. The feelings came first; the thoughts came second.”
Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast. When we
believe we’re at risk, we tell ourselves a story so quickly that we
don’t even know we’re doing it. If you don’t believe this is true,
ask yourself whether you always become angry when someone
Tell a Story Feel
Louis He doesn’t hurt $ilenoe makes all -……. trust mel -…….womed -“””‘Cheap the points, thinkS I’m shots meets prt- weak. If I vately With speak up the boss I’U Jook too
Figure 6-3. Maria’s Path to Action
MASTER MY STORIES 1 0 1
laughs at you. If sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t,
then your response isn ‘t hardwired. That means something goes
on between others laughing and you feeling. In truth, you tell a
story. You may not remember it, but you tell a story.
Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of sto
ries. Stories are just that, stories. These fabrications could be
told in any of thousands of different ways . For instance, Maria
could just as easily have decided that Louis didn’t realize she
cared so much about the project. She could have concluded that
Louis was feeling unimportant and this was a way of showing he
was valuable. Or maybe he had been burned in the past because
he hadn’t personally seen through every detail of a project. Any
of these stories would have fit the facts and would have created
very different emotions.
If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us. People
who excel at dialogue are able to influence their emotions during
crucial conversations. They recognize that while it’s true that at
first we are in control of the stories we tell-after all, we do make
them up of our own accord-once they’re told, the stories con
trol us. They control how we feel and how we act. And as a result,
they control the results we get from our crucial conversations.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can tell different stories
and break the loop. In fact, until we tell different stories, we
cannot break the loop.
If you want improved results from your crucial conversations,
change the stories you tell yourself-even while you’re in the
middle of the fray.
SKillS FOR MASTERING OUR STORIES
What’s the most effective way to come up with different stories?
The best at dialogue find a way to first slow down and then take
charge of their Path to Action. Here’s how.
1 02 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
Retrace Your Path
To slow down the lightning-quick storytelling process and the
subsequent flow of adrenaline, retrace your Path to Action-one
element at a time. This calls for a bit of mental gymnastics. First
you have to stop what you’re currently doing. Then you have to
get in touch with why you’re doing it. Here’s how to retrace your
• [Act] Notice your behavior. Ask:
Am I in some form of silence or violence?
• [Feel] Get in touch with your feelings.
What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
• [Tell story] Analyze your stories.
What story is creating these emotions?
• [See/hear] Get back to the facts.
What evidence do I have to support this story?
By retracing your path one element at a time, you put yourself
in a position to think about, question, and change any one or
more of the elements.
Notice You r Behavior
Why would you stop and retrace your Path to Action in the first
place? Certainly if you’re constantly stopping what you’re doing
and looking for your underlying motive and thoughts, you won’t
even be able to put on your shoes without thinking about it for
who knows how long. You’ll die of analysis paralysis.
Actually, you shouldn’t constantly stop and question your
actions. If you Learn to Look (as we suggested in Chapter 4) and
note that you yourself are slipping into silence or violence, you
have good reason to stop and take stock.
MASTER MY STORIES 1 03
But looking isn’t enough. You must take an honest look at
what you’re doing. If you tell yourself a story that your violent
behavior is a “necessary tactic,” you won’t see the need to recon
sider your actions. If you immediately jump in with “they started
it,” or otherwise find yourself rationalizing your behavior, you
also won’t feel compelled to change. Rather than stop and review
what you’re doing, you’ll devote your time to justifying your
actions to yourself and others.
When an unhelpful story is driving you to silence or violence,
stop and consider how others would see your actions. For exam
ple, if the 60 Minutes camera crew replayed this scene on
national television, how would you look? What would they tell
about your behavior?
Not only do those who are best at crucial conversations notice
when they’re slipping into silence or violence, but they are also
able to admit it. They don’t wallow in self-doubt, of course, but
they do recognize the problem and begin to take corrective
action. The moment they realize that they’re killing dialogue,
they review their own Path to Action.
Get I n Touch with You r Fee l ings
As skilled individuals begin to retrace their own Path to Action,
they immediately move from examining their own unhealthy
behavior to exploring their feelings or emotions. At first glance
this task sounds easy. “I’m angry ! ” you think to yourself. What
could be easier?
Actually, identifying your emotions is more difficult than you
might imagine. In fact, many people are emotionally illiterate.
When asked to describe how they’re feeling, they use words such
as “bad” or “angry” or “frightened”-which would be okay if
t hese were accurate descriptors, but often they’re not.
I ndividuals say they’re angry when, in fact, they’re feeling a mix
01′ embarrassment and surprise. Or they suggest they’re unhappy
1 04 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
when they’re feeling violated. Perhaps they suggest they’re upset
when they’re really feeling humiliated and cheated.
Since life doesn’t consist of a series of vocabulary tests, you
might wonder what difference words can make. But words do
matter. Knowing what you’re really feeling helps you take a more
accurate look at what is going on and why. For instance, you’re
far more likely to take an honest look at the story you’re telling
yourself if you admit you’re feeling both embarrassed and sur
prised rather than simply angry.
How about you? When experiencing strong emotions, do you
stop and think about your feelings? If so, do you use a rich
vocabulary, or do you mostly draw from terms such as “bummed
out” and “furious”? Second, do you talk openly with others
about how you feel? Do you willingly talk with loved ones about
what’s going on inside of you? Third, in so doing, is your vocab
ulary robust and accurate?
It’s important to get in touch with your feelings, and to do so,
you may want to expand your emotional vocabulary.
Analyze You r Stories
Question your feelings and stories. Once you’ve identified what
you’re feeling, you have to stop and ask, given the circum
stances, is it the right feeling? Meaning, of course, are you telling
the right story? After all, feelings come from stories, and stories
are our own invention.
The first step to regaining emotional control is to challenge
the illusion that what you’re feeling is the only right emotion
under the circumstances. This may be the hardest step, but it’s
also the most important one. By questioning our feelings, we
open ourselves up to question our stories. We challenge the com
fortable conclusion that our story is right and true. We willingly
question whether our emotions (very real) , and the story behind
them (only one of many possible explanations) , are accurate.
MASTER MY STORIES 1 05
For instance, what were the facts in Maria’s story? She saw
Louis give the whole presentation. She heard the boss talk about
meeting with Louis to discuss the project when she wasn’t pres
ent. That was the beginning of Maria’s Path to Action.
Don ‘t confuse stories with facts. Sometimes you fail to ques
tion your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When
you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught
up in the moment that you begin to believe your stories are facts.
They feel like facts. You confuse subjective conclusions with
steel-hard data points. For example, in trying to ferret out facts
from story, Maria might say, “He’s a male chauvinist pig-that’s
a fact ! Ask anyone who has seen how he treats me ! ”
“He’s a male chauvinist pig” is not a fact. It’s the story that
Maria created to give meaning to the facts. The facts could mean
just about anything. As we said earlier, others could watch Maria’s
interactions with Louis and walk away with different stories.