Dear Crucial Skills,
I understand the importance of “creating safety” for the other party in a crucial conversation, but I find myself stuck most of the time because I’m the one who feels unsafe.
If I’m the one who needs to initiate a crucial conversation, is there a way to create safety for myself as well as the other party?
Certainly, like you, I have worked to make it safe for others in conversations. And I too, have felt unsafe. I’ve also felt unsafe in a variety of situations beyond conversations. For example, I’ve felt unsafe when wading a river while fly fishing or when using a ladder to work on the house. To help answer your question, let’s consider what we do in these kinds of situations to improve personal safety.
First, we feel safer when we know we’re competent—when we have the know-how and when we’ve practiced. Wading a river can be difficult, and over the years, I have observed others and asked for their best practices. This principle works for crucial conversations. When we know that we are skillful, we feel more confident and more safe.
If you are feeling unsafe, I suggest that you practice and get feedback. Find a coach or a friend and practice the specific conversation that you need and want to have. Good practice builds competence and competence builds confidence. When you feel competent and confident, you will feel safer in tough situations.
Next, we anticipate and prepare for negative situations or for things that could go wrong. I wouldn’t wade into a tough river without thinking of all the possible outcomes. I prepare myself by thinking of the angles, the speed of the water, the need for a wading stick or a partner, and so on. This, of course, is equally true of tough crucial conversations.
If you are feeling unsafe, take a moment to anticipate what the other person might do—from blow up to clam up; from trying to dismiss your points to overwhelming you with data. Go into the conversation prepared and aware of your options. Make sure that your motives are good, that you can find mutual purpose, and that you have mastered your stories. When we are prepared for the possibilities, we feel safer entering into the conversation.
And lastly, we need to be able to deal with issues in real time. When it becomes unsafe for the other person (when I notice him or her showing signs of stress), I know I have some skills to help build safety. But if you are the one who is feeling unsafe, it can be very difficult to apply these skills. So what to do in real time?
Be aware of your own early warning signs. When you are taking that half breath, when you can feel the tension in your jaw, or when that little voice in your head is sounding like a siren, you can ask for a brief time out to give yourself more time to analyze why you are feeling unsafe.
Step out of the content. When you figure out why you are feeling unsafe, find a way to step out of the content and deal with the conditions that create mutual safety. Use your skills to suggest that you talk about how the two of you seem to be debating and how you’d rather dialogue. Or you can pause and suggest that perhaps the mutual purpose is not clear and spend time on what you are both really trying to accomplish.
Reach agreement and re-engage. Once you have agreed on the mutual purpose, re-engage in the conversation. Sometimes this will happen easily and sometimes it will take several interactions before the two of you can have safer crucial conversations.
Remember three points: practice, anticipate, and improve your skills for dealing with issues in real time.