Crucial Conversations: A Look Inward


By Maggie Mullen and Erik Burns

In Part 1 of the Crucial Conversations series, we learned about three types of communicating:

  • digressing into threats and name-calling (violence),
  • reverting to silent fuming (silence), and
  • speaking openly, honestly, and effectively.

Read the April 2018 article to get a first glimpse of what it takes to become an effective communicator and “make it safe” for others in your conversations. You can also determine your Style Under Stress

Imagine the stress involved when an employee approaches a manager about a promotion that the employee has worked toward for more than a year. However, the manager doesn’t feel the employee is ready for the next step despite the employee’s track record of early and consistent success. How can the supervisor create the environment for open and honest communication, while encouraging respectful communication? In this article, we use the term “safety” within a specific context of feeling confident to express one’s emotions and secure enough to take the risk to be vulnerable without repercussions.

Good conversationalists are socially aware and recognize safety risks as they happen. When risks arise, careful partners pause and step back to re-establish safety before continuing on in the conversation.

According to the book Crucial Conversations,1 there are two keys to creating safety in the course of a conversation: Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect.



Mutual Purpose is maintaining your conversational partners’ belief in you—that you care about them and their goals, and you have their best interest in mind. Even more important, your partner believes you are willing to listen to and consider tough feedback.

“Crucial conversations go awry not because you don’t like the content, but rather because you believe the content suggests that you have malicious intent,” the authors say.

Think back to the last time you approached someone about a difficult topic. Did you approach it as if you were working toward a common goal, or were your motives more self-serving? Did you demonstrate a genuine interest in solving the problem at hand, or were you more interested in winning the argument?



The second condition for “Making it Safe” is about having Mutual Respect. Without respect, a conversation instantly becomes unsafe. Crucial Conversations states, “The instant people perceive disrespect, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose; it is now about defending dignity.”

If the conversation has suddenly turned ugly and disrespectful, how do you get it back on track?

Apologize, if appropriate. Apologies are widely over-used and should be reserved for when you’ve made a mistake that hurts others. If you have hurt someone, be sincere in your apology. Backhanded apologies will only derail the conversation further.

Miscommunications happen all the time. If it is clear your purpose or intent was misunderstood, stop and address those concerns. Start by confirming your respect for the individual (remember perceived disrespect will disrupt any productive conversation) then restate your purpose, with more context to add clarity.


Charged Emotions: What is your story and how do you master it?

You’ve worked diligently for months on a software project to automate some of your laboratory procedures that will shave months off the group’s current workflow. It will remove a serious bottleneck within the department. The big day has finally come to present to senior leadership on the progress, validation, and implementation plan. At the last minute, your manager decides he will present and then takes the credit for the project with no acknowledgement of the work you and your colleagues have done. You are instantly overwhelmed by your emotions—anger floods you, drowning your best intentions. You feel yourself being hijacked by your emotions.

How do you get a grip on your emotions and maintain composure? We own our emotions outright; they are ours to create and ours to manage. We have two options when they arise: Either we control them or they control us.

It looks a bit like this1 when we allow our emotions to get the better of us:


In this scenario, we take in information, we “tell a story,” emotions arise, and we act accordingly—and typically not very well. We make assumptions without all the information, we judge based on our view of right and wrong, and then we add meaning to the actions we observe. We all have imaginations. Why are we so quick to assume malice instead of positive intent?

When you feel your anger rising, it’s a good time to step back and assess what’s driving that feeling.

You can control your feelings by changing the “story” you are telling yourself. Next time, try telling yourself a story with positive intent.

Stop. Breathe. Think about approaching it in reverse.1


Act—Are you behaving poorly? Are you slipping into silence or violence (See the Crucial Conversations in the April 2018 AAPS Newsmagazine Online).

Feel—What are you feeling? Be specific; not broad. Are you angry or embarrassed? Perhaps disappointed in yourself?

Tell a Story—Does the story you are telling match what you are really feeling?

See & Hear—Get back to the facts that actually support the real story you are telling.

The stories we tell are either based on facts or they aren’t. If they’re based on fact and context, the conversation can move in a healthy direction. If our stories are exaggerated, then we’re justifying our bad behavior. If you take an honest, hard look at your story, you’ll know if it is based on fact; factless stories look like one of these clever1 stories:

  • It’s not my fault; I’m completely innocent in all of this (victim story).
  • It’s all your fault (villain story).
  • There’s nothing else I can do (helpless story).

Which one fits your narrative, your story?

Instead of telling clever stories, tell a useful story. See your role in the problem, and be accountable for your own actions. Don’t make assumptions. Work toward re-establishing safety by speaking persuasively, not abrasively.1 Facts aren’t debatable or biased, so let them be the basis of your conversation. Include your conclusions based on those facts, and ask for feedback from your conversational partner with the understanding that YOU may have something to learn and YOUR story may change. Be confident, yet humble in your communication. You are expressing your opinion based on your understanding of the facts. Invite your conversational partner to challenge you with his or her views; you might just discover a common path forward.

In the June 2018 issue of AAPS Newsmagazine, we will dig deeper to focus on the various skills and tactics needed explore other’s paths and turn action into results in crucial conversations


1 Patterson K, Grenny J, McMillan R, Switzler A. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Second Edition. New York: McGraw Hill; 2012.

Maggie Mullen is business development manager at Lovelace Biomedical. Erik Burns, MA, MBA, EdD, is division chair and assistant dean of Outreach and Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Pharmacy. 

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Career Success
May 2018