Crucial Conversations: Identifying and Fixing Safety Issues

Hi!  As I’ve been unpacking “Crucial Conversations”over the last few weeks, we explored the idea that mastering the art of “Crucial Conversations” is essential to leading our organizations and cross-sector coalitions.  While we are working to develop coalitions across schools, career technology centers, employer organizations, and other partners, we are going to see significantly different vantage points, pre-suppositions, and hidden agendas.  The opportunities for “Crucial Conversations” are enormous, and when handled well, they can build common purpose and a sure foundation for the shared education reform. When handled badly, they can instantly destroy the initiative or plant the seeds for long-term decay.

People only engage in real dialogue (a healthy exchange of ideas and meaning) when they feel safe.  So, for this last post on “Crucial Conversations”, I want to focus on how to identify safety issues and what to do.

In these conversations, people may feel unsafe when they doubt there is “mutual purpose” or there is “mutual respect.”  The fear about a lack of “mutual purpose” is this: “I worry that you and I are not going in the same direction. If I go the direction you want, it might harm me in some way or it may violate a value I really care about.”  This is a common fear of “mutual purpose” that we hear in our Pathways related conversations.  “I don’t want to lock a young person into a career path when they’re so young and just discovering themselves.  I fear we will be cutting off options by encouraging them to identify a career interest.”  This is a perfectly valid concern and we can find common ground, but only if someone is given the opportunity to talk about it.

The issue of “mutual respect” is pretty straight forward.  “Something you are saying or otherwise communicating seems to indicate that you don’t respect me.”

Just by the nature of where we sit in our organizations, we may have a chip on our shoulder or might be tempted to look down our noses at others.  Working across school systems, there seems to always be a pecking order of the more prestigious districts, schools, and colleges versus the less prestigious ones.  Sometimes there is some skepticism of motives and respect between educators and employers.  Sometimes, even among educators, some departments or programs may seem to be more favored than others.  These structural issues may breed the sense of a lack of “mutual respect”.  We need to be very aware of these issues and intentionally create a sense of safety and “mutual respect” as we enter these conversations about collaboration among multiple Pathways stakeholders.

When someone experiences one or both fears (purpose or respect), they are wired for two well-known responses: FLIGHT or FIGHT.  The authors depict these responses as “silence” or “violence.”

Silence usually doesn’t mean literally not talking (although this does happen in many group meetings) but communicating in such a way that “silences” your true feelings and ideas.

There are three common forms of silence:

  • “Masking” your true feelings and ideas through sarcasm, sugarcoating and couching;
  • “Avoiding” talking about the core issues at hand while diverting the conversations to safer issues; and,
  • “Withdrawing” by finding a way to get out of the uncomfortable conversation by missing a meeting, taking a phone call or leaving early.

Violence consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view.

  • Controlling techniques involve interrupting, misstating facts, using overly directive lines of questions, or changing the topic.
  • Labeling means denigrating a group of people or ideas, so you don’t even seriously consider what is being said. “Of course, they’re going to say that.  They’re from administration or the union.”
  • Attacking is the most egregious form of violent speech tactics that includes name-calling and bullying.

Chapter 5 is a pivotal chapter. It’s called “Make it Safe.” In short, when you observe these Silence or Violence techniques, you know pretty well that safety has been violated. You need to restore safety through a Shared Sense of Purpose and/or a Shared Sense of Respect. 

The tactics to restore Shared Purpose and Shared Respect are:

  • Apologize when Appropriate
  • Contrast to Fix Understanding
  • R.I.B. to Mutual Purpose (this acronym means)
  • Commit to Seek Mutual Purpose
  • Recognize the Purpose behind the Strategy
  • Invent a Mutual Purpose, and
  • Brainstorm New Strategies

Digging into these tactics (as explained in detail in the book), putting them into practice, and then applying them will take you far in laying the groundwork for a successful change initiative. These “Crucial Conversations” may represent only about ten percent of the actual conversations you have in your professional life, but they are the high-level conversations that determine success or failure.  Being right about our ideas and vision isn’t enough; we need to get these “Crucial Conversations” right too!

While you’re waiting for your copy of the book to arrive, you might to watch some videos with a couple of the authors, Joseph Grenny and Ron McMillan.

[1] Patterson, Kerry. (Eds.) (2012) Crucial conversations:tools for talking when stakes are high New York: McGraw-Hill

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *