Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning


Crucial Conversations Skill Summary: Start with Heart

The outcomes of your Crucial Conversations are largely determined by what you do before you even open your mouth. To hold a successful Crucial Conversation, we need to Start with Heart. And by “heart” we mean intent or motive.

The first thing that degrades in a Crucial Conversation isn’t our behavior but our motives. We can quickly go from wanting to learn and understand to wanting to win, be right, and defend ourselves—and usually we don’t even notice it. Eventually, what we are thinking, feeling, and wanting will impact the conversation.

In other words, motives influence behavior. Get your motives right, better dialogue will follow.

How Do I Start with Heart?

To Start with Heart, you’ll want to do three things:

  1. Get clear on what your motives are.
  2. Improve them if necessary.
  3. Make sure others understand them.

As already mentioned, our motives deteriorate before our behavior does, and in crucial moments we often don’t notice this.

The other challenge is that others can often misinterpret our motives when stakes are high and opinions vary. For example, they may wonder whether we cared more about looking good than finding solutions. Or it may appear as though we wanted to punish our team rather than help them. Once you’ve established good intent it’s important to convey it.

Thus, Start with Heart means to address your motives first, and then make sure they’re visible to others. Here’s how.

Work on Me First, Us Second

The first step is to stop believing that others are the source of all our problems. It’s our dogmatic conviction that “if we could just fix those losers, all would go better” that keeps us from taking action that could lead to dialogue and progress.

Those who are best at dialogue turn this logic around. They believe that the best way to work on “us” is to work on “me.” They realize not only that they are likely to benefit by improving their own approach, but also that the only one they can influence anyway is themselves.

This insight brings with it true personal power. As much as others may need to change, or we may want them to change, the only person we can continually inspire, prod, and shape—with any degree of success—is the person in the mirror.

So, step one is to recognize that you are the solution to any conversational challenge you face.

Focus on What You Really Want

The next step is to become aware of the motive that’s possessing you. This is harder than it might seem. When a conversation turns crucial, our mind and emotions can often get hijacked and we resort to silence or verbal violence. It’s not easy to be self-aware in such moments. So, what can you do?

Look for clues. You can discern your motives from the outside in by asking yourself a few questions. Step away from the interaction and look at yourself as an observer would, then ask yourself “What does it look like I want?” Or “What am I acting like I want?”

As you try to discover your motive, you might conclude: “Let’s see, I’m cutting people off, overstating my points, shaking my head at others’ comments. Yep! I’ve gone from trying to launch this product to trying to win an argument.”

Once you acknowledge the desires of your heart, you can begin to change them. And you can do that by asking yourself “What do I really want?”

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?

These questions help you focus on long-term, healthy outcomes, rather than short-term, self-serving outcomes.

Once you’re free of the short-term motive to win, be right, save face, punish others, build a reputation, or any of those other motives that can possess us in crucial moments, healthy answers will come to you. “What I really want is to develop a great product and a great team.”

Finally, ask yourself this: “What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?” See the next steps.

Refuse the Fool’s Choice

You’ll know your heart is beginning to change and that you can begin to dialogue when you seek an inclusive solution rather than exclusive one.

When faced with Crucial Conversations, we tend to delve into either-or thinking. We believe we can either seek our interests or theirs, but not both. We assume we can either be honest and offend our friend, or keep our mouths shut and preserve a relationship.

So, we either fight for own viewpoint or interests, or we withdraw our voice and sacrifice our interests to “keep the peace.”

The problem is these tactics don’t preserve relationships or keep the peace, and they don’t generate the best results.

They’re all examples of the Fool’s Choice—the thinking that there’s one solution to a challenge.

Those who are best at dialogue refuse the Fool’s Choice by setting up new choices. They present themselves with tougher questions that turn either-or thinking into a search for the all-important “and.”

The questions outlined above will help you find inclusive solutions. Notice that they put you in a position to think about what you want for yourself and for others. “What do I want for myself and the relationship?”

When you face Crucial Conversations, think about the problem more fully by bringing and into the equation. “How can I help this project move forward quickly and get everyone’s input?” “How can I convey to my partner that I don’t want to spend Christmas with his family and I love him deeply?”

Share Your Good Intent

Once your heart is in a good place, it’s time to share your good intent. Whether you’re resuming a Crucial Conversation after correcting course or just entering one, sharing your good motives can put others at ease in a high-stakes situation.

But let’s be clear: sharing good intent does not mean flattery. Don’t sandwich an honest opinion between dishonest compliments. Instead, make it clear to the other person that you care about their interests.

Sharing good intent might sound like this:

  • “I’m really struggling with how you discipline the children, but I also don’t think we should raise them “my” way. We’re in this together, and I want to find ways of rearing them together. Can we talk about it from that angle?

  • “I know we have different ideas of what will make this project successful, but I want you to know I respect your viewpoint and I want to better understand it. Maybe we can find a way to achieve what we both want. Can we back up a little bit and talk through our ideas again?”

  • “I don’t share your opinion on the upcoming election, but I also don’t want to argue about it. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize our friendship. I think the topic is fascinating and it’s clear that you do too, so if we talk about it, I’d want to focus on respecting each other and trying to better understand each other’s viewpoint. What do you think?”

Start with Heart in Summary

Success in Crucial Conversations starts with YOU. And it starts with heart. Remember to first look inward to establish good intent, and then verbally share your good intent. Only then can you begin to dialogue and get better results in crucial moments.

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