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we stay clear of unhealthy games? Although it’s difficult to describe the specific order of events

in an interaction as fluid as a crucial conversation, we do know one thing for certain: Skilled people Start with Heart. That is, they begin high-risk discussions with the right motives, and they stay focused no matter what happens.

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They maintain this focus in two ways. First, they’re steely-eyed smart when it comes to knowing what they want. Despite con­ stant invitations to slip away from their goals, they stick with them. Second, skilled people don’t make Sucker’s Choices

(either/or choices) . Unlike others who justify their unhealthy behavior by explaining that they had no choice but to fight or take flight, the dialogue-smart believe that dialogue, no matter

the circumstances, is always an option. Let’s look at each of these important heart-based assumptions

in turn.


To see how the desires of our hearts can affect our ability to stay in dialogue, let’s take a look at a real-life example.

Greta, the CEO of a mid-sized corporation, is two hours into

a rather tense meeting with her top leaders. For the past six months she has been on a personal campaign to reduce costs. Little has been accomplished to date, so Greta calls the meeting.

Surely people will tell her why they haven’t started cutting costs. After all, she has taken great pains to foster candor.

Greta has just opened the meeting to questions when a man­ ager haltingly rises to his feet, fidgets, stares at the floor, and then nervously asks if he can ask a very tough question. The way




the fellow emphasizes the word very makes it sound as if he’s about to accuse Greta of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The frightened manager continues. “Greta, you’ve been at us for six months to find ways to cut

costs. I’d be lying if I said that we’ve given you much more than

a lukewarm response. If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about one thing that’s making it tough for us to push for cost cuts.”

“Great. Fire away,” Greta says as she smiles in response. “Well, while you’ve been asking us to use both sides of our paper

and forego improvements, you’re having a second office built.” Greta freezes and turns bright red. Everyone looks to see what

will happen next. The manager plunges on ahead. “The rumor is that the furniture alone will cost $ 1 50,000. Is

that right?” So there we have it. The conversation has just turned crucial.

Someone has just poured a rather ugly tidbit into the pool of

meaning. Will Greta continue to encourage honest feedback, or will she shut the fellow down?

We call this a crucial conversation because how Greta acts during the next few moments will not only set people’s attitudes toward the proposed cost cutting, but will also have a huge

impact on what the other leaders think about her. Does she walk the talk of openness and honesty? Or is she a raging hypocrite­ like so many of the senior executives who came before her?

Will We Get Hooked?

How Greta behaves during this crucial conversation depends a great deal on how she handles her emotions while under attack. Sure, when she’s giving a speech or writing a memo, she’s all for

candor. She’s a veritable cheerleader for candor. But what about

now? Will Greta thank the fellow for taking a huge risk and being honest?




If she’s like most of us, Greta will defend herself. When we’re in the throes of high-stakes conversations, new (and less healthy) motives often supplant our original, more noble ones. If you are standing in front of a potentially hostile crowd, it’s a good bet you will change your original goal to the new goal of protecting your public image.

“Excuse me,” you might respond. “I don’t think that my new office is an appropriate topic for this forum.”

Bang. You’re dead. In one fell swoop you’ve lost buy-in, destroyed any hope for candor in this particular conversation,

and confirmed everyone’s suspicion that you want honesty-but only as long as it makes you look good.


In reality, Greta didn’t give in to her raging desire to defend her­ self. After being accused of not following her own advice, at first she looked surprised, embarrassed, and maybe even a little upset. Then she took a deep breath and said: “You know what? We need to talk about this. I’m glad you asked the question. It’ll give us a chance to discuss what’s really going on.”

And then Greta talked turkey. She explained that she felt the office was necessary but admitted that she had no idea what it

would cost. So she sent someone to check the numbers.

Meanwhile, she explained that building the office was a response to marketing’s advice to boost the company’s image and improve

client confidence. And while Greta would use the office, it would be primarily a hosting location for marketing. When she saw the figures for the office, Greta was stunned and admitted that she should have checked the costs before signing a work order. So then and there she committed to drawing up a new plan that

would cut costs by half or canceling the project entirely.




Later that day we asked Greta how she had been able to keep her composure under fire. We wanted to know exactly what had been going on in her head. What had helped her move from embarrassment and anger to gratitude?

“It was easy,” Greta explained. “At first I did feel attacked, and I wanted to strike back. To be honest, I wanted to put that guy in his place. He was accusing me in public and he was wrong.”

“And then it struck me,” she continued. “Despite the fact that I had four hundred eyeballs pinned to me, a rather important ques­ tion hit me like a ton of bricks: ‘What do I really want here?'”

Asking this question had a powerful effect on Greta’s think­ ing. As she focused on this far more important question, she quickly realized that her goal was to encourage these two hun­ dred managers to embrace the cost-reduction efforts-and to thereby influence thousands of others to do the same.

As Greta contemplated this goal, she realized that the biggest barrier she faced was the widespread belief that she was a hyp­ ocrite. On the one hand, she was calling for others to sacrifice. On the other, she appeared to be spending discretionary funds for her own comfort. It was at that moment that she was no longer ashamed or angry, but grateful. She couldn’t have asked for a bet­ ter opportunity to influence these leaders than the one offered up by this penetrating question. And so she moved to dialogue.

Refocus your brain. Now, let’s move to a situation you might face. You’re speaking with someone who completely disagrees with you on a hot issue. How does all of this goal stuff apply? As you begin the discussion, start by examining your motives. Going in, ask yourself what you really want.

Also, as the conversation unfolds and you find yourself start­

i ng to, say, defer to the boss or give your spouse the cold shoul­ der, pay attention to what’s happening to your objectives. Are




you starting to change your goal to save face, avoid embarrass­ ment, win, be right, or punish others? Here’s the tricky part. Our motives usually change without any conscious thought on our part. When adrenaline does our thinking for us, our motives flow with the chemical tide.

In order to move back to motives that allow for dialogue, you must step away from the interaction and look at yourself­ much like an outsider. Ask yourself: “What am I doing, and if I had to guess, what does it tell me about my underlying motive?” As you make an honest effort to discover your motive, you might conclude: “Let’s see. I’m pushing hard, making the argu­ ment stronger than I actually believe, and doing anything to win. I’ve shifted from trying to select a vacation location to try­ ing to win an argument.”

Once you call into question the shifting desires of your heart, you can make conscious choices to change them. “What I really want is to genuinely try to select a vacation spot we can all enjoy-rather than try to win people over to my ideas.” Put suc­ cinctly, when you name the game, you can stop playing it.

But how? How do you recognize what has happened to you, stop playing games, and then influence your own motives? Do what Greta did. Stop and ask yourself some questions that return you to dialogue. You can ask these questions either when

you find yourself slipping out of dialogue or as reminders when you prepare to step up to a crucial conversation. Here are some great ones:

What do I really want for myself?

What do I really want for others?

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