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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Are Top Leaders Exempt from Using Crucial Conversations Skills?

Dear Joseph,

Your book, Crucial Conversations, suggests that we are more effective if we express ourselves “tentatively” and encourage others to challenge our views. But many leaders (Jack Welch, Donald Trump, etc.) are the opposite—forceful and even dogmatic. And yet, they are very successful. I can’t remember either of these men speaking “tentatively” or encouraging others to share their divergent views. So do crucial conversation skills only work in some cases? Why do some reach the top in spite of doing the opposite of what you teach?

Double Standard

Dear Double Standard,

I am not going to weigh in on specific personalities (Welch, Trump, or other public figures) . . . but it’s funny you should ask this question.

Just prior to the election, we did an interesting experiment that illustrates the answer I’ll offer to your important question.

We asked more than 3,600 subjects—who told us they held strong political opinions—to watch a brief video clip of someone who either agreed or disagreed vehemently with their view. Some watched a clip of someone sharing their view in an aggressive and dogmatic way. Others saw a clip of someone sharing their view strongly—but in a way that showed respect for those who hold alternate opinions. Then, we asked the subject to rate the likeability, intelligence, and persuasiveness of the person they just observed.

The results stunned us.

Those who watched a dogmatic person who agreed with them rated them as far less intelligent, likeable, and persuasive than someone who disagreed with them—but disagreed reasonably. And the differences were not subtle—those who presented their views with passionate respect were:

  • Five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
  • Four times more likely to be seen as likeable
  • Three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
  • 140% more persuasive
  • 140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
  • 180% more likely to maintain relationships with others

So how do you explain this? If a respectful approach to communication makes this profound a difference in how people perceive you, how could someone rise to power by doing the opposite?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in how we introduced the video to our subjects. We did not say, “Watch this person on television.” Instead, we said, “Imagine this is your coworker who is trying to engage you in conversation . . . ”

Can you see the difference? And why it would make such a difference? The difference is performance vs. relationship.

National politics is more about performance than relationship. Performance is monologue not dialogue. It must be brief, simple, and memorable. Relationships are none of these. They require dialogue. Conversations are often lengthy, nuanced, and messy. The way we framed our video experiment placed it in the context of an office relationship.

It turns out that the rules that govern memorability are different than those that generate a sense of connection and trust. Conflict and repetition promote memory. So, in political performance, we need a foil or antagonist to create a sense of conflict. We dramatically juxtapose our view with that of the antagonist. And we repeat the same simple dictum ad nauseum. In this context, exaggeration increases effect.

But imagine someone trying that in conversation! It wouldn’t work. You’d walk away. They would rupture relationships. In fact, we saw the breakdown of relationships during this last political season as people attempted the same grandstanding gestures they saw played out on the nightly news in social media or in office conversation. Bad idea.

Interestingly, even politicians and larger-than-life business leaders must be bilingual in this respect—or they will pay a price. There’s a difference between winning a campaign and building an organization—or relationship. We’ve studied the latter for three decades and can say unequivocally that if you attempt to use political performance skills in the sustained relationships of your life, you’ll pay an enormous cost.

Does that mean you’ll fail completely if you violate respectful communication practices? No. Because success is not about a single variable. But it does mean that you’ll fall short of the success you could have had if you had managed this one variable better. Some succeed in spite of their weaknesses, but rarely because of them.

Interestingly, one of Jack Welch’s most coveted cultural goals was to build a culture of candor. He knew that an organization that doesn’t habitually speak truth to power is doomed to suffer for the lack of it. My guess is his public persona was different in some ways than his interpersonal approach.

I hope this distinction helps you decide which habits will create the life and results you want most.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “Are Top Leaders Exempt from Using Crucial Conversations Skills?”

  1. Jan

    Interesting distinction. Thanks.

  2. Maria Binning

    Thank you!

  3. Frank Leonard

    You say that Top Leaders must be bilingual in their communication skills. I challenge that it is goes further than this. I believe Top Leaders are quite multi-lingual, as they are extraordinarily capable of switching their tone and presentation to suit the moment. Most people can relate to their own responses to those around them based on who they are speaking with at a given moment. Whether it be a co-worker, family member, old friend, or young child, we often change to adjust to an appropriate communication style that works best at that particular moment. Welch and Trump, I sincerely believe, are much different one-on-one than they are at the head of boardroom,(or oval office). Where they may speak to crowd in a manner larger than life, their ability to scale back to dealing with individual professional or personal issues are likely what keeps them at the helm.

    1. caroline ingles

      In socialinguistics, this is often called code switching and Obama was pretty good at it, especially with respect to race.

  4. Phyllis Marsh Boshell

    Spread this information far and wide! Makes wonderful sense. Thank you! (and yes, I will be sharing this!)

  5. Patricia Pitsel

    Thought this was an very interesting and instructive column – and really found the research helpful.

  6. Laura

    This is a very clear explanation of the communication dynamics we are seeing in the media and why this will not work in the workplace. Thank you, once again, for your brilliance and heart.

  7. Cathy

    Excellent answer to a difficult question and done so in a respectful way. Kudos!

  8. Kate Vanstone

    Great article & vindicating after having accepted criticism for ‘tentative’ response in recent interview. Translation of communication style from one set of circumstances to another is nuanced & not as interchangeable as Lego blocks.

  9. Alexandra

    Very insightful to point to the difference whether we strive for connection or memorability. Thank you for that perspective! Follow up question: are there other (equally effective) strategies to achieve memorability, besides instigating conflict and disagreements? Can you please share some of your thoughts around this?

  10. Bethany

    Why is the difference ‘performance vs. raltionship’ and not just ‘relationship’?
    In your experiment – the people were in the role of co-worker, aka peer. They weren’t in the role of boss or supervisor or VP or CEO, aka leader.

    I think this could explain the difference just as well.

    Or, it’s possible your experiment, even with my comments, just doesn’t address this issue at all….

  11. Anna D

    While this is insightful, I think it would be great to gain some intelligence on how politicians can most effectively engage their constituents, especially when they disagree with a position.

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