How To Improve Crucial Conversations by Learning to Look



“When you really pay attention, everything is your teacher.” – Ezra Bayda

What do you look for when you’re caught in the middle of a crucial conversations?

What do you need to see in order to catch problems before they become too severe?

It’s helpful to watch for three conditions: the moment a conversation turns crucial, signs that people don’t feel safe (silence or violence) and your own Style Under Stress.

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler write about how to Learn to Look.

Learning to Look During Crucial Conversations

How do you Learn to Look and what do you look for?

The authors of Crucial Conversations suggest the following:

  1. Look to spot crucial conversations.
  2. Look for safety problems.
  3. Look for your style under stress.

Look to Spot Crucial Conversations

To help catch problems early, reprogram your brain to pay attention to the signs that you’re in a Crucial Conversation:

  1. Physical signs. Think about what happens to your body when conversations get tough. Does your stomach get tight? Do your eyes dry out?
  2. Emotional signs. Are you reacting to or suppressing feeling scared, hurt, or angry?
  3. Behavioral signs. As if watching yourself in a movie, do you see yourself raising your voice, pointing your finger like a loaded weapon or becoming very quiet?

Look for Safety Problems

If you can catch signs that the conversation is starting to turn crucial, then you can start dual processing immediately. Pay attention to the content and watch for signs that people are afraid.

Keys to looking for safety problems:

  1. When it’s safe you can say anything. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning. Nothing kills dialogue like fear.
  2. When it’s unsafe you start to go blind. When your emotions crank up, key brain functions shut down. Watch for safety violations so you can see when dialogue is in danger, and so you can reengage your brain. Pull yourself out of the content of an argument and watch for fear.
  3. Don’t let safety problems lead you astray. See attacks as a sign that safety is at risk. If somebody is trying to trying to make fun of you, insult you, or bowl you over with their arguments, it’s easy to see it as an attack. Recode silence and violence as signs that people are feeling unsafe. Do something to make it safe.

See Make It Safe.

Look for Your Style Under Stress

Which of the 6 Styles Under Stress do you use?

Silence Patterns

  • Masking – you understate or selectively show your true opinions.
  • Avoiding – you steer completely away from sensitive topics.
  • Withdrawing – you pull out of a conversation altogether, exiting the conversation or the room.

Violence patterns

  • Controlling – you coerce others into your way of thinking.
  • Labeling – you put a label on people or ideas to dismiss them as a stereotype or category.
  • Attacking – you move from winning to making the person suffer.

For more information, see 6 Styles Under Stress.

Key Takeaways

Here are my key takeaways:

  • Identify crucial conversations. Pay attention to your emotional, physical, and behavioral cues. If you can spot crucial conversations, you can better keep your brain engaged while keeping your emotions in check. You can help others do the same.
  • Learn your Styles Under Stress. Figure out your silence and violence patterns that you fall back on in a conversation when you are in fight-or-flight mode.
  • Know the Styles Under Stress. Learn to identify the silence patterns (Masking, Avoiding, Withdrawing.) Learn to identify the violence patterns (Controlling, Labeling, Attacking.) If you know the six silence and violence patterns, then you can better identify your default styles as well as what others do.
  • Pay attention to the free flow of meaning to the pool. Fear kills the flow of meaning. If opinions are being forced into the pool or withheld either through silence patterns or violence patterns, you know there’s a problem.

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