Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Respond When You're Ambushed

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been through the Crucial Conversations Training and feel confident using the skills. However, sometimes an unexpected, angry attack or accusation surprises me. I feel emotional, get flustered, and do not handle things very well. After the situation is over, I can Master My Stories, but unfortunately the damage is done. What can I do to better deal with the situation in the moment when I can’t get my brain to work?


Dear Flustered,

Congratulations on doing well with the use of your skills. You will get more and more fluent and confident as you use your crucial conversations skills regularly and consistently.

You describe a very difficult situation where you do not have time to prepare in advance. These moments when we are blindsided or feel ambushed are among the toughest crucial conversations to conduct well.

Let me suggest a strategy to help you do well in those emotional moments.

When you find yourself in the middle of a crucial conversation and feel flustered and can’t get your mind working, call for a “strategic withdrawal.” Now, going silent and refusing to talk with the other person may be hurtful to your purposes and the relationship, yet having some time to consider what to do and compose yourself would be very helpful.

Picture a situation. John approaches you in the hall and says, “The VP announced today that your team is not going to give us any resources on the ABC account. Apparently your schedule is full. You are leaving us high and dry; meanwhile you end up looking pretty good!”

Try saying something like: “John, you are raising an issue that is obviously important to you. It’s important to me as well. We need to discuss this further. Can you and I get together after our budget meeting this afternoon and talk about this more fully?”

Notice what you have not done. You did not attack him and say all he cares about is himself. You did not blow him off by telling him you refuse to talk about this. You did not leave him hanging saying that you will have to talk this over sometime in the vague future. And you did not insult him by saying he should come back after he has gotten “control of his emotions.”

You were respectful and you acknowledged that his issue matters. You made it a Mutual Purpose by saying it matters to you as well. You then set a specific time when you would get together to give this issue the time it deserves. You have created a degree of safety with John and made a plan to do more.

Meanwhile, this gives you some time to think things over. You can Master Your Story by asking yourself why a reasonable, rational, decent person would act that way. You have time to Start with Heart by asking yourself what you really want. You also have time to collect more information to better understand what’s going on with the VP.

A “strategic withdrawal” is a respectful way to take the time you need to prepare for a crucial conversation.

When you reconvene at the appointed time, begin by paraphrasing John’s attack. Focus on the main ideas he voiced without using “hot” words (emotionally laden or provocative terms).

You might say: “John, you said the VP announced we would not be supporting you on the ABC account and you feel we are leaving you in a bad position. Did I get that right?”

Now listen carefully. If needed, use your AMPP skills to get a better understanding and diffuse his strong emotion. You may want to use Contrasting to clarify a misunderstanding or use your STATE skills to add meaning to the Pool of Shared Meaning. There are a lot of possibilities depending on what you really want and what is needed. Having created a space for yourself to deal with your own strong emotions and plan the coming crucial conversation, you are in a better situation to deal with this emergent problem in a way that gets you better results and an improved relationship.

All the best,


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

5 thoughts on “How to Respond When You're Ambushed”

  1. Darrell H

    Excellent advice, as usual Ron. Interestingly, just yesterday I was discussing a very similar situation with a couple of colleagues, so this is very timely. I forwarded your article to them.

    One thing I would add to your recommendations is that the very first skill that Flustered would use is Learn to Look. I bring this up because it’s what I like to call the “gateway” skill because it leads to using the other skills, as you’ve pointed out in your response. I think most of us need to get better at learning to look, especially in situations like this one where we feel caught off-guard.

    Thanks for another great article, Ron!

    1. EAfalton

      What do you mean by “learn to look”?

      1. Darrell H

        Learn to Look is a skill taught in Crucial Conversations. It’s the ability to recognize when a conversation goes from casual to crucial; in other words, to notice that you’re not feeling safe anymore (e.g., nervous, anxious, frustrated, threatened, upset, etc.). The reason I mention it is that we often don’t *consciously* notice that something has changed in the conversation. Rather, we get caught up in our strong emotions and react badly, going to some form of silence (often withdrawing) or violence (arguing, blaming, threatening, or just being snarky). The beauty of Learn to Look is that it empowers us to deliberately use crucial conversation skills to navigate the interaction and be at our best, rather than just reacting and making things even worse. It’s the “red flag” that tell us, “Watch out, danger ahead! Be on the alert for things to spiral out of control. Use your best skills!” I call it a “gateway” skill because it cues us to then be conscious of the dynamics of a crucial conversation and choose the skills that will help things end well.

  2. Tony Z

    In the quoted example with “John”, I like how the situation was diffused at that moment to allow you time to consider your response. That will help you. You may feel good. However, at the end of the day, since the VP made the declaration, John’s problem with your lack of support will not change. He will probably come out of your meeting still enraged, perhaps even more so since he had to wait for your meeting, when he was obviously after a solution ASAP. Aren’t you better off saying, “I understand why you’re upset, I would be too in your situation”, and suggest he make an appointment with the VP, rather than with you?

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