Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

When Your Skills Aren’t Working

Dear Crucial Skills,

The new skills I learned from your training have been priceless to me. I regularly come away from conversations feeling proud of my own conduct, but I’m getting mixed reactions from others. I’m finding that even when I’m at my best people resist having crucial conversations with me. Sometimes my efforts are met with apathy.

How do I handle those people who don’t seem to have an interest in improving working relationships? I keep watching your demonstration videos, but I’m just not getting the same reaction from my colleagues in my real-life crucial conversations. Please help!

Dancing Alone

Dear Dancing,

Wouldn’t life be wonderful if everyone responded the way they do in videos? If only they’d let us write their script for them! Darned humans.

I’m sorry you’re not yet getting the results you want from applying your crucial conversations skills. I’m impressed with your sincerity and trust that if you continue to “Work on Me First,” you’ll find options to help you gain greater influence in positive ways.

I always struggle to answer questions people ask me about why others don’t respond, because the “truth” is probably so specific to their situation and I have no visibility into what’s truly going on beyond the short description I get from them. The same is true in your case, so I’m going to offer you a shotgun answer—hoping some fragment of what I say might hit a target you care about.

I can think of four broad reasons someone might not respond positively to your attempt to hold a crucial conversation with him or her. I’d encourage you to reflect on each and examine whether one or more might be contributing to your challenges.

1. Lack of safety. You’ve already highlighted this one. The other person may either not believe you care about his or her interests or feel disrespected in some way. I won’t dwell much on this one because you seem to be exploring it pretty skillfully.

2. Lack of time. We sometimes differentiate between situational safety and relational safety. Situational safety means that in this conversation someone doesn’t feel safe with you. The solution to this is to use your safety building skills.

Relational safety means that, over a sustained period of time, the other person has concluded that you either don’t respect him or her or don’t care about his or her interests. This problem won’t yield to the simple application of a few skills in a single conversation, but it can begin there. It can begin with acknowledging how you may have hurt safety and with your unilateral commitment to change your behavior in the future. That crucial conversation will be a good start, but safety won’t be fully restored until you change your behavior. Over time, you’ll find that your colleagues feel safer with you and engage more trustingly in your crucial conversations.

3. Lack of hope. Sometimes people don’t engage because they don’t think it will change anything. Perhaps they’ve had experiences with you in the past where they felt like the loser in the conversation—and had no alternate experiences where they felt that it served their needs to invest in the conversation. Let’s face it; a crucial conversation takes effort, and who wants to make that kind of emotional investment if it doesn’t do them good? If you think your colleagues might be in this camp, the way out is the opposite of the way in. You’ll have to find ways of demonstrating your openness to their needs and views in smaller conversations. Over time, their hope will be restored that conversations with you can benefit them.

4. Lack of upside. Another possibility is that others feel fine about having some crucial conversations with you. They may even hope that talking about tough things with you is productive—on some topics. But this crucial conversation—the one you keep trying to tee up—holds no upside for them. In this case, you have a mutual purpose problem, and the crucial conversation you need to hold is one in which you help them see the significant benefits of engaging in dialogue with you.

5. Fatigue. There are some people with whom crucial conversations become a daily occurrence. It seems like there is always some tumultuous and emotionally draining issue that they need to address. If you fall into this category, people might see you as a high-maintenance relationship and begin to avoid you. They feel weary when they see you and just don’t want to work themselves up for the chore of dealing with yet another tough conversation.

If this is the case, then you’ve got two challenges. First, you’ll need to rebuild your relational safety by creating dozens of nourishing interactions—experiences others will feel are fun, light, enjoyable, or rewarding. If the work required in a relationship far exceeds the fun, people start to think of you as medicine instead of pleasure—they’ll take you when they have to, but not when they can avoid it. You’ll need to change their perception by changing the mix of interactions they have with you.

Second, you may want to read the Choose What and If chapter of Crucial Confrontations. This chapter gives a good treatment of when we should—and should not—hold an emotionally challenging conversation with others. You may have fallen into the habit of dealing with everything rather than letting some issues slide—and expanding what we call your zone of acceptability. A bit more tolerance and patience may help you become easier to talk with.

I hope these ideas are useful as you reflect on what you can do to create the results that are important to you. And, if all of these fail, please remember our bottom line statement about crucial conversations: the skills don’t guarantee everyone will behave the way you want. They just increase the likelihood that you’ll be heard. At some point, it’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’ve done my best. And I’m done!”

Best wishes,

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

11 thoughts on “When Your Skills Aren’t Working”

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  2. Gregory Rubel

    Relational safety sounds an awful lot like a high trust environment. The two most influencial authors of my career have been the folks at Vital Smarts and Stephen M.R. Covey and his book, “The Speed of Trust.” I’ve had a couple of situations where applying the concepts from both books has led to several specific successes. The trust has to be built first, but then the Vital Smarts techniques become super effective. Perhaps, it is an area where you can direct some research in the future. No need to reply.

    Greg Rubel
    Markel Corporation-Mid South Region

  3. David Mork

    One other possible addition to the shotgun approach. It’s possible this problem is not related to Dancing Alone, but to a history of interactions with Dancing Alone’s organizational unit. In that case, it’ll just take time to build a rapport, but when done, Dancing might re-orient other’s view of the unit as a whole.

  4. Gene Sorrell


    I wonder if there might not be one more area to be covered by your shotgun answer – safety from the aspect of feeling as though you are being “manipulated”. Many of us have had different types of training regarding listening and conversation skills and once you have been through a few of these courses, you start to recognize when the skills are being used on you.

    It may arise from a feeling of a lack of sincerity on the speaker’s part, or a lack of trust between the conversation participants as you alluded to above. I am an independent thinker and do not like to be manipulated and when I detect these types of skills being used in a conversation, my first instinct is to resist. How I recover from that point is gauged mainly on my personal history with that person.

    As you mentioned above, time and history developed with these people will eventually show them that you do truly care about the results they see too, but make sure you’re not just using these skills to manipulate others in order to “get you way”. People will know and start avoiding conversations with you. You HAVE to maintain sincerity, not just through the conversation, but also through your actions after the talking is completed.

    Gene Sorrell

  5. Joseph Grenny

    I’m happy to be in company with Stephen M.R. on your list. He is a great friend and I believe has made an important contribution with The Speed of Trust. He is also a wonderful exemplar of everything he teaches.
    @Gregory Rubel

  6. Joseph Grenny

    Nice distinction. I agree – and that is worth considering as well.
    @David Mork

  7. Frank Bertram

    Perhaps Dancing should look at her delivery style also. If she is coming across as “touchy-feely” that will turn off certain people who don’t like that style, particularly certain males.

  8. Stephen Pellegrino

    You’ve helped address a common criticism I’ve had each of the Vital Smarts training (having attended all three and currently teaching C.Conversations).
    I’ve said at each class that in spite of the apparent party line to make the distinction between crucial and non-crucial conversations, I encourage people to try out these skills on the little stuff first. If you can’t handle telling someone their fly is down or they’ve got a piece of lettuce in their teeth you probably won’t step up well when your grandmother shouldn’t drive anymore or your kid is hanging around with the wrong crowd.
    However…. I now see the fatigue principle as a plausible counter to always trying to use these skills for noncrucial discussions.

  9. MHuebner

    There is a #6. I would add substance/alcohol abuse. Those individuals who are under the influence may be unable/unwilling to respond postively to an attempt to a crucial conversation.

  10. Phyllis J March

    I think Dancing Alone is to be commended for practicing the new skills and feeling proud of her own conduct. It’s very possible that it could be the other people who are the problem, and not her! In the book “The Dance of Anger,” it states that when someone starts to grow in a relationship, the other person very often wants them to “change back” because they’re threatened by the changes — it’s new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, etc. A similar situation can occur in work relationships. Keep practicing, growing, and fine tuning your skills and you will attract those who want to grow with you.

  11. Diomede

    The part that more compelled me was about the lack of upside and fatigue. Someone is so enthusiast to apply the new skills that forget when and in which case they should be used. I relate often with Chinese people, their culture is pretty indirect, so they are socially educated to tollerate rather than face it straight.
    Slightly different is the italian culture, mine, we feel like there is no need to get deep and detailed on many issues, it is stressful and not cool.

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