Jul 28 / Simcha

Listening Tools to Shift a Difficult Conversation

toolsIn Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High (2013), authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler observe how easily our eons-old defense mechanisms kick in, when we match an inappropriate or sharp comment, accusation or unkind shot with our own hasty, ugly reaction. With absolutely no clue as to what is going on in our partner’s head, the opportunity for understanding and connection is missed.

The most fundamental path to shifting this ineffective communication pattern involves abandoning the “I argue to win” model (one that inevitably leads to further aggressive interplay) in favor of an “I listen to understand” mode (one that easily promotes joining and empathy).

The authors guide us with the following listening guidelines:

Break the cycle

By being curious about your partner’s trigger, you move him/her away from harsh feelings and nasty knee-jerk behaviors toward the root cause.  In curbing your own reaction, you return to the place where the feelings can be resolved — at the source, that is, the facts and the story behind the emotion.

Be sincere

Invite your partner to share his/her point of view, so that there is a deeper “pool of meaning” on both sides of the conversation.

Be curious

Make it safe for your partner to express the story or narrative that has moved him/her to speak or behave as s/he did.  Do your best to get at his/her source of fear or anger. Look for chances to TURN ON YOUR CURIOSITY rather than kick-start your adrenaline.

Stay curious

Avoid overreacting to the (unflattering) narrative you are hearing, even as you feel your adrenaline kicking in. Stay curious about what is motivating your partner to do/say what s/he did; in most cases, you will end up seeing that, under the circumstances, the individual in question drew a fairly reasonable conclusion.

Be patient

Encourage your partner to explore his/her thoughts and feelings, allowing for an escalation of emotions, even anger, which will gradually deescalate as s/he feels safe again, heard and understood.


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Every sentence has a history: When you enter a crucial conversation that has escalated into defensiveness or angry mode, YOUR ARE JOINING LATE, i.e., you are joining a story that is already in progress.  Do not guess about the narrative’s key facts but rather be curious as to its foundations.