Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning


Crucial Conversations Skill Summary: Make It Safe

If people don’t feel safe to engage in dialogue, they won’t. And when conversations turn crucial, a sense of safety is the first thing to go. When stakes are high, emotions run strong, and opinions vary, we often feel threatened. This is why we often resort to silence or verbal violence when faced with a Crucial Conversation. It’s the age-old case of fight or flight. But if you can create a sense of safety, you can prevent clam-ups and blow-ups and keep the dialogue open.

So how do you make it safe? Let’s explore how you can create a safe environment, so you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything.

What Makes a Conversation Safe

Make it your goal when faced with a Crucial Conversation to create safety. Remember, human beings are wired to look for threats. When people feel threatened, they move to silence or verbal violence, flight or fight, neither of which are great for problem-solving.

All you need to do to destroy safety in a Crucial Conversation is nothing.

During the first tense seconds of the beginning of a conversation, others are scanning your every facial tick or leg crossing for evidence of your intentions. Do you mean them harm? Are you out to get them? Your job is to generate evidence that you aren’t.

Two Conditions of Safety

In order for people to feel safe with you, they need to know two things about your intent. They need to know that:

  1. You care about their concerns. (Mutual Purpose)
  2. You care about them. (Mutual Respect)

When both of these come together then people feel safe enough to hear you; they feel safe enough to dialogue.

Dealing with Defensiveness

After you’ve presented your case regarding an issue you’d like to discuss, you sometimes may hear the other party respond with a defensive phrase. Such as, “Are you implying that I’m not doing enough?” or “Hey, you don’t meet your deadlines either.” Or they may not even feel like expressing their take at all and just shrug it off.

It’s easy to look at a defensive reaction as evidence that someone can’t take the truth, but we know that’s not true. People don’t become defensive because of what you’re saying; they become defensive because of why they think you’re saying it. It’s not your message that erodes safety and creates defensiveness; it’s their perception of your intent.

Sharing your good intent up front lays the foundation for a safe conversation, but it doesn’t guarantee it. You need to continue to watch for and build safety throughout the conversation.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

Safety can often break down in a conversation due to simple misunderstandings. Even when you have good intentions for the conversation, the other person may feel that you don’t.

So how do we address situations where there’s a space between what our intent is and what the other person perceives our intent to be? You can rebuild safety by temporarily stepping out of the topic being discussed and using a skill called contrasting.

Contrasting is a don’t/do statement. In short, when getting into a crucial conversation, you can temporarily pause the conversation and clearly explain what you don’t intend for the conversation and then clarify what you do intend for the conversation. You don’t necessarily need to use the words, ‘Don’t’ and ‘Do’ you just need to clearly convey to the other party your intentions.

For example, a contrasting statement may look something like this in a conversation:

Don’t Statement: “I’m not looking to blame anyone for what happened with our last project.”

Do Statement: “I just want to find out how we can identify challenges before they become problems.”

If you find that the conversation has begun to turn defensive or their appears to be a misunderstanding, you can always use these skills to take a step back to make the conversation safe again. Express your intentions for the conversation by contrasting, and let them know you care about their concerns and you care about them. After all, safety is about intent not content.


Crucial Conversations Book Cover

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, 3rd Edition

We invite you to learn more about ‘Make it Safe’ and other Crucial Conversations skills so you can communicate better when it matters most. Download your course overview and see how you can bring interactive training to your organization in person, virtually, or on demand.

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1 thought

  1. When You Disagree with Someone, Do This!

    […] validate their feelings, and show that you care about them and their concerns. This will help to create safety and demonstrate your appreciation for their efforts to work out the […]

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