How To Make It Safe to Talk About Anything



“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” — Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

How do you make it safe to talk about almost anything?

If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, make it safe, and find a way to dialogue.

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler write about a pattern that skilled experts at communication use to Make it Safe.

Steps to Make It Safe

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler outline the following steps:

  • Step 1. Step out
  • Step 2. Decide which Condition of Safety is at Risk
  • Step 3. Apologize When Appropriate
  • Step 4. Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding
  • Step 5. CRIB to Get to Mutual Purpose

Step 1. Step out

When you or others move to silence or violence, step out of the conversation and Make It Safe. When safety is restored, go back to the issue at hand and continue the dialogue.

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler write:

“The best don’t play games. They know the dialogue is the free flow of meaning – with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking. So they do something completely different.

They step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.

Once you’ve spotted safety problems, you can talk about the most challenging of topics by stepping out of the content and building enough safety that almost anything becomes discussable.” 

Example of talking about a challenging topic by stepping out of the content and building safety:

“Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk about what happens when we’re not romantically in sync. It would be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t.

My goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to become defensive. What I’d really love is for us to come up with a solution that makes us both satisfied in our relationship.”

Step 2. Decide which Condition of Safety is at Risk

Watch for signs that Mutual Purpose is at risk. Watch for signs that Mutual Respect is at risk. Examine your motives. Look for mutuality.

How to spot if Mutual Purpose is at risk:

  • Ask yourself, do others believe you care about their goals in this conversation?
  • Ask yourself, do they trust your motives?

How to spot if Mutual Respect is at risk:

  • To spot that respect is violated and safety is at risk, watch for signs that people are defending their dignity.
  • Ask, do others believe you respect them?

How to examine your own motives, as yourself the following Start with Heart questions:

  • What do I want for me?
  • What do I want for others?
  • What do i want for the relationship?

Example of looking for mutuality with your boss:

“I’ve got some ideas how I can be much more reliable and even reduce costs by a few thousand dollars in preparing the report each month.

It’s going to be a bit of a sensitive conversation – but I think it will help a great deal if we can
talk about it.”

Tip – if you’re having trouble respecting somebody with different values or objectives than you, remember the phase “Lord, help me forgive those those who sin differently than I.”

Step 3. Apologize When Appropriate

When you’ve clearly violated respect, apologize. An apology is a statement that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing – or at least not preventing – pain or difficulty for others.

Example of an apology:

“I’m sorry I didn’t give you a call when I learned that we wouldn’t come by.

You’ve worked all night, it would have been a wonderful chance to showcase your improvements, and I didn’t even explain what happened. I apologize.”

An apology is not really an apology unless you experience a change of heart.

Step 4. Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

When others misunderstand either your purpose or your intent, use Contrasting. Start with what you don’t intend or mean. Then explain what you do mean.

Contrasting is a don’t/do statement that:

  • Addresses other’s concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part.)
  • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part)

Key points:

  • Contrasting is not apologizing. It’s not a way of taking back something you said that hurts someone’s feelings. It’s a way of ensuring something you said doesn’t hurt more than it should have.
  • Contrasting provides context and proportion. When you’re in a heated conversation, others can hear things bigger or worse than intended.
  • Use Contrasting for prevention or first aid.

Examples of Contrasting:

“The last thing that I wanted to do was communicate that I don’t value the work you put in or that I didn’t want to share it with the VP.

I think your work has been nothing short of spectacular.”

Step 5. CRIB to Get to Mutual Purpose

When you are at cross-purposes, use four skills to get back to Mutual Purpose.

  • Commit to seek Mutual Purpose.
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy.
  • Invent a Mutual Purpose.
  • Brainstorm new strategies.

See Mutual Purpose.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • If you need to have a crucial conversation, Make It Safe. I think it’s easy to either get wrapped up in emotions or focus on the outcome at the expense of staying connected. Make It Safe is a way to stay connected throughout the conversation, staying assertive, while staying respectful.
  • Step out. Make It Safe. Then step back in. If it’s not safe, step out, rather than escalating silence and violence. Make it safe and then continue. I think this is particularly important because it’s easy to say things you don’t mean, that are tough to take back, when you’re in the heat of the moment.
  • Watch for clues that it’s not safe. Emotions are the key.
  • Clarify what you don’t want and what you do want. Contrasting what you don’t want helps keep things in perspective. Simply calling out what you don’t want can help eliminate the threat or ambiguity. I use this technique at work fairly often because it helps clarify intent and to deal with the many assumptions that float in the air while you’re having a conversation.
  • Find something about the person you respect. You can always find something you respect in somebody, even you’re enemies, even if it’s the simple fact they’re a fellow human being. Respecting somebody shines through. If you don’t respect somebody, you’ll have a hard time, if not impossible time, influencing them.
  • Apologize when you violate respect. It’s that simple. That fastest way to win back mutual respect is to apologize. Take ownership for violating respect.

If you make it safe, you open the doors for better connections.

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