The key is to step out of the content of the conversation. Don’t
stay stuck in what’s being said. Yvonne exited because she was
focused on what Jotham was saying. If she had been looking at
Jotham’s behavior, she would have spotted his use of sarcasm
a form of masking. Rather than talking out his concern, he’s tak
ing a potshot. Why would he do that? Because he doesn ‘t feel
safe using dialogue. But Yvonne missed this point. Now, we’re not suggesting that Jotham’s behavior is acceptable,
or that Yvonne should put up with it. But first things first-Start
with Heart. The first question is: “What do I really want?”
If you really want to have a healthy conversation about a topic
that will make or break your relationship, then for a moment or
two you may have to set aside confronting the current issue
i.e., Jotham’s sarcasm.
Yvonne’s challenge here is to build safety-enough so that she
can talk about their physical relationship, about the way Jotham
is dealing with it, or about any other concerns. But if she doesn’t
make it safe, all she’s going to get is a continuation of the silence and violence games.
So, what should she do?
In these circumstances, the worst at dialogue do what both
Jotham and Yvonne did. Like Jotham, they totally ignore the cry ing need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds
with no regard for how it will be received. Or like Yvonne, they
conclude the topic is completely unsafe and move to silence.
The good realize that safety is at risk, but they fix it in exactly
the wrong way. They try to make the subject more palatable by
sugarcoating their message. “Oh, honey, I really want to be with
you but I’m under a lot of pressure at work, and the stress makes
i t hard for me to enjoy our time together. ” They try to make
th ings safer by watering down their content. This strategy, of
l:ourse, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.
68 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS
The best don’t play games. They know that dialogue is the free flow of meaning-with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking. So they do something completely different. They step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.
Once you’ve spotted safety problems, you can talk about the
most challenging of topics by stepping out of the content and
building enough safety that almost anything becomes discussable.
For example: “Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk
about what happens when we’re not romantically in sync. It would
be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t. My
goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to
become defensive. What I’d really love is for us to come up with a
solution that makes us both satisfied in our relationship.”
NOTICE WHICH CONDITION IS AT RISK
Now, let’s look at a couple of pieces that help us establish safety
even when the topic is high risk, controversial, and emotional. The
first step to building more safety is to understand which of the two
conditions of safety is at risk. Each requires a different solution.
Remember the last time someone gave you difficult feedback and
you didn’t become defensive? Say a friend said some things to
you that most people might get upset over. In order for this per
son to be able to deliver the delicate message, you must have
believed he or she cared about you, or about your goals and
objectives. That means you trusted his or her purposes so you
were willing to listen to some pretty tough feedback.
Crucial conversations often go awry not because of the con
tent of the conversation, but because others believe that the
MAKE IT SAFE 69
painful and pointed content means that you have a malicious
intent. How can they feel safe when they believe you’re out to do
them harm? Soon, every word out of your mouth is suspect.
Consequently, the first condition of safety is Mutual Purpose.
Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that we are working
toward a common outcome in the conversation, that we care
about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. We
believe they care about ours. Consequently, Mutual Purpose is
the entry condition of dialogue. Find a shared goal and you have
both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.
For example, if Jotham believes that Yvonne’s purpose in rais
ing this topic is to make him feel guilty or to get her way, this
conversation is doomed from the outset. If he believes she really
cares about making things better for him and herself, she may have a chance.
Watch for signs that Mutual Purpose is at risk. How do we
know when the safety problem we’re seeing is due to a lack of
Mutual Purpose? It’s actually fairly easy to spot. First and fore
most, when purpose is at risk, we end up in debate. When others
start forcing their opinions into the pool of meaning, it’s often
because they figure that we’re trying to win and they need to do
the same. Other signs that purpose is at risk include defensiveness,
hidden agendas (the silence form of fouled-up purpose) , accusa
tions, and circling back to the same topic. Here are some crucial
questions to help us determine when Mutual Purpose is at risk: