Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Got an Awkward Conversation?

Everyone has an awkward conversation they are avoiding. Perhaps you have a co-worker who smells bad, a boss who’s impossible, or a regular, well-paying customer with outrageous demands. Sometimes the situation is temporary, or we don’t deal with it very often, so we don’t address it. Sometimes we bottle up our feelings in situations we deal with regularly—and do so for extended periods of time. Instead of finding a way to deal with an awkward situation in a healthy way, we endure years of pain and torment.

In the hit 90’s sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine, along with Jerry, George, and Kramer, lock away their darkest secrets in the vault (“I’m putting it in the vault! I’m locking the vault!”), a place where their confidences—too awkward or damaging to tell—were supposed to go to die. Sometimes we do the exact same thing.

So, why do we do this? Because we focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up, but completely ignore the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up.

We recently conducted a study of 1,409 participants asking about their “vault” (this study is the latest subject of our new BS Guys video). Fifty-six percent of respondents stated they have been safeguarding toxic secrets or workplace grievances for more than a year! Keeping these secrets “in the vault” creates problems that are decidedly non-comedic and can be costly to an organization.

We asked people to imagine that we just handed them a “magical free pass” that would allow them to say anything they wanted to one person at work—with immunity from any consequences. Then we asked them what they thought would happen if they could actually follow through and hold that conversation. These were the surprising results:

• 66% believed their organization would be helped
• 57% believed everyone who interacts with this person would be helped
• 43% believed the person themself would be helped
• 39% believed a huge emotional burden would be lifted

We were amazed at the things employees have bottled-up for years, and were dying to tell a colleague, and yet were too scared or worried to discuss. For example, one school principal longed to tell her aging school media specialist:

“You need to retire. You’re overpaid, unhealthy, and out of touch—you can’t move well enough to even answer your phone. Oh, and you have a serious problem with hoarding.”

In spite of the enduring and substantial cost to the school, the principal, the students—and likely even to this employee—the principal’s concerns have stayed locked in “the vault” for more than a year.

People’s suppressed concerns ran the gamut, from terrifying to disgusting to heartbreaking. Common examples included:

• Speaking truth to those in power (50%): “You are the worst boss I’ve ever had. I used to fantasize you’d get into a car wreck on the way to work. My heart goes out to anyone who has to report to you.”
• Criticizing a peer’s performance (31%): “Your fake, sugar-sweet ‘kindness’ tinged with sarcasm and bullying to everyone, as well as your lying and backbiting, has made me not trust you or believe a word you say.”
• Talking about the elephant in the room (2%): “Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily functions. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a birdbath.”

The most surprising finding of this study is how much pain we are willing to endure and for how long—for years and years in many cases—rather than open the vault. We are so intimidated by the initial conflict that could arise, we risk losing the incredible payoff of resolving the awkward issue.

This study uncovered another problem—these secrets are not truly locked away. When it comes to frustrations, if you don’t talk it out with the person and resolve it, you’ll act it out in unhealthy ways. Consider all the people who hate their managers. More than half of the respondents stated that they had either shared their resentments with others or have hinted about it to their boss.

So how do we open up the vault? Here are some tips to help you have “serenity now and avoid insanity later” as you follow through with that awkward conversation you’re avoiding:

Assume people can change. More than half of respondents haven’t spoken up because they don’t believe the person could or would change. But people do change all the time. Ask yourself, “If I were in the other person’s shoes, and I had a true friend who knew what I know, would I want them to tell me?” Most of us say “Yes!” because we care and have confidence we can change. Do the person the favor of letting them try to change.

Determine what you really want. Many of people’s grievances sound like, “You are a jerk!” These are accusations, rather than aspirations. Before speaking up, ask yourself what you want to accomplish—not just for yourself, but for the other person and for your working relationship. Use this long-term, inclusive goal to make the conversation constructive rather than destructive.

Approach as a friend, not a foe. We live in a low-accountability culture, where speaking up is often seen as an attack. Avoid this misconception by explaining your positive motives up front. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern. My goal is to support you and to help us achieve the metrics you’ve set for our team . . . ”

Stick to the facts. Concerns that have been in the vault for months or years grow big and hairy. Specific incidents and facts are hidden beneath layers of conclusions. Avoid broad conclusions such as, “you don’t care” or “you’re incompetent.” Instead, focus on specific incidents, events, and actions such as, “The last three staffing decisions were made without input from the managers in the affected areas.”

I hope these tips help you have the courage to step up to the awkward conversation locked away in your vault.


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12 thoughts on “Got an Awkward Conversation?”

  1. Anonymous

    I’m surprised at this. If someone had written in for help with any of these situations – the FIRST thing you would have said was – separate your STORY from the facts. You would say to discuss the PATTERN instead of the current issue. AND to always START WITH HEART.

    By leaving us with vented statements you always challenge in your usually well-thought out responses to questions, you have, in fact, validated them.

    It would have been better to finish with guiding people to look at their statements as proof of the damage to our perception – and emotional response. But even if we get to admit what we WANT to say – it still is no where near what we SHOULD say.

    You did not end on the right note.

    1. josephgrenny

      Dear Anonynous – I want to make sure I learn from your comment – can you please clarify what “verified statements” you’re referring to? Are you commenting on something in the video or in the bullet point quotes above? Sorry if we fell short of being helpful!

    2. David Maxfield

      I’ll add my two cents here. First, I agree that the way we worded our question encouraged people to vent. In fact, many more or less blew their tops!

      As a result, I also agree that they need to Start with Heart & Separate Facts from Stories. We intended to suggest that they take these steps.

      Our second recommendation, “Determine what you really want” is designed to get them to re-examine their heart. Our third recommendation, Approach as a Friend, not a Foe” is also linked to Heart, in that we ask them to explain their positive motives up front.

      Our fourth recommendation, “Stick to the Facts” is designed to help them avoid leading with their Story.

      I wonder whether it’s sometimes helpful to vent to ourselves in order to figure out what is really in our vault. I have a feeling that some of these people hadn’t ever articulated their concerns–even to themselves. The mistake would be to vent these mixed-up and often self-serving stories to others. That’s why we have skills, right?

  2. David

    What do you do in the case that in the words of Jack Nicholson, “you can’t handle the truth!” In those cases, where they can be devastated or just don’t see it? I have done the force analysis and I find myself rehearsing what I am going to say. Still they don’t get it, or I get anger or some other abrupt behavior change.

  3. Working on a Groovy Thing

    Joseph, you have just significantly increased the divorce rate in our country as I can see many couples opening the vault on their spouses. With all kidding aside, chances are one’s spouse (or significant other) has been on this earth for at least 20+ years and changing the situation (habitual or genetic) may take a long time, but I agree that the sooner you start the better. As mature adult human beings, we all have a tendency of weighing the cost/benefit of irreparably damaging the relationship forever or compromising on the little things in life (oh, I can live with that). Just stating the behavior or condition is not enough though, presenting a plan or several paths to improvement (using a prudent person’s definition of acceptable behavior or condition of course) in a palletable and empathetic manner is key. Over time, monitoring and feedback is important, but all too often as with loved ones, the feedback sounds like nagging so the adage of not what you said, but how you said it becomes crucial.

  4. josephgrenny

    Wow – sure hope that’s not the effect of sharing that painful quote. Our general point is that NOT dealing with it does not mean it’s NOT profoundly affecting the relationship. We don’t necessarily advocate talking about everything. We simply encourage people to recognize that their decision not to discuss has consequences too – and to be thoughtful about the tradeoffs. Nor do we believe that talking solves everything. But silence solves little as well.

  5. Sunil Roy

    The comment I posted sometime back did not show up, so posting again. If that was being verified, then please ignore this particular comment.
    Thanks for this enlightening article, Joseph (& David).
    Since I am a person who has generally spoken up where ever needed (with many times desired outcome, and a few times undesired outcome),
    I would like to share my 2 cents for each of your points.

    1) Assume people can change –
    Mostly yes, unless a person has a specific agenda.
    I have generally chosen Light moments to start that conversation (like in a cafeteria if he is alone, or an offsite event or a celebration/fun event or a situation where he is happy due to an appreciation or an accomplishment, etc.)
    I have gauged the mood of the person before starting a difficult conversation, since a bad mood can spell havoc.

    2) Determine what you really want –
    I plan well for it, including a Plan B, where I can even volunteer to do something out of the way to help him understand/agree.
    Even if he agrees to 50% of what the need is, it is a bonus to start with.
    So, while I do assume that people will change, I do NOT go with a determination to change him in the first attempt.
    If I see resistance, I am ready to back off for that moment, and pursue in a manner that is more positive from his point of view, later.
    Also, I am ready to agree half-way that suits both of us.
    This is a good start.

    3) Approach as a friend, not a foe –
    When approaching a peer, I go with a Request for Cooperation.
    When approaching a senior, I go with a Request for Support.
    This Request approach has helped me many a times, especially since it prevents me from bringing my ego in between, and also is a direct indication to him that I am not approaching him with my ego.
    The Request approach also helps him soften his stand, and will at least lend his ears.

    4) Stick to the facts –
    Here again, I would use the Request approach.
    I would say things like, “I have a small request. Could you please help me next time by allowing me too to give my opinion in that matter? It impacts my project, so I would like to explain my opinion too, to prevent a risk to my project.”

    And, when I look back, the few occasions where the outcome was not as desired, it was because…
    1) Either the person had a different agenda OR
    2) I had spoken in an impulse (maybe in a meeting or during the planned difficult conversation itself or in an urgency), rather than plan it out well or stay calm all along.

    So, probably one point in your list could be to avoid impulsive reactions. It is there in my mental list at least.

    Sunil Roy

  6. Sunil Roy

    Hi Joseph & David,

    While I like your article, I would like to have your views on the 2 cents that I shared above for each of your points. 🙂

    Sunil Roy

    1. davidmaxfield

      Hi Sunil,

      I’ll react to your suggestions. Overall, I believe they are sound–so I’ll emphasize any differences I might have.

      1. Assume People Can Change. I would press even further than you suggest. I believe that even people who have strong agendas can change those agendas. In Crucial Conversations we talk about how to find Mutual Purpose–the broader purposes where differing agendas find common ground. I agree with your suggestions to find a quiet, casual place where the person will feel safe. You are also correct that mood (yours and theirs) will impact reactions.

      2. Determine What You Really Want. Here I really want people to look within themselves. Often, when we face high-stakes, emotional disagreements, our motives and attention become short-term and self-centered. We focus on the immediate disagreement, and lose sight of our broader more long-term goals. I want people to think more long-term and more inclusively. This step is about getting your motives and your heart right. Having said that, I agree that many of these challenges will require multiple conversations and a true commitment to solving the problem.

      3. Approach as a Friend. Research on People Perception (see Susan Fiske’s work at Princeton) suggests that the first judgment people make during a conversation is whether the other person is acting as a Friend or a Foe (Warm/Cold). Second, they judge whether the person is Right or Wrong (Competent/Incompetent). The mistake we make is to assume our motives are always pure and always transparent–that people know we are the “good guys”. So, we jump right into trying to prove we are right, before taking the time to show we are on their side. The skill here is to explain our motives in a way that is clear and positive, instead of making the person guess. Too often, people guess we are a foe.

      4. Stick to Facts. Here we mean to lead with the documented facts that don’t involve judgments. Explain what you have observed and what you had expected. If the problem involves a pattern–as most do–then take the time to detail a couple of incidents that illustrate the pattern before giving the pattern a label. The facts can create common ground, because they are observable to everyone. Usually, the challenge comes when you move to your conclusions (your story) about what the facts mean to you.

      Hope this helps,

  7. Christie Watson

    This reminded me of Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons. Girls are so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings/avoiding conflict that they put off being honest and solving the problem, at least directly. These girls obviously grow up and become women at home or in the work place who struggle with the same dilemma. It would be great for all people to understand that conflict is inevitable, not evil; we just need to learn how to handle it in a constructive way. I know that Simmons is working for this to be taught in the school system. Great to have you supporting similar ideas in the working world. Thank you for your advice.

  8. davidmaxfield

    Thanks Christie! I love the Odd Girl Out book. Also, check our Emily Bazelon’s book, Sticks and Stones.

    Our research on bullying shows that both boys and girls “graduate” to silence as they grow older. Neither men nor women are very good at speaking up about risky, sensitive topics in ways that are direct, frank, honest, and respectful.

    My dad used to say that we learn our people skills “at our mother’s knee, or some other low joint.” Too often, we fail to learn them at all. It’s great to see more schools step up to this challenge.

  9. Sean Glaze

    Joseph and David –
    Thanks for another effective and entertaining example of behaviors that can erode workplace morale and performance.
    This is just like the “broccoli in my teeth” problem.
    I assume that everyone would like to know if there is broccoli in their teeth and I am doing her / him a larger disservice by NOT sharing what is helpful information.
    The key, of course, is as you pointed out – we must approach as a friend with genuine concern and empathy

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