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Maria has been feeling humiliated and angry throughout this

project. First, Louis took their suggestions to the boss and dis­

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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

the team.

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




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

same way.

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.




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




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

an emotion.

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


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.”




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

See! Hear

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




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.


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.




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.




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




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.




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.

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