Dear Trainer Talk,
I have used and taught the Crucial Conversations skills for years but have recently wondered whether the skills are more reflective of how white professionals feel comfortable (or safe) addressing disagreement. A few learners have expressed this concern.
Could it be that the skills taught in Crucial Conversations do not work for everybody or with anyone, whether because of ethnicity, cultural background, or lived experience? Could some people see the skills as disrespectful, no matter how well you use them?
I am comfortable using Crucial Conversations skills because I have practiced them for years, but I can appreciate that others may feel they are exclusive or discriminatory. Do you have any insights? Does this change how I should use them?
Concerned Crucial Conversationalist
Our response today comes from myself and two longtime colleagues. We come from different backgrounds and we all have used and taught the skills in various contexts. We want to remind readers and trainers that what we share is perspective in the interest of dialogue. We invite you to share your perspective respectfully in the comments if inclined.
As with many questions we receive, our answer is shaped by how we interpret the question. You ask whether Crucial Conversations could be “exclusive or discriminatory.” There are a variety of ways we might interpret that question. For example:
- Are the principles culturally specific—do they only apply to a specific ethnicity, gender, age, or other demographic?
- Do the principles only work when power is relatively equal? For example, do you need status, influence, or authority equal to or greater than the person with whom you’re talking to make effective use of them?
- Do the principles put the practitioner at a disadvantage in some circumstances?
And so on. As you’ll see below, each of us had to make some assumptions about the intent of the question in order to frame a response. But there is one other potential interpretation that I’d like to address up front:
- Can the Crucial Conversations principles overcome a culture of underlying racism, elitism, or oppression?
To that version of the question, we offer an emphatic NO. We make no pretensions that effective communication skills will elicit sincere engagement from those with racist motivations. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most gifted communicators of the ages, should be ample evidence of this point.
With that said, I invite you to consider our responses to other readings of the question.
Response from Shelina Pabani
My experience with the Crucial Conversations skills is that they are uniquely suited to address issues precisely when there is not a shared background or understanding.
For example, the Pool of Shared Meaning, which is a concept taught in the course and book, is about creating space to understand and appreciate another’s point of view. In my view, the desire to share our perspective is universal and a human need that transcends cultural norms. The course teachings remind us of this.
Creating safety, also taught in the course, goes beyond diffusing silence or verbal violence. To truly create a sense of psychological safety means to create a space where anyone and everyone is safe to engage with us, regardless of cultural background.
As a Muslim woman and working professional, I live in two very different worlds. There is my corporate life in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, and there’s my life at home in Canada with members of my traditional extended family who have very different views from my own about the role of women.
I have used the skills to navigate conversations that include women’s right to choose, whether my young cousins should be given a choice in marriage, and why women serve men first at meals!
To get more personal, over the last few years the skills have helped me navigate the ending of my marriage when my Indian and Muslim husband of 23 years came out as gay. The skills helped us navigate that situation and today we are the best of friends who co-parent our son as a family unit.
The skills once helped me have a conversation with a random stranger who called me a terrorist and told me to “Go home!” We left that conversation connected on LinkedIn.
The Crucial Conversations skills at their heart are about being curious and being willing to listen to different points of view and to find mutual purpose when you seem most at odds.
I can cite countless other examples where these skills have helped me dialogue with people who hold views vastly different from my own. Whenever I have a Crucial Conversation with someone, I leave the relationship a little better off.
Crucial Learning Master Trainer
Response from Maria Moss
I once worked in an environment where the stereotype of “The Angry Black Woman” was alive and well. The prevalence and acceptance of this stereotype, combined with my natural tendency towards verbal violence, gave those who believed in the stereotype the greenlight to dismiss my thoughts, ideas, and contributions.
And yet the Crucial Conversations skills have helped me show up passionately and purposefully in crucial moments so that people are willing to listen to my thoughts, ideas, and arguments, and not reduce them to the musings of an “Angry Black Woman.”
The coaching I received when learning Crucial Conversations was, “Maria do not change who you are at your core. Your confidence, passion, and conviction are what make you whole. Use these skills to temper your approach so you can better achieve the outcomes you desire.”
So, for me, the Crucial Conversations skills have been an exceptional tool of influence.
Crucial Learning Master Trainer
Response from Joseph Grenny
Our original research was first conducted with United States multinationals—obviously a biased sample when compared to a global audience. Our opinion leader observation (described in the book) involved a highly diverse set of participants, but typically in a United States work context.
That said, shortly after we published the first edition of the book in 2002, we tested the ideas with hundreds of thousands of participants around the world. For example, a large African telecom provider has trained more than 20,000 employees in over twenty countries. We’ve learned much by working with that organization as they have applied the training in hundreds of localized sessions.
The book also quickly became a bestseller in several Asian nations and continues to sell strongly in many Eastern countries as well. As the course was delivered to thousands across Asia, we had numerous opportunities to learn from those who taught and studied it.
Our collective experience is that the principles appear to be universal, but certain skills require cultural adaptation. For example, the principle Make it Safe is not culture-specific. All human beings are hardwired to assess potential threats in high-stakes interpersonal situations. And the best remedy for this barrier to dialogue is to generate evidence of psychological safety.
However, how you do this is very culture-specific. Do you stand close or far? Do you make eye contact or not? Do you speak firmly or softly? Do you stand or sit? Do you ask permission or offer other deferential expressions?
The answers to these questions are different in Malawi, Germany, and Thailand. And they may be different in varying ethnic or socioeconomic contexts in the United States. But understanding that the principle is to find a way to be both 100% candid and 100% respectful is about being human, not German.
Coauthor of Crucial Conversations
For more information on this topic, download How Crucial Conversations Addresses DE&I.