Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Make It Safe . . . For You

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you prepare for a crucial conversation where you do not feel safe? I need to have a conversation with my boss but I feel pretty certain she will be defensive. The book and training cover how to make others feel safe to open up, but how do you make it safe for yourself?


Feeling Unsafe

Dear Unsafe,

You ask a great question. In our books and training, we do emphasize how to make it safe for others to talk with us. Here are some ideas about how to make it safe for you to talk with others.

Think of this problem as having two parts:

Internal—how I work on me to make it safe for myself.

External—how I deal with others to make it safe for me.

Let’s look at the internal part first. In a nationwide healthcare study we conducted, we made a shocking discovery. When nurses saw a doctor fail to wash his or her hands after patient contact, 80 percent said nothing. They did not attempt to remind the doctor or ask questions. They said nothing. The main reason nurses did not speak up was because they did not feel safe. The reason they did not feel safe was because they had low self-efficacy and low outcome expectations. Stated another way, they lacked the confidence to handle this crucial conversation and they didn’t believe they could handle this situation in an effective way. Expecting a bad outcome, they didn’t even try to talk to the doctors.

One of the first things you can do to make it “safe for me” is learn the interpersonal skills which will help you be more effective in a crucial conversation.

When nurses learned skills of interpersonal effectiveness, it built their confidence so that they could talk to the doctors. The next step was to help them actually try the skills in a hand-washing situation with a doctor and experience for themselves a positive outcome. Once they found that the skills worked for them, their confidence grew dramatically. When this happened, they felt less at-risk and vulnerable in this tough crucial conversation; they felt safe enough to hold it.

My advice for you is to learn the skills of effective social interaction, practice them, and use them. As you have more and more success you will have more confidence and be safer when conducting these conversations.

Now for the external part. Here are a few ideas for how to deal with your defensive boss to make you safe.

Be prepared. In addition to feeling confident with the skills, preparing for the specific conversation with your boss will help you feel safe and be safe. You might try practicing with a close friend or family member, role-playing and planning out just what you might say.

Get your heart right by focusing on what you really want. What do you want as the result of your conversation? Are you looking for understanding, agreement, or an apology? Specifically, what type of relationship do you want at the conclusion of this conversation?

Get your head right by asking a humanizing question. You expect your boss to be defensive. Question your story. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person be defensive with me?” Clarify your assumptions and seek insight into her behavior and your past interactions. Are you doing something that is eliciting this response? By changing your approach could you change her response?

Seek Mutual Purpose. There’s a saying in the Army, “Never disagree with your commanding officer, until you salute the flag.” This is a reminder that you both have a commitment to serve your country and to do your duty. This common commitment is the context for a conversation about disagreement. Identify the Mutual Purpose you and your boss share.

You might begin the conversation by asking for her permission to converse. This courtesy builds Mutual Respect. Then follow by sharing your good intentions to build Mutual Purpose. For example you might begin with:

“Joanne, could I talk with you? I know you are facing an important decision and I want you to know that I will support whatever you decide. However, I do have some concerns that I would like to make sure you are aware of before we proceed. Is that ok?”

An alternative beginning, depending on the issue, is to make her goals the Mutual Purpose. You could say something like:

“Joanne, do you have a few minutes? I know you are concerned about hitting our numbers for the last quarter. That concerns me too. I think I’ve identified some barriers to achieving that goal and have ideas for removing them. Could I share them with you?”

As you continue, Learn to Look for signs that she is leaving the dialogue and moving toward silence or violence. If you see movement, step outside the content, rebuild safety, and return to the conversation. Don’t presume to tell her what she needs to do or give her ultimatums. Tentatively make suggestions and share natural consequences to help her understand the difference between options.

Using these skills and strategies can be very helpful in reducing contention and making it clear that you are not an adversary fighting against your boss, but a team player who is helping her to succeed. This in turn can change the way your boss sees you and relates to you. These skills also reduce your boss’s tendency to take offense, feel a need to be guarded, get angry, or be dismissive.

Allow me to share with you a final disclaimer and a strategy.

If you do all these things, exactly the way I’ve told you to do them and your boss doesn’t want to dialogue, you won’t. Remember, these skills are not ways of manipulating or coercing people into doing what you want. Others get to choose their response. However, the use of these skills and this approach do increase the likelihood that your communication will go better, you will solve problems, and your relationships will improve.

Approach this conversation not as a single event, but rather as the first of many conversations you will have with your boss. If you are consistent with your efforts to create dialogue, build Mutual Purpose, and always demonstrate Mutual Respect, over time you will build a relationship based on these values and your boss will likely move toward dialogue.

I wish you well,


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4 thoughts on “How to Make It Safe . . . For You”

  1. Dan Gilland

    I have a comment about the Q&A about making it safe for me. When you are approaching your boss, or anyone for that matter, try to schedule the time, via email if possible. Try to set up a meeting rather than just going to their desk or office. We use Outlook, so I can send a meeting invite to accomplish this. This action will show respect for their time as well as preventing the person from feeling “confronted” or “cornered”. This also allows both parties to prep for the conversation, especially if you give them a preview of what you want to discuss. I am not sure if you assumed the reader would do that, but I think it would be good to be specific.

  2. Elaine

    You really missed the boat on the reason nurses don’t speak up to doctors. It’s because the doctors can get them fired. Sorry but that is the reality almost everywhere. Doctors think they are god, and no one questions them.

    1. nate newton

      I am sorry that your experience with Doctors has resulted in nurses getting fired. Nurses are one of the most important people in health care. Remember, we should be putting our patients first, not the doctor.

  3. Pradeep John Pappachen

    In today’s world of online meetings and at times when conversations happen over medium that does not include video. what can derail a conversation and what guardrails can make it more effective.

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