Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

When Someone Believes “Might is Right”

Dear Emily,

What approach can you take when someone believes that hurting others (insulting, accusing, and so on) is good and right and helps the other person become better?

This person believes it’s especially good to use anger, because it helps people remember your message more. They also believe that doing kind, considerate things is a form of approval seeking and therefore enabling and immoral.

I can’t find any mutual agreement with this person, and I can’t feel respect for him. After all, how can I respect someone who is not only abusive, but also believes that what they do is good and right? How can I have an Accountability Conversation with someone who says it’s good to insult but bad to be kind?

Can somebody please give me their thoughts on this predicament?


Dear Afraid,

I am going to make a couple of assumptions here and I want to call them out. First, I assume you are in an on-going relationship (work or personal) with this person. Second, that the behavior you describe is, at times, directed toward you and you want that behavior to change.

If those two assumptions are accurate, then I have some hard truths and some suggestions to share. Here are the hard truths:

  1. If you are in an abusive relationship, you should get out of the relationship. You need to separate yourself from the abuser and get to a place of safety.
  2. If you believe that the purpose of Crucial Conversations is to change other people, to convince them that you are right and they are wrong, to compel them to your way of thinking, then you do not understand Crucial Conversations.

I hear so much pain behind your carefully constructed inquiry. I am sorry that you are in a situation with someone who is hurting you. So I return to the first two truths: if you are being abused, get out. If you believe that holding a Crucial Conversation is like waving a magic wand and will solve your problem, it’s not.

This is what a Crucial Conversation is: it is a dialogue in which both parties contribute and gain understanding about each other and themselves. Sometimes, but not always, that understanding leads to change. But the goal of the conversation is understanding.

So, how can you have a conversation with someone who behaves so differently from what you expect? Here are three suggestions:

Describe the Gap

Describe the gap between what you are expecting and what you are observing. Note that I did not say describe the gap between good behavior and bad. When we start a Crucial Conversation about a violated expectation or bad behavior, we step back and start with observations. Here is what I expected or would like to see, and here is what I am seeing. Then, invite the other person to share their perspective.

For example, “Yesterday, you raised your voice when we were discussing our plans. My expectation in our relationship is that we can talk about things without raising our voice in anger. How do you see that?”

When describing the gap, don’t simply call out the bad behavior you are seeing. Be sure to clearly articulate what your expectation is. The focus is not the behavior but the gap between behavior and expectation.

Share Natural Consequences

In your situation, it appears you have agreement on the gap. They agree that they use anger. The challenge is that they don’t see it as a bad thing. They see the gap but not the negative consequences of the gap.

Sharing natural consequences is perhaps the most profound and powerful way to help people decide to change. When others see how their actions are leading to negative consequences for them, they become more receptive to change. You can’t change them, but they can change themselves.

The challenge with sharing consequences is that we do it wrong most of the time. We share the consequences of their behavior that impact us. After all, the reason we are addressing the gap is because it is causing pain or problems for us. So when it comes to sharing consequences, our focus is on how we are impacted by their actions.

Sometimes this works because the other person cares enough about us to see the consequence to us as a consequence to them. But most of the time it falls short. The most powerful consequences to share are the consequences they care about. What do they want? What drives them? And how is this behavior holding them back?

It might sound like this: “You have talked a lot about how important it is for you to have positive relationships with our adult children. When you react to something with yelling and anger, I see the kids withdrawing, and I worry that you are damaging those relationships.”

Sharing a consequence, even one that is meaningful and motivating to the other person, is not like turning on a light switch. It is more like the sun rising. Insight comes with time and reflection, so don’t expect the other person to immediately come back with, “Oh my gosh! You are right! I never thought of it that way before.” That would be nice, but life isn’t a Hallmark commercial.

Set Clear Expectations

Once you accept the limits of what you can do, you are able to draw clear boundaries about what you expect. You can’t change people. You can’t compel them. You can speak up about bad behavior and violated expectations. You can share your perspective about the negative consequences of their behavior. But other people get to choose their own path. You only choose yours.

Get clear on what your expectations are. Share those. “I expect to be treated respectfully. I expect us to talk through our disagreements.” If those expectations aren’t shared or respected, you need to decide what the consequence is. When you do, you will establish your boundaries and what you are willing to accept.

I hope this helps.


How do you see it? Join the conversation below.

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5 thoughts on “When Someone Believes “Might is Right””

  1. Shana

    I was startled by the tone of this reply. The content is responsive and provides concrete suggestions. As a longtime subscriber, I found the example regarding how to share consequences quite helpful.
    However, the tone was excessively harsh towards the questioner who is potentially in a long term abusive relationship. The second bullet seems particularly accusatory.
    Part of crucial conversations for me, is a goal of having conversations that are more open and honest, as well as kind and compassionate. Setting appropriate boundaries doesn’t have to be cruel and can be viewed as compassion to oneself and in the long run, hopefully compassionate to both parties.

  2. Harley V Blake

    I really like your summation of the purpose of Crucial Conversations: “If you believe that the purpose of Crucial Conversations is to change other people, to convince them that you are right and they are wrong, to compel them to your way of thinking, then you do not understand Crucial Conversations.” If we enter the conversation from that perspective, we are into the barriers and poor consequences of the “Truth Assumption” as shared in the book “Difficult Conversations.”

    Keeping that in mind, and our tendency toward Villain and Victim stories, as people have come to me and share a similar story about a boss (usually not quite at this level of apparent abuse), I help them think through and consider their options. 1. Make a good faith effort to have a conversation about the consequences of their behavior on departmental and personal goals and their team as you describe above. 2. If not responsive and there is no hope of potential change in the abusive behavior that is destroying you and your team’s ability to do your work and a culture of safety, take a few with you and share the see and hear facts and your concerns with the next level up to see if they will address it. 3. If that has been tried or that isn’t an option for other reasons, you can report your concerns of a toxic work environment to HR. 4. Get out.

    Getting out is always one of those options, and certainly can be the right one when it comes to safety. In a work situation however, being the optimist that I am and always aiming for restoration and addressing the issue with hopes of helping things change, getting out is the real, but last option I share. If people just bail without addressing it, what are the consequences of that? How much more damage will result to people and to the organization if this behavior is not addressed and people just keep leaving?

  3. Rachel

    This is a very thoughtful response; however, it seems to focus on personal rather than professional relationships. I would appreciate some insight on dealing with a relationship with a supervisor. Yes, we could “leave the relationship”, but that involves losing a job that may support our household with income & benefits. How else could we respond when the supervisor holds all the cards & thinks the best way to lead is thru anger.

  4. Lingppa Sivakumar

    I remember the eye opener just incase if you entered in the crucial conversation to change this person “”Do we treat others in the way we expect others to treat us “”. I am sure this person likes to be very straight forward…only picking negative things and provoke it very strongly in his assumption that he is helping others to improve…But usually it never helps rather it detoriate the relationship and drags the motivation…..What do u think

  5. Dave

    I really appreciate how thoughtfully Emily provided this condensed version of the Crucial Conversations principles. For me the people puzzle is the most difficult. In this case I find the situation that Afraid finds herself in very distressing.. I’ve encountered many toxic narcists and covert bullies as work partners. In my discussions with supervisors they labeled the problems as personality conflicts along with their solution for finding balance in a work group. Unfortunately the giving and compromising to create the balance fell on my shoulders. No solutions from management lasted more than a few days because toxic narcists don’t respect boundaries and are seldom held accountable. The only boundary I could apply was to limit my exposure time with these people to essential business needs. Under these circumstances my confidence and self esteem were damaged. In the end, I found myself leaving the job or getting laid off. These situations were life changing for me and not in a good way.

    As for the advise Emily provided for Afraid, I agree whole heartedly. If the problem is a personal relationship and safety is a concern, leave the relationship. If it’s related to employment and having a thoughtful open crucial conversation doesn’t provide any resolution, bide your time till you find another employer. Otherwise your life will be damaged.

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