How to stay in dialogue when all you want to do is scream

by Donna Salter, Senior Manager, Young Member Initiatives, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

For more than a decade, I have facilitated Crucial Conversations workshops. Participants have asked me all kinds of questions. Over time, I’ve come to understand exactly what concepts people struggle with most. Here are some of the more common questions I have encountered:

What exactly is a crucial conversation?

A crucial conversation occurs between two people when three vital elements are present: opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes. Without opposing opinions, there is nothing to discuss, and no challenge to the content. High stakes add vulnerability, and strong emotions put you at risk.

Here’s the issue: The more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. In fact, most of us, despite our best intentions, end up doing our worst when it matters most. Our emotions kick in and threaten to derail us. We become hyper-focused on our reptilian brain and our mental state reverts to survival mode.

So, in the exact moment of a crucial conversation, we use one of two strategies: silence or violence (i.e. slamming doors or demeaning remarks). We walk away from the conversation frustrated, confused and potentially downright angry. As we argue back and forth, the issue continues down an ugly spiral. We are often blind to a third alternative—healthy dialogue.

What are some of the steps to take when you realize a conversation is entering this “crucial” triangle?

Keep calm. I know that sounds simple, but remember what results are at stake. Plus, it really can make the difference between a severed relationship and a sustainable one.

Observe your own behavior. We all know that it’s easier to notice the behavior of others. After all everything is their fault, right? Wrong! It takes at least two people to communicate (or miscommunicate), and owning your personal actions can help calm your “reptilian brain.”

Remain focused on what you really want—for yourself, others and the relationship. Then behave in a way that demonstrates your desire. Most of us assume that we only have two choices: share our honest opinion or be respectful. Instead, try not to engage your inner dialogue of ‘options’ by convincing yourself to make a choice between losing or winning, being right or saving face, etc.

Under pressure, we are blind to the option of meaningful dialogue, which is a powerful example of and versus or thinking. This is also where mutual respect and humility play an enormous role. First, you must be willing.

How do you plan for a potential crucial conversation with someone?

We often become caught up in the assumption that we know what the other person will say or think. The first step is to be clear on your intended outcome by using the mantra, “What do I really want?”

Ceasing the creation of stories in your head is another tool at our disposal. These stories are based on personal assumptions, judgments and conclusions that help us fit elements together.

We often talk ourselves into believing the stories in our heads. Instead, focus on the facts as you know them. We guess and try to figure out the other person’s motive, leading to a feeling and finally an action. This happens quickly as our negative story escalates; these stories get us in trouble well before the actual conversation ever begins. By staying focused on facts, we cut off this unhealthy habit at the source. This allows you to stay within safe parameters of a realistic outcome and keeps your motives in check. We can change our story, but we cannot change a fact.

What steps will help me stay in dialogue?

A highly valuable practice is to understand how you respond to stimuli. In every situation, both a stimulus and a response are present. Your response is determined by varying factors including trust (distrust), ambiguity (certainty), and so forth.

By creating space between the stimulus and the response (such as taking a breath or focusing on intended results), you can engage more of your rational thinking, evaluate options and realistically contemplate outcomes. The gap between stimulus and response is our opportunity to choose more effective responses. We may be unable to change the stimulus, but we can change our response to a stimulus. We just became proactive verses reactive.

Viktor E. Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

What else is important to remember?

To quote the fine folks at Vital Smarts, authors of the Crucial Conversations book and training program, “Anytime you find yourself stuck, there’s a crucial conversation you’re either not holding or not holding well.” It has been my experience that although this theory holds true, we continually make choices—sometimes not always the right ones. How well we handle a crucial conversation determines the results we get, and the results we get can impact our very happiness.

To hear more on crucial conversations and what to be aware of, watch a recent Facebook Live interview hosted on the AICPA Facebook page.

Human Intelligence: Crucial Conversations

Posted by AICPA on Monday, February 5, 2018