Joseph Grenny

Crucial Conversations

How to Speak Up Without Causing a Blow-up

Effective skills to speak our minds in a way that gets heard

Posted Sep 30, 2013

Most people feel frustrated, concerned, upset, or discouraged at some point during their work day. Why? Because they disagree with the boss, don’t support the suggestion of a colleague, or otherwise possess different views from the vocal majority. And yet almost none of these employees share their opinions in a way that gets results. They either clam up because they figure it’s politically unwise to disagree with the majority or the authority, or hold their differing opinions inside until they eventually blow a gasket. That is, they toggle from silence to violence. Neither method gets an idea out into the open where it can be made part of the collective view—and neither method helps improve working conditions or relationships.

Why do we routinely toggle from silence to violence? We go to silence because we dread crucial conversations. These are interactions where stakes are high, opinions differ, and emotions run strong. We fear them because our past experience has taught us that if we’re both emotional and honest, bad things are likely to happen. So we go to silence. Better to let someone else speak his or her mind then risk our own reputation.

We go to violence because we’re so unskilled at holding crucial conversations. While research shows the ability to hold crucial conversations is the key to influence, job effectiveness, and even marital success, most of us have little or no formal training on the topic. Unfortunately, we’ve developed our existing style by watching our parents, friends, and former bosses. When we do decide to speak up, we inevitably draw from the mediocre skills exemplified by these role models and end up using sarcasm, caustic humor, guilt trips, debate tactics, and other forms of verbal violence. Eventually we note that we’re in trouble for having said something and we pull back into silence. We toggle from silence to violence and back again, and it’s not pleasant.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. When we employ the skills of crucial conversations we can elevate our capacity to influence decisions, improve relationships, and speak our minds in a way that gets heard. Use the following tips to increase your skills:

  • Reverse your thinking. Most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t share their unique views, they will have to live with the poor decisions that will be made as a result of holding back their informed opinions.
  • Change your emotions. The primary reason we do badly in crucial conversations is that by the time we open our mouths we’re irritated, angry, or disgusted with the other person’s views and opinions. Then, no matter how much we try to fake it, our negative judgments creep into the conversation. So, before opening your mouth, open your mind. Separate people from the problem. Try to see others as reasonable, rational, and decent human beings—even if they hold a view that you strongly oppose. Remember—if you hold court in your head, the verdict will show on your face.
  • Help others feel safe. Often we believe that certain topics are destined to make others defensive. Skilled folks realize people don’t become defensive until they feel unsafe. Try starting your next high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for them. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they let their guard down and begin to listen—even if the topic is unpleasant.
  • Invite dialogue. After you create a safe environment, confidently share your views. Once you’ve done so, invite differing opinions. This means you actually encourage the other person to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations aren’t just out to make their point; they want to learn. If your goal is just to dump on others, they’ll resist you. If you are open to hearing others’ points of view, they’ll be more open to yours.