Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Before & After: Bringing a Canoe to a Gun Fight


John C. used crucial conversations skills to get to safety when he found himself under live-fire.

Crucial Conversations

Over the years, I’ve canoed the Brazos River near Brenham, Texas. It is usually a relaxing way to get back to nature and away from everyday stress. It is an old, slow, and sometimes shallow river, so you never see jet skis or large motorboats. Many days, you may never see another human being!

The most stressful things I have encountered were the occasional alligator, miscalculations of time, and getting the canoe out of the water on steep and narrow footpaths. One Saturday, however, all of that changed.

That day, the river was high and flowing fast. It was a cool seventy degrees with beautiful fluffy clouds in a perfect blue sky. We heard someone shooting off in the distance.

As we got closer, the shooting became louder. Since we couldn’t see over the steep bank, we figured it was someone target practicing. Then suddenly, we heard another shot followed by the plinking of buckshot hitting the water beside me. Another quick shot and more plinking—this time a few pellets hit the side of the canoe.

We started screaming “Quit it!” as loudly as possible. In the country, sound carries and surely this careless shooter would hear us and stop. But then a third shot and more plinking. We were now fifteen feet downstream from the first blast and the story I told myself was that the gunman was deliberately shooting at us.

My adrenaline started pumping and my first thought was to make this person realize he or she was very much in the wrong by yelling “Stop it you IDIOT!”

I quickly realized I needed to examine my motives and start from my heart. I asked myself what I didn’t want to happen. I didn’t want to get shot. I then asked what I did want. I wanted to get out of there safely. Calling this stranger an idiot might make me feel better for a second, but it wasn’t going to help me achieve my goal.

I then asked myself, “What can I do right now if I really want these results?” The answer was obvious. I quit yelling and dug my oar in hard and fast. My companion heard my paddle, stopped shouting, and quickly joined in getting us to safety.

Before attending Crucial Conversations Training, I would have lost my cool and perhaps angered someone who clearly had the upper hand. And no matter what training we have, we all know who wins when you bring a canoe to a gun fight!

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6 thoughts on “Before & After: Bringing a Canoe to a Gun Fight”

  1. grizzly bear mom

    Crucial Conversations saved someone’s life! You couldn’t ask for a better endorsement than this.

  2. Rochelle Arellano

    Did you report this to local authorities after getting to safety? Seems like they were trying to frighten you away, and there may have been a very serious situation behind all of the shooting.

  3. rareay

    Huh. I can’t say that I think the mindset or reasoning of John C was the slightest bit relevant, but his chosen action (to row the heck away ASAP) was the right one. If someone has decided to put your life in danger, thinking about what to SAY is only wasting precious seconds.

    This isn’t exactly the time to sit there and figure out if they’re using silence or violence…

  4. Gwen MacKinnon

    I love canoeing stories! Blissing out in nature and being confronted with an unanticipated, intrusive force. The violence strategy of yelling is absolutely never going to work. Some seconds later, the frontal lobe kicks in. What do I want? Hurrah for reasoning connected with the heart!

  5. Jay Buckler

    I seriously doubt the shooter even knew you were there.If you couldn’t see him he couldn’t see you. Likely they had hearing protection on & would hear you anyway.They were probably enjoying their Saturday like you but shooting clay birds. I do fault them for not knowing where their shoot would land tho.

  6. rareay

    @Jay Buckler
    Yeah, Jay? Your guess at hearing protection makes sense, but I don’t believe your take on the shooter’s innocence is justified by the author’s description of events. Shooting clay birds does not lead to each shot bringing pellets closer and closer to the canoe.

    In some ways, I think the CrucialSkills folks do a disservice when they couch bad communications in terms of ‘silence or violence’ and how to restore ‘safety’. We are a civilized society that only rarely encounters real genuine dangerous violence. When we finally are face to face with genuine violence putting our safety in grave danger, no really, it’s not the time to be thinking about starting with heart. When some random anonymous person is shooting real lead at you, you really should set aside the charitable thoughts about their intentions until you are physically safe.

    If you study events involving active shooters and multiple victims, you are likely to encounter accounts of people just standing there, unable to process what’s happening to them, trying to make it fit into their concepts of how disagreements should go. And if you study the ensuing media accounts and public commentary, you will find plenty of folks like Jay arguing that the danger wasn’t as bad as reported, and didn’t justify violent response. It’s a shame.

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