Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Preparing for a Confrontation


Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Authors,

My question concerns when you know you are going to have a meeting—at the request of someone else whose purpose is to confront you or “blast” you. How does one diffuse the meeting—before, during, or even after?

Nervously Anticipating

A Dear Nervous,

This short question carries with it so many possibilities. At the heart is the issue of how we make it safe for ourselves and for others—in advance or in the moment. I’ll primarily deal with that issue.

But first, I’ll address two connected topics that seem important to this question. The first is: Do you know that the purpose of the meeting is to “blast” you, or have you assumed it? Often what we conclude in advance causes us to interpret the other person’s actions as in line with those conclusions. To make sure you’re coming at this fairly, ask the humanizing question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?” In this case, why would he or she call a meeting? How can I be prepared? How can I make sure the purpose is clear? When we can go into a meeting or a confrontation ready to learn and prepared to share, rather than ready to be offended and prepared to be defensive, we have taken the initial step that will help the meeting be productive and professional.

The second topic lies more directly at the feet of the other person. If you have data that demonstrates a clear pattern, you need to talk about the pattern. Specifically, if the other person has a history of calling meetings with you and then “blasting” you, you should ask for a meeting and talk about the pattern. Start by sharing your intentions. For example, “I’d like to talk about a pattern I’ve noticed. The reason that I’m bringing this up is that in our work we have to meet frequently and I’d like these meetings to go as well as possible.” Then state what you’ve noticed and how it’s different from what you expected: “During the last three meetings that you’ve scheduled with me, the first thing you do is point out how I failed to perform. You seem to be angry and have said my performance is pathetic. Then as we get into the discussion and we share the data, you calm down and we work out the issues. You’ve even apologized and said I’m not a low performer. I’d like to see if we could get our meetings off to a calmer start. I don’t mind talking about the tough issues and about my performance, I’d just like to see a better start to our meetings.” The script I’ve shared is not perfect. The principle is that you need to talk about the pattern if the pattern is the problem.

Now back to the safety issue. We have to be aware of safety all the time. We can, however, break this up to three components: First time, next time, and real time.

First time—in this case (assuming that there is no pattern) you feel that you might get blasted. You should ask the individual directly about the purpose of the meeting. Just mention you want to come prepared. Ask if there are any issues you should be aware of. Tell him or her you look forward to a good dialogue. If you sense that the other person is feeling unsafe or upset, acknowledge it and again share your intentions: You don’t mind talking about the tough issue; you’d like a meeting that is conducive to both of you sharing your information.

Next time—if the meeting goes badly, ask to meet again and talk about the previous meeting. The purpose is to figure out what went wrong and see if you can jointly figure out how to make the next meeting better.

Real time—this is what separates the good from the best. During the meeting, when you see yourself or the other person moving away from safety by clamming up or blowing up, catch it quickly. Step out of the content and describe what you see.

“I’m sorry. I’m noticing that I’m beginning to raise my voice and act defensive. I don’t want to make this topic hard to talk about. I really want this to be an open dialogue so we can resolve the problem. Could we try again?”

Make sure you have mutual purpose and mutual respect, the foundational conditions of safety. If you can quickly reestablish safety, jump back into the content. If you can’t, try a five- or ten-minute break and then reengage. If you can’t, you probably need to go back to the beginning and talk about how the two of you interact and how it would work better, at a time when you aren’t talking about safety, productivity, quality, or some other pressing issue.

I hope a few of these tips will help you put the issues on the table and work toward more mutual purpose and mutual respect.

Best wishes,

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

1 thought

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