Dear Crucial Learning,
I’m a great fan of your work, in particular Crucial Conversations. One thing I am struggling with, however, is how to practice these skills before applying them in a really Crucial Conversation. As all skills go, they need a certain level of mastery before you can rely on them when things get out of hand. What do you recommend?
Dear Almost Ready,
Great question. While I agree that a certain level of mastery is helpful when approaching a Crucial Conversation, I also want to be careful about placing the bar too high. It is often said that practice makes perfect. But over the last fifteen years I have learned that you don’t have to dialogue perfectly for Crucial Conversations to go well.
You can stumble, you can say something the wrong way, and you can recover and still make it through. You don’t need perfection; you need authenticity and commitment. You need to be honest about what you think, and you need to be committed to dialogue—to learning, understanding, and sharing.
So, how do you practice?
Start by identifying what skillsets you need to practice. For example, if you want to get better at winning basketball games, you can and should play basketball games. But you should also do shooting drills, conditioning drills, and ball-handling drills. You break the game down into discrete skillsets, practice those, and then bring them together in the game. The same works for conversations. Identify what you need to practice and then you can determine how to practice it.
Here are a few suggestions.
Regulate Your Emotions
First and foremost, start practicing the skill of emotional regulation. This is the cornerstone of a successful Crucial Conversation. Our strong emotional response is what moves us out of dialogue. When our emotions kick in, we tend to either dig in or give in. Said another way, we either shut down or push back. If you want to have a successful Crucial Conversation, you need to take responsibility for and manage your emotions.
Because our emotions are with us all the time, the opportunities for practice are endless. The next time you’re driving and someone cuts in front of you and you feel irritated, check in with your emotions and reframe your thinking to change them. The next time your toddler throws a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store because you said no to the sugary cereal with neon colors, name the emotion you’re feeling and ask yourself why the tantrum is triggering you. And, when you are ready for the big leagues, try this: Watch a cable news show that features political pundits you oppose and try listening to them without getting provoked.
Anytime you feel a strong negative emotional response to something or someone, that is an opportunity to practice emotional regulation. Check in with yourself, name the feeling, and ask yourself what thoughts or beliefs are contributing to that feeling. What story are you telling yourself about the other person, and how can you tell a different one?
For more tips on how to do this, see the chapters Start with Heart and Master My Stories in the book.
Be Willing to Be Vulnerable
One challenge in preparing for a Crucial Conversation is that there will be two people involved, but we can only prepare ourselves. To truly dialogue, we will need to listen and respond to the other person. This means that until we hear what the other person has to say, we have no way of knowing where the conversation will go. That unknowing can contribute to anxiety. In our effort to prepare, we often plan for scenarios. “If they say this, I’ll say that. If they say that, then I will say this.” And so on.
Instead of rehearsing your conversation over and over before you even open your mouth, practice embracing uncertainty. Be prepared to say things like “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that before. I need some time to consider before I can respond.” Get yourself in a frame of mind so you feel ok with not knowing what the outcome of your conversation will be. How? Accept the fact that you can’t predict or control the outcome of a Crucial Conversation. Do this and you’ll be more authentic in those crucial moments.
Often when we prepare for a Crucial Conversation, we focus on what we want to say and how best to say it. But if we want a Crucial Conversation to be a dialogue and not a monologue, we must also focus on the other side of the conversation, and that means we must listen.
Listening well (not just nodding and saying mm-hmm) is a skill. How can you listen with an intent to understand, not to judge? How can you listen for the common ground you share, rather than the points on which you disagree? Like emotional regulation, listening is a skill we can practice almost any time. Ask the grocery store clerk a question and then listen. Call your aging parent, ask a question, and then listen. Because most people inherently want to be heard, the opportunities to practice listening are endless.
I commend you for your desire to improve. It puts you on the same path I am on: always trying to get better at Crucial Conversations.
What else can Trying do to practice dialogue skills?