Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Needing More than Safety

Dear Joseph,

It seems to me that in your material an assumption is made that the parties we are trying to work through a crucial conversation with have, at the bottom of it all, the same basic need to simply feel safe and be understood. However, how do we handle situations when we determine that the other party actually does have a different agenda—that it is their intention to harm or use us?

Real World

Dear Real World,

You raise a great question. I’ve been asked many times if our fundamental assumption is that people have good motives and that if they are just made to feel safe, crucial conversations will improve.

Let me correct this notion. I think our basic assumption is that other people are kind of like you and me—a mixture of good and bad motives. We assume they are human—given to generosity and pettiness, mercy and revenge.

With that said, what should you do if you’ve concluded the other person has purely selfish motives? How can you talk to someone who either doesn’t care about your interests or is intent on damaging you in some way?

I’m going to bypass the obvious discussion I should have about first taking steps to secure your own safety. I will also bypass comments on legal issues you should study before having this kind of conversation. Be sure to follow any necessary HR policies as you do it. If you can safely hold a conversation with the other person, here are some ideas to help you do so.

First, ask for the other person’s consent to engage in a crucial conversation. If you fail to take this step, you are likely to be talking to his or her back as he or she pulls away from what might sound like a verbal attack. Realize as you enter this conversation that it’s unlikely that this person see him or herself as having bad motives. Most people feel fully justified in their motives, so your feedback—if it is correct—is going to be an attempt to pierce their protective shell of self-justification. Give them a reason to engage, and ask for their commitment to participate.

Second, demonstrate appropriate tentativeness in your conclusions. You can never really know another person’s intentions—you can only infer them from your experience. So do not make the mistake of telling them what their intentions are in absolute terms as though you know their heart. Be honest in how you describe your concerns by acknowledging that these are conclusions you have drawn.

Putting these first two steps together, you might say something like the following:

“Could I talk with you for a minute about something I’m concerned about? I’ve drawn some conclusions that bother me a great deal. They are causing me to want to end or redefine my relationship with you. I’d like to tell you why I’ve concluded this and would encourage you to challenge my conclusions—because I realize I could be wrong. May I talk with you about it?”

If you gain the other person’s consent to the conversation, your third step is to lay out the facts. Strip out any judgmental and accusatory language—just share the facts. For example:

“When you have been on duty, inventory shrinkage has just about doubled. This spike began when we hired you and has continued ever since. Each time I’ve spoken with you about it there has been a drop for a week or so, and then it has risen to the previous level again. Five of your colleagues have reported that people you appear familiar with frequent our stores at times when staffing is the lowest. When I’ve spoken with you you’ve said you have no idea why the numbers look the way they do.”

Now, state your conclusion. Again, do so tentatively, and encourage the other person to engage in the conversation.

“I find it hard to think of any other reasonable conclusion I can draw than that you are stealing or abetting theft. If I’m wrong about this then I’m deeply sorry to suggest it. But I hope you can see how the evidence makes it hard to conclude otherwise. Unless you can help me find a reasonable alternative conclusion, I intend to both dismiss you and pursue legal recourse. What am I missing here?”

My last suggestion is that you not mistake openness to new information with weakness. We are not encouraging the other person to challenge our conclusion because we are looking for a way out of being firm. We are also not trying to demonstrate a lack of confidence in our conclusion. We are simply leaving room for dialogue. If at the conclusion of the conversation the other person has offered no new information that satisfies your mind, you should restate your conclusion and the next steps you’ll take that follow from it (e.g., formal discipline, etc.).

Thank you for asking a very important question. I wish you the best in handling these most challenging of crucial conversations.


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