Dear Crucial Skills,
Is it okay to admit you may not be ready to handle every crucial conversation?
Recently, I had an incident that did not turn out well. An acquaintance approached me with a raised voice, inappropriate language and a pointed finger in a very public place. I immediately went to silence and could not withdraw fast enough. I felt emotionally and physically unsafe and was not confident enough with my newly acquired skills to hold this conversation.
While most were proud that I did not “lash back” in verbal violence, I know that by going to silence and withdrawing, it didn’t solve the issue.
Should I call this a failure or give myself a break while working on less challenging conversations?
Just Not Ready
Dear Just Not Ready,
You’re doing just fine. I believe the very fact that you’re reflecting on how you dealt with this even days later is a terrific predictor of your future improvement in many more crucial conversations. The capacity to reflect and scrupulously examine one’s own performance is the core capacity for improving in any social challenge. The goal is not perfection, it’s progress. Nice job.
With that said, let me offer two suggestions for how to handle situations where you’re ill equipped to succeed.
- First, reschedule rather than retreat. If someone comes at you with sound and fury, and you simply clam up and walk away, your behavior can appear to be an attempt to control or punish. As anyone who’s gotten the cold shoulder knows, silence can scream loudly and can be used to inflict pain on others. Likewise, some people use silence as a way of controlling an interaction and creating discomfort or uncertainty for the other person. When silence is used in either of these ways, it destroys the potential for future dialogue and the quiet party is equally guilty in the breakdown of the crucial conversation. A good way to avoid even the appearance of punishment or control is to prepare yourself next time to respond affirmatively rather than quietly. Your goal in responding is to communicate honestly that a) you aren’t equipped to hold this conversation well at this time; and b) you’d be willing to at a later time if circumstances are different. For example, you might say:
“Mr. X, I can tell this is a topic we definitely need to discuss. I’m willing to do so. But to be honest it would not go well if I respond to you right now. I want to discuss this and I want to do it productively. Can I get back to you within 24 hours to set something up?”
Done right, this kind of approach creates a little more safety for the other person (you’re demonstrating you care about their concerns); it avoids attempting to punish or counsel the person about their behavior in the moment; and it gives you—and the other person—breathing space to prepare for a healthier conversation.
- Do conversation autopsies. When you don’t handle things well, you should always turn a bad experience into a self-coaching opportunity by identifying the one or two things you’ll do differently next time. Some people can come to these conclusions by replaying the conversation in their head. Others work better by reviewing what happened with an appropriate friend/coach. Either way, the goal is to identify “crucial moments” in the conversation where one of the crucial conversations skills could have made a fundamental difference. My experience is that if I’m feeling crummy about how a conversation went, those feelings entirely dissipate the instant I identify what I could have done better and make a promise to myself to use this skill at the next opportunity. Remorse is an emotion with a message. The message is, “You can do better.” As soon as you acknowledge and respond to that message, the remorse subsides.
Keep up the good work. You’re on the right track.