Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Survive an Abusive Conversation

Dear Steve,

What do you suggest when you try to use the Crucial Conversations skills only to realize the other person is unhealthy, unaware, and unable to communicate effectively, respectfully, or civilly? Many people are healthy and just don’t have the communication skills, and when they are mentored or trained, they can learn to communicate better. But what do you do when you run into people who are not healthy or seem to have issues like anger management, narcissism, etc.?


Dear Stumped,

Some years back, I found myself in, what I considered, a fairly unnerving situation. At the time, I was part of an organization that provided lay counseling to neighbors, by neighbors. While we didn’t handle really significant, chronic, mental health issues, we dealt with some tricky situations.

I remember receiving a call one evening from an older, single woman who wanted to talk with someone. Her adult son, living in another state, had just been incarcerated and she wanted to process it with someone. Once I determined it wasn’t an urgent need, and something that was within my own mandate, I let her know I’d be happy to come over and could be there in about twenty minutes. The silence on the other end of the phone was the first sign of trouble.

After what seemed like an eternity, I checked to see if she was still on the line, “Will that work for you?” I asked again.

“If I wanted someone in twenty minutes, I would have called in twenty minutes!” she stated aggressively.

Now, some of my peers had warned me this person was prone to yell and become abusive. But I had “mastered my story” so I figured I was okay to proceed. I also figured she’d surely respond well if presented with a Crucial Conversations approach. The sublime principles and skills would soothe her fears and bring her back to a healthy interaction. With this inner reassurance, I calmly proceeded back in to the conversation.

I paraphrased back what I understood her concerns to be, reaffirmed my purpose (which was to make sure she got the support she needed), and I rejected all the “either/or” choices as I tried to expand my mind to all the potential “and” options that would create safety. I was in the moment and one with the principles. I was also in deep trouble.

She turned more abusive. Her volume increased, words became more cutting. I felt shell-shocked.

I tried to interrupt her tirade to get us back on track—back to dialogue. I lead with the only thing that came to mind, “Look, I can tell you’re upset and I really want to help you, and yet the way we’re interacting right now is getting in the way.”

Her response let me know she heard my statement as well as how she felt about it. The abuse ratcheted up a notch—something I hadn’t believed possible. I absolutely could not believe a person would treat another person in this manner.

It finally reached a breaking point for me. I reaffirmed that I hoped she’d get the help she was looking for, that it wouldn’t be from me at this time, provided her with the contact information of others who might be able to help, and informed her that I would be hanging up. Which I wasn’t able to do as she hung up first (but not before she fired off some choice, closing remarks).

I was left holding the phone, completely dumbstruck. What had just happened? I’d used my best Crucial Conversations skills and they didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to make the situation worse—much worse. Crucial Conversations skills had failed . . . or had they?

As I reflected on the interaction, I realized I usually thought of success or failure in a dialogue in terms of how the other person responded. But this time it was different. I still thought the skills were of benefit despite the response I received. But why? And how? My understanding started to expand as I realized that the biggest benefit of my Crucial Conversations skills across many different types of interactions was that they helped me to not become part of the problem. It was then that I began to value the impact the principles had on me. It also helped me rethink some of my long held Crucial Conversations assumptions.

Just because you’re engaging in dialogue doesn’t mean the resulting decisions have to be consensus. You always have options to escalate, or even terminate, interactions. When you’re in a position where you believe your safety (psychological or physical) is purposefully being threatened, it’s appropriate to disengage. And you can use your Crucial Conversations skills to do so respectfully.

I’ve also come to better understand the power of telling the rest of the story—especially when it comes to the villain story. So why would a reasonable, rational, decent person continue to berate me despite my best efforts?

Much of what goes into our stories has to do with how we attribute the motives of the person who’s done us wrong. “She did it because she enjoys it!” or “She’s just like that!” are very common attributions we make. It was during tough situations like the one I described above, that I realized even when others’ motives are bad and directed at me, I can still choose to respond in a productive, positive way. I don’t have to be a victim; I can simply choose to get out of the line of fire. There is a powerful and calming connection between these principles of Master My Stories and Start with Heart.

So, while it may be appropriate to stop a particular conversation, it doesn’t mean you have to stop using the skills. Over the years, I’ve become more and more appreciative of the way the skills have positively impacted me—just as much as they have impacted others.

Best of luck,

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20 thoughts on “How to Survive an Abusive Conversation”

  1. Alex

    Great (?) story, Steve!
    Thanks for sharing and giving me peace of mind when conversations go in that direction. Just as important as the outcome of such dialogues is the process and the feeling resulting from it.

  2. Elaine Murphy

    This was extremely helpful. Thank you.

    1. Deborah

      “You don’t have to be a victim. Move yourself out of the line of fire.” some of the most empowering words I’ve heard. You respectively bowed out of the situation. You protected your core. That was wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Mary Case

    This article was very helpful, hit the nail on the head, and gave good perspective on a “hot” topic.

    1. stevewillisvs

      It took me a while to recognize the complete value of the skills and that while you may not be able to resolve an issue with a Crucial Conversation, it’s usually impossible to resolve it without Crucial Conversations.

  4. Jennifer Bergen

    What advice do you have for a similar exchange that is not over the phone, but in person, perhaps in a situation of a customer talking abusively to staff, or an individual at home whose partner is talking abusively? It’s harder to disengage when they are standing right in front of you.

    1. Steve Willis

      I remember being at an airport at one point and witnessing a customer bop one of the airline employees on the head with the handle of his umbrella because he was frustrated. She refused him service, and asked him to leave. But not before she took a step back and let him know that his actions were inappropriate.

      I wondered how she would have responded if it had been a verbal bop on the head–not an outright thrashing, but enough of a barb to be inappropriate. and thought that simple act of creating some physical space (don’t know if that was intentional or instinctual on her part) can be useful in making it easier to walk away if necessary or disengage.

      I’ve also seen some customer service agents point out natural consequences in this type of situation. “I’m someone who can help you out, and my interest goes way down when I hear you talking with me in this manner” type of thing. I thought it worked well to hold up a mirror of sorts so the other person could see the impact they were having on the person trying to help.

      1. Jennifer Bergen

        Thank you for your reply and advice!

  5. David Knapp

    I like your response to this question. My wife and I describe this with the phrase – “Always take the high road” – do the right thing regardless of how others act. Spite always seems to come back on the one giving it.

    1. Steve Willis

      One of the underlying principles of dialogue is initiation and reciprocation: how you initiate determines in large effect how others will reciprocate. Initiate with manipulation, aggression, guilt, and others are likely to respond in kind. initiate with candor and respect and at least you’ll feel better about yourself, and they often respond in kind.

  6. Ashley Wheeler

    Excellent article. Thank you for this!

  7. Anita

    Thank you so much for this article! Last year, I found myself working on a team with people in leadership roles who were unable, or unwilling, to communicate in a thoughtful, respectful manner. I should have done a better job of using my crucial skills in those situations, but instead I shut down. This article reminds me that improving crucial skills is an ongoing goal!

  8. Dale

    You did a good of exiting the conversation after it went bad; but I wonder if the situation was closer to your ebook; How to talk about the loss of a Loved One…

  9. Nancy

    Thank you, thank you. You just validated something for me.

  10. stevewillisvs

    There was another benefit I realized during this interaction that I didn’t write about. I found that many times what happens in the first interaction sets the tone for what will happen in future interactions. In this case, I checked back with her, and she offered a half-hearted apology. We talked about her son, and then we talked about the previous interaction. If I had responded in kind during our first conversation I don’t think any subsequent interactions would have taken place.

    1. Nita Zelenak

      Excellent and helpful first article. Thank you for the follow-up on that interaction. This could be a topic for a follow-up article. I would love to hear what you brought up and how you discussed the previous interaction after you talked about her son. That could be helpful for many of us as well.

      1. Steve Willis

        after we talked about her son, I told her that I’d like to talk about the phone interaction. She became a little defensive and asked, “why??!!” I went on to tell her what I had observed and how it affected me so that when we had the opportunity to interact in the future she would have a better understanding of how we could work most effectively together.

        Many times I’m using STATE skills to provide the other person information about me rather than using them to try to persuade or convince them they were wrong. And when she understood the type of reaction she was triggering in me and what the likely outcome would be if she chose to continue in that line of behavior, she made a choice not to engage in that way in the future.

        I’ve found it to be a very useful approach.

  11. Wanda

    Unwillingness to participate in civil, crucial dialogue is rampant in the healthcare environment–coworkers, providers and patients alike. Thank you for the knowledge that despite your best efforts, you can and should protect yourself.

  12. Como lidar com uma conversa abusiva? - VitalSmarts Brasil

    […] Por Steve Wilis, traduzido por Vinicius Costa […]

  13. Downtown MKE

    Wow, this abusive person seemed to have narcissistic tendencies. I have a shirt tail family member who treats everyone like this and yet is always the victim. I would love to see more survival tactics on how to deal with narcisissts. I’ve been following a podcast featuring Sam Vaknin who seems to be an expert on this. Thank you.

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