Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Start With Heart, and Finish With Heart, Too

Dear Emily,

I like to think of myself as someone who knows how to have crucial conversations. I’ve read Crucial Conversations, attended the training, and recently, I became a certified trainer for my organization. However, I can never seem to make headway with my teenage daughter. We disagree about almost everything—when homework should be done, what kind of media is acceptable, and the smartphone, well, everything from apps to time spent seems to surface an argument that turns into a fight. Whenever a conflict arises, I mentally review the Crucial Conversations steps, determined to get them right. I feel like I use the skills correctly, but to no avail. Where am I going wrong?

What Am I Missing

Dear Missing,

Earlier this year, I married someone who has yet to attend Crucial Conversations training. After dedicating the last twelve years of my professional life and a huge amount of energy to the mission of Crucial Conversations, I probably should have made the training mandatory. Fortunately, my husband is good at having difficult conversations, at least those we have together, because he has good intent. Regardless of his skill level (and let’s be honest, at times it is not high, bless his heart), my husband’s intent is always true and good. And that comes through. Our conversations have reminded me of this principle: intent often trumps skill.

Unfortunately, this principle holds true in reverse. Why is that unfortunate? Because it means that no matter your skill level (and I like to think mine is high), intent can, and often will, trump skill. I’m not saying that having good intent can replace skills (everyone can benefit from learning HOW to effectively dialogue when stakes are high); I am saying that having all the skills can never replace intent. Let me give you an example.

Some time ago, I had a crucial conversation with a vendor. There was a pattern of gaps that was starting to impact our professional relationship. It was bothering me, so I knew I needed to address it. I invited this person to lunch, and I started by sharing my good intent. I wanted the relationship to work for both of us, and for that to happen I thought it was important we discuss this pattern of gaps. I then laid it all out for her. She was amazing. She accepted my feedback with grace and composure. She asked what she could do differently, and (this is the moment when my true intent became apparent) I replied, “Start delivering on your commitments. When you tell me you are going to do something, do it.” Ouch. I compounded my failure of intent with a failure of observation. She took the feedback so well, I assumed our conversation was a success.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I was on the phone with this vendor and the topic of our previous conversation came up. She thanked me for the feedback, which speaks volumes about her humility. Feeling I should reciprocate, I asked how I could better serve our professional relationship. She paused. Then she shared what she had felt during our previous conversation.

Her experience of that conversation was quite different than mine. She had perceived my intent as “I have shared the problem; now YOU go and fix it.” And she was right. It didn’t matter that I had stated my path, made contrasting statements, paraphrased, and used all the other skills we teach in Crucial Conversations. It didn’t even matter that, prior to our conversation, I had asked myself what I really wanted for me, for her, and for the relationship. What mattered in that moment was, without realizing it, my motives had shifted. As I think back now to that conversation, I can see it. In that moment, I wanted to feel like I had done my part and held the crucial conversation. I wanted to check it off my list and walk away.

So, in your conversations with your daughter, continually assess your intent. I’m not certain this is your obstacle, but you wouldn’t be the first to get caught up in holding a successful crucial conversation while having in mind the wrong idea of success. Start with heart, then check to ensure your good intentions sustain the conversation. I hope this helps.

All the best,

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

7 thoughts on “Start With Heart, and Finish With Heart, Too”

  1. Cliff Spoonemore

    Strike One – now the conversation can begin. I to am the Papa and when you say Hello you are on the other side of the fence. Accept that because that is where your daughter wants you. She may say she wants to be a friend and that could be true, but you know that is not the case. She wants to trust you and that you will always be on the other side of the fence to give her that point of view. That does not mean you will always have a fight or conflict on your hands. Emily, is correct in you need to begin, stay and end with heart. Always show that you respect, trust and believe she can and will make the best choice for her. It may not be what you would do, but you can share that side of the fence. Then step back and let her absorb the info and make the choices that are best for her. Yes, those choices could cause issues that you hoped would be prevented, but it is her choice and you need to respect those choices. It took me a long time to get to that point. Your daughter will stay with you during your entire life if you plan to do the same thing.

  2. Allison

    I’m confused about your example. Your vendor asked what she could do differently and you said, “when you say you are going to do something, do it.” This seems like a perfectly reasonable exchange with a vendor who’s not delivering correctly or on time. If she’s not following through, she does need to go fix it. If you could go back in time, what would you have said instead?

    What was the feedback that she was so receptive to, if not something along the lines of “You said you would do XYZ and instead ABC happened”? Is it possible that the feedback she heard up to that point allowed her to avoid taking responsibility for the problem, and that’s why she was so open to it?

    I know it’s a fool’s choice to think it’s either solving the problem or preserving the relationship, but priorities are different in a relationship with a child versus a vendor at work. I’m going to spend a lot more effort preserving a relationship with my child. In that situation I’d prioritize the relationship, then educating the child about co-existing with other people, then my needs. Clients should not be a pain (eg delivering specs on time, paying on time), but a vendor is primarily responsible for meeting the client’s needs, so I think it’s okay to give that a greater weight, in terms of your intent, than the person-to-person relationship.

    Curious to hear your thoughts.

    Also to the letter writer, I’d highly recommend “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk” if you haven’t read it already. It has a lot of the same ideas as Crucial Conversations but framed for parents and children. It’s been helpful for me, but mine are not teenagers yet! I think some teenager-parent headbutting is probably inevitable as they make the transition to more independence/responsibility.

    1. bob jones

      I feel the same way. Would have liked to hear what author thinks she SHOULD have said.

  3. Dale

    My daughter (another Emily) and wife had this problem, and I agree with Allison that one issue is a difference in intent. Our daughter’s intent included transitioning to independence. The relationship has improved (to my wife’s surprise) since Emily has gone to college in another state.

  4. Kathleen

    Wanting someone to follow their commitments doesn’t seem like you lost heart in the conversation, but honestly communicated what you need. 100% respect. 100% honest. I’m curious how your request broke the 100% respect goal?

    I have had similar situations as supervisor. While I want to do all I can to help an employee succeed by having open conversations, setting realistic timelines, sharing expectation, and doing what I can to support them, at some point they are the ones that have to fulfill their commitments, manage their time, etc. In a supervision role, like a client/vendor relationship, part of a working relationship is that we hold the other person to the standard of the job. It seems to me you valued the relationship and had the conversation and also have a legitimate need that needs to met.

    Similar to a couple of comments above I am also interested in how you would recommend handling this same conversation again, state your needs, and maintain 100% respect? This or any conversation where we feel let down, have broken trust because the relationship has been damaged, and we need something from the other person to genuinely start repairing and/or continue the relationship.

  5. bean q

    “Earlier this year, I married someone who has yet to attend Crucial Conversations training.”
    what a hook!
    swallowed it, line, and sinker!

    “dear emily, sometimes when i come off as a raging a-hole, it’s not just for appearances… is there any hope?!”

  6. Rose

    Yes, would love to hear why asking that the vendor fulfill his commitments was off-base. And why the vendor would not be the one to fix it.

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