Dear Crucial Skills,
I have read Crucial Conversations and listened to the audio companion countless times. However, putting these skills into action has been a different story. It’s as if I have never heard of any of it during emotional conversations at home. I react, I don’t think. I would venture to say I am not the only one with this problem. Does training help put these things into practice?
In Need of Training
Dear In Need,
You’re not the only one with this problem. Almost all of us have challenges in our lives that are characterized by our knowing exceeding our doing. In other words, our cognitive understanding is more developed than our ability to act consistently. This is often true for eating healthy and exercising, saving instead of spending money, excelling at work, supporting someone who has a problem, or stepping up to and handling a crucial conversation well.
We have a statement in Crucial Conversations Training that applies to this topic: “When it matters the most, we often do our worst.” There is sound science underlying this statement. When conversations become emotional and the adrenaline gland fires, our brain is quickly starved of blood and our cognitive processes are dumbed down. For you, it matters the most at home. For others, it is just the opposite—home is where they can use their skills most effectively and they “lose it” at work. The good news hidden in your response is that you wouldn’t revert to your less effective self if you didn’t care a lot. Basically, what you are discussing at home with the ones you love really matters. That is a good foundation and proves that apathy doesn’t have a grip. The challenge is that you know what you should do, but at the crucial moment, you use other less effective skills.
The reason we developed a two-day training course is to close the gap between knowing and doing. During the two days, you practice, you discuss, you see video examples of people doing the wrong behaviors, you see examples of people doing the right ones, you notice your own personal cues, and you practice some more. If you want to build your confidence, you need to build your competence. However, I realize that not everyone can go through training so I will suggest a few tactics that will hopefully help you do your best when it matters most.
Cue yourself to use your best skills: I recently talked to a couple who found themselves in frequent emotional debates. When an emotional issue surfaced, they individually reverted to a set of less effective tactics like trying to overwhelm the other person with facts, offering one-sided arguments, failing to listen, interrupting, getting emotional, and withdrawing. I reminded this couple that, although they were skilled in these less effective tactics, they had other more effective skills—they still knew how to listen, how to court and date, and how to show support and caring. They had the skills; but when it mattered most, they chose to use one set of skills over the others. I challenged each of them to commit to use his or her best skills.
I recently heard a related tactic from a man who committed to leave his briefcase in the car when he got home and enter his home with a smile, hugs, and questions. This allowed him to set a better tone with his wife and children. In the past, he walked in and immediately started dealing with the stream of e-mails he received since leaving work. He had both skill sets (to focus on his family or to focus on work). Luckily, he chose to use the skills that mattered most.
Make a commitment to each other: In addition to making a personal commitment to use your best skills, you need to make a mutual commitment with your family members to agree what the early warning signs are—what physical and emotional triggers indicate that a conversation is not going well. These signs will be specific and unique to each person but might include expressions of frustration, mental notes of “oh no, here we go again,” or increased volume. Make a specific agreement that when you notice one of these signs, you will call a time-out then re-engage in the conversation and use your best skills. After a conversation, take a moment to discuss what worked well so you are more likely to repeat it next time.
Take aggressive steps: If you’re in a negative spiral, it’s time to take more aggressive steps. You need to express your desire to break the spiral, determine what it would take to eliminate the tactics that are hurting, and improve the tactics that would help. If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting deteriorating results.
Sometimes, you may need to get help solving an underlying problem such as a financial problem or an addiction. If you don’t solve the underlying problem, your ability to hold tough conversations will be tested to the limit many, many times. You might also need help to improve the way you hold conversations. If this is the case, I encourage you to register for Crucial Conversations Training or seek out a counselor who can help. If you commit to engage in this help with your family members, you can build Mutual Purpose—the foundation of safety and of healthy relationships.
You are not alone. All of us have a gap between what we know and what we do in some aspect of our lives. I hope the suggestions I’ve offered will help you do your best in these crucial conversations, because our dearest relationships matter most.