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News | March 14, 2018


By Dr. Robert Boggs DLA Land and Maritime People and Culture Directorate

Each person’s life is lived as a series of conversations.
̶ Deborah Tannen

Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.
̶ Margaret Millar

According to Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High*:

Crucial conversations are discussions between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong. We all casually converse with others but when facing crucial conversations we typically tend to avoid them, handle them poorly, or handle them well.

It’s when conversations really matter that we switch from casual to crucial conversations. For many of us, we tend to take the least effective path by either avoiding or handling crucial conversations poorly. Why is that? According to the Crucial Conversations authors we were designed wrong:

When conversations turn from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble. That’s because emotions don’t exactly prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.

I’ve always heard that when we’re faced with danger, humans tend toward fleeing or fighting and I’ve responded to danger the same way. If we see danger when we’re with another person or group and the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong, we might consider conversation as a third alternative. This is particularly true if the danger is non-physical.

Conversation as a third alternative can have a direct and positive impact on our relationships. We need to ask ourselves: Do failed conversations ever result in failed relationships? I would have to say the answer is yes. Avoiding or handling conversations poorly can have lasting negative results. This is evidenced both at home and in the workplace. The authors of Crucial Conversations point out that “In truth, everyone argues about important issues, but not everyone splits up. It’s how you argue that matters.” They go on to site the following example from Cliford Notarius and Howard Markman (two noted marriage scholars) that learned:

People fall into three categories—those who digress into threats and name-calling, those who revert to silent fuming, and those who speak openly, honestly and effectively…couples who found a way to state their opinions about high-stakes, controversial and emotional issues honestly and respectfully remained together. Those who didn’t, split up.

How we converse matters at home and at work. Individuals and groups that converse effectively improve the likelihood of successful relationships. At the core of successful relationships is our ability to freely converse about relevant information. We must be able to honestly and openly express our feelings and thoughts in a safe environment.

When people feel comfortable sharing their views, even when their views are unpopular, an organization’s ability to make better decisions improves. When the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong, we have options. We can fight, flee, act ineffectively or try the third alternative. The third alternative, conversing by using intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness, may be the best option and will more likely lead to personal and organizational success.

* Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler is available to DLA associates with access to LMS. Through LMS, access SkillSoft Books 24x7 and complete a search query. LMS site is DLA CAC enabled.