Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Breaking Bad Habits with Safety


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

What do you do if you try everything and still can’t make it safe? I’m struggling with two different issues:

  1. It seems that no matter what I do, I can’t make it safe for my life partner. He was raised in a household where anger and aggression were the norm. I try to begin by making it safe and he immediately becomes upset. It seems these techniques lose effectiveness when you confront decades of habit.
  2. I work in a multicultural environment. No matter what I do to make it safe, many individuals from other countries consistently react with behavior that seems to be textbook silence or violence. For example: last month, a staff member screamed at a client in both English and in their native language while they both gestured wildly—a classic violent conversation. But at the end, the customer kissed the staff member on both cheeks and walked away apparently completely satisfied with their dialogue.

So, again, how do I properly apply these techniques when in some cases, they conflict with a lifetime of habit or culture?

Culture Clash

A Dear Culture Clash,

To start with, I’ll make three comments with the hope that one or two of them might hit close to home.

1. There are very few absolutes when it comes to silence and violence. What one person feels is “violence” could be perfectly respectful and appropriate to another. For a couple of years, I worked with a group of software developers in another culture who solved problems in very energetic and high-volume conversations. People gestured dramatically and even got red-faced as the conversations developed. At the end, they tended to converge on a solution—and in the two years I worked there, I did not discern any damage to relationships as a result of these actions. What was “violence” to me was “dialogue” to them. Now, I must add that during these high-volume conversations there were occasionally lapses into what they would define as violence—when someone was insulting, accusatory, or called others names, etc. These actions did cause problems, shut down the conversation, and inflict wounds that didn’t heal. So I would not go so far as to say there are cultures where there is no such thing as violence. I’d simply encourage you to ask yourself whether you are imposing the communication habits you are comfortable with on others—particularly in your workplace.

2. If you’re stumped about creating safety, talk about that. In the situation with your life partner, if you’ve done your best to help him feel safe, and his behavior is still creating problems, then you need to hold a different conversation. Especially since this is someone you have a long and sustained relationship with—a relationship that profoundly affects your quality of life. You need to talk about the pattern of behavior you see consistently when you raise tough topics. But here’s a warning: do not talk about this in the moment the behavior’s happening. Too many of us store up frustrations only to let them loose at exactly the wrong time. Rather than holding a deliberate and focused conversation about our concerns, we wait for an instance of the behavior, then say, “See, there you go again!” Bad idea.

The better approach is to have a conversation about having the conversation. Let your loved one know, “I love you. I am glad we’re together and I want our relationship to last. I have a nagging frustration—which I may be a part of—that I want to talk to you about sometime. It’s something I believe we can solve together—but it’s important to me that we talk about it well. I don’t want you to feel badgered or put down, so I want to be sure we can do it at a time that you won’t feel that way.”

Now, I don’t know that these words are perfect, but can you see what I’m trying to do here? I’m asking him to make a commitment to behave a certain way as a condition for having this conversation. If he agrees to it, then you must hold him accountable. If he begins to flare, you’ve got to step out of the conversation and respectfully say something like, “Apparently something I’m doing is not working. I want to talk about this in a time and way that will help us both out. Is there something I need to do differently or should we take a bit of a break?”

If after intervening he recommits to control himself, you can proceed. Otherwise, you must—in a non-punishing way—hold your ground to delay the conversation until he can or will. By “non-punishing” I mean you must carefully resist the urge to “stick it to him” by cutting off the conversation—a temptation all of us feel at times. It’s a control strategy that can be quite damaging.

3. Be as committed to your quality of life as you are to his. Making it safe for others is a principle that works. But there are some who are either unwilling or unable to change the way they communicate after a lifetime of habit. If you’ve done all you’re capable of to improve the quality of your communication, take responsibility for your own wellbeing. When you’ve exhausted your options, decide what you really want. Is the relationship more important to you than the sacrifice you’re making to maintain it? Or will the inevitable continuation of current behavior cost your quality of life more than you’re willing to accept?

Crucial Conversations skills do not guarantee that others will change. They simply increase the likelihood you’ll have a positive influence. Ultimately, the only person you can change is yourself. So decide whether you want to change your approach to conversations, change your expectations of others, or change your relationships.

Best wishes,

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

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