Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Power, Privilege, and Dialogue

Dear Crucial Skills,

It seems to me the Crucial Conversations skills presume a degree of privilege not afforded to many, that they work best if you’re in a position of power.

For example, imagine you’re in a cutthroat culture where people use authority and popularity and politicking to achieve ends and get their way when faced with disagreement. Wouldn’t the Crucial Conversations skills be moot in that situation—unless you were one of those who has power and authority?

I always thought the skills were essentially democratic, but now I’m second-guessing myself. And if they are, doesn’t that put the conversational burden on the person with the skills? What benefit is there to using the skills with someone trying to wield their power over you?

Crucial Questioner

Dear Questioner,

We have received this question in many different forms over the years: Will these skills work with my boss? My parent? Does gender make a difference? What about ethnicity? Popularity? Education? Wealth?

It’s not that they work best if you’re in a position of privilege or power, it’s that you need them most if you are.

At the outset of a high-stakes disagreement, we experience a fight-or-flight response. Should I back down or step up? Give in or dig in?

Whether we flex or flee, argue or attempt to escape, often depends on what advantage we hold, or think we hold, in that given situation.

If we are predisposed to arguing (and some of us are) or believe we have the upper hand, the temptation is to wield our advantage in order to “win” the disagreement. This is known as coercion or manipulation, not dialogue.

Think of a recent heated and high-stakes disagreement you’ve had. Even if you are versed in the skills from Crucial Conversations, and even if you used them, for a brief moment you may have been tempted to wield whatever advantage you had or think you had. Or you may have recognized the other person doing this.

The problem with this approach is that it damages trust and respect. When we damage trust and respect, we compound our problems and disagreements.

Remember Kevin, from the book? In the second chapter of Crucial Conversations we describe our early research, in which we followed several top managers to see what set them apart. It didn’t take long for us to discover why Kevin’s peers had told us he was exceptional. It wasn’t because he was the VP.

What we learned from watching Kevin and others like him over the years is that top managers don’t wield their authority in crucial moments. Nor do they succumb to coercion when threatened with it. Whether they hold an advantage or disadvantage, they handle disagreements with respect and candor.

Here’s the thing. Wherever two or more people gather, there will be social disparity. Sometimes those disparities are obvious and outward. Usually they are subtle and nuanced and don’t appear until we disagree, for disagreement brings our differences to the surface. And in every disagreement, somebody will have an advantage. But to seek that advantage and wield it is to lean on a crutch that has the capacity to cripple you.


Because having the advantage is relative to context. How will you attempt to resolve disagreement when you find yourself at a disadvantage?

You may find it interesting that over the years we have just as often received the inverse of your question. People who find themselves in a position of privilege or power want to know how the skills will work for them. Will these dialogue skills work with my child? My sensitive direct report? My younger peer? My introverted partner?

These questions come from people who are mindful of an advantage they may hold, and they don’t want to wield it. They recognize that if they use their authority or seniority or any other social edge to coerce or compel, they will likely damage trust and respect.

In my view, your original thinking is correct: the skills taught in Crucial Conversations are essentially democratic. They are a great equalizer in those moments when we may be tempted to exploit social disparity to manipulate others. They teach us how to disagree with another person as a person, period.

Now, that doesn’t guarantee you can dissuade someone from malintent. You can only control how you show up. So, why should you use your Crucial Conversations skills with someone bent on not using them or ignorant to them? I’ll leave it to you to ponder that question.

Finally, does having good dialogue skills place a burden on you? Yes—if you see them as a burden. You might also see them as a blessing and a boon. An opportunity. I think this is why our company tag line is Power to Improve. By this we do not mean power as in force, but power as in personal sovereignty. You have it—the capacity to hold the center.

I appreciate you raising this question. I think it’s healthy to question the efficacy and the ethics of the skills we teach. Through critical thinking we might improve our understanding. And through a better understanding we might improve our ability. For me—and I think for most of us—both represent a lifelong endeavor.


PS. If you want to know whether you’re prone to arguing or retreating in high-stakes disagreements, take our Style Under Stress assessment. You’ll learn about your tendencies and get a free ebook on the ethics of disagreement, called The Heart of the Matter.

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

9 thoughts on “Power, Privilege, and Dialogue”

  1. Laura Moen

    Interesting question because I’m sure we all feel that we are at the mercy of others; their expectations, their directives, you name it. However, we are the ones who control the way we react to others and to situations. That is everyone’s power. To me, that’s where crucial conversation skills come into play.

    1. Dee

      I completely agree.
      I appreciate having crucial conversation skills and use them in all aspects of my life. They have helped me create dialogue, where I’d more naturally default to direct the situation to an outcome I want, rather than working towards the best solution that includes other points of view. I have also found that the more I use these skills I teach others how I wish to dialogue in a listening and open way. That I want to hear them and understand their point of view or ideas. It is has greatly improved my relationships with those I report to, who report to me and also my friends, family and others I interact with. I have found that it has been a great way to open the doors to for others to participate with me in open communication on small, big and touchy topics.

  2. georgewilhelmsen

    I have found that this works regardless of position. If you start with heart, ask permission to discuss the subject, and share intent, it just works.
    Are there exceptions? Of course there are. With that said, I have found that this works better than any other option when it comes to crucial conversations.
    I for one am grateful for the training, and have used it in my consultations with leaders to help them achieve results in difficult situations.

  3. J. Lynn Jones

    Great summary Ryan. I especially liked how you compared the motives of those who have certain aspects of power to those who feel powerless.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thanks, J. Lynn. 🙂

  4. Vicky

    Perhaps I misunderstood the question, I read it as asking about using the skills when you are not in the position of power. I appreciate your take, that you need them the most when you are in a position of power, 100% agree. But what about when you are the one without the power? The fight or flight response is real, and the risk scale is heavily weighted for those without power. Especially when positional power or lack thereof is combined with societal power or lack thereof. I’d be interested to hear more from the view of the person without power.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      You’re right, Vicky. That was the question—at least part of it. I could have been more explicit, but in responding to the other part of the question (Don’t these skills work best if you’re in a position of power?) I had hoped to convey this idea, which I think is relevant to both questions: no matter your position, the Crucial Conversations skills give you greater voice. You may find this article more relevant to your point. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Lynn

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness Ryan as do I appreciate Crucial Conversations. I’d be curious to see this response from a woman of color who is not white passing specifically. The issue is that those who sit closest to power do not feel the need to learn these skills even though their ignorance may be causing ruckus with their good intentions. It is those that are marginalized that have to learn these skills to protect them from the powerful that often wield and abuse power. I’m thinking specifically of the questions that lean towards masking in the Crucial Conversations stress test. Masking is a must for Black people or people of color in the workplace or in the streets. It can literally be the different between life and death for black people with police. That’s why I’m curious to see how to interpret this through the lens of a person of color. I appreciate you addressing this idea and sparking this important conversation.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thanks, Lynn. I hear you. All good points. Here’s another Q&A on the subject with responses from people of various ethnicities and gender.

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