Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Recover From a Failed Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

When reading the concerns of “Tired of the Attitude” and your recommendations to her, I couldn’t help but think of the many times I have tried to follow the recommendations given in the Crucial Conversations literature—begin with the facts, make it safe, etc.—and I find myself in the middle of a defensive attack-fest. Despite our best efforts, will we sometimes still fail?


Dear Seeking,

Haven’t we all failed sometimes? I have and after years of experience, still do. In the Crucial Conversations Training, we have a couple of sayings that apply here:

When it matters the most, we often do our worst. This is because we’re not built to effectively handle crucial conversations. When we feel threatened, our body prepares for fight or flight by sending blood and adrenaline to our extremities and away from our brain. As a result, we are “dumbed down.” So, when it matters the most, we are often on our worst behavior.

Crucial conversations take time; but ultimately, the alternatives take longer and cost more. The alternatives are varied versions of silence and violence. When we engage in less effective strategies, then we have to revisit the issue, repair damage, etc. This process takes time and can come at great cost.

So, I can sympathize with you that even when I try my best, I still don’t win them all. However, here are a few bits of advice to help you prevent failed conversations:

1) Sometimes our conversations fail because we neglect to “Work on Me First.” Pausing and asking, “What am I doing? How might I be a part of the problem?” is one of the hardest skills to master. Often, this comes down to the story we have told ourselves about our intentions. We get carried away thinking that we’re right and that everything that is good and virtuous is on our side. We also feel that we’ve thought it through and consequently, our approach is not only thoughtful, but borders on genius. As a result, we push and push, but this pushing often creates the very resistance we’re trying to avoid. Just because we’re bright and right doesn’t mean we are being skillful. It also doesn’t mean we are controlling the obvious facial expressions that show we are exasperated and think the other person is wrong or maybe even evil.

So, when you’re not getting the kind of results you want, start by looking at yourself. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking? What am I showing?” Often, when we get into a debate, the real problem is that we have not clarified mutual purpose. So, pause and find out what the other person is trying to accomplish, and then share what you would like to accomplish.

2) Too often, we rely on verbal persuasion. Too often, when we are not getting the results we want, our strategy is to increase our verbal persuasion in both volume and frequency. This behavior is also called nagging and nagging doesn’t work. So what should you do instead?

In Influencer, we talk about using vicarious experiences—stories that help people connect emotionally and not just intellectually. Share your experiences, then ask for and listen to stories and examples from the other person. Another alternative to verbal persuasion is field trips. A field trip helps you gather relevant data, and with new data you can often find new solutions. In the case where you are constantly debating or revisiting the same old problem, work together to see if you can find a place or person to visit that would provide new information and a new perspective for both of you.

3) Sometimes, you have to agree to disagree. Sometimes, you have to seek agreement to bring in another perspective or a mediator. Sometimes, you have to work on building more safety and trust in the relationship. Sometimes, you realize you are not interdependent and you can each do what you want. If your situation deals with these interdependent groups, like teams or families, keep working on it, even if it means taking a breather and trying again.

Remember that when the issues are very crucial, it’s worth hanging in there and trying one more time.

Best Wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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