David Strittmatter

How I deal with difficult conversations

Dear friend,

How to… deal with daunting conversations that leave us wishing for an escape route:

  • Talking to a colleague about her offensive remarks
  • Ending a relationship or terminating employment
  • Addressing issues with personal hygiene with a coworker

My latest read “Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High” (authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler) provides an amazing, proven guideline to best deal with this type of conversation.

Patterson and colleagues could prove organizational performance and the quality of relationships improve significantly when people learn the skills to handle these crucial conversations effectively.

In my role as the CEO of a fast-growing company, it’s been a no-brainer to read this book and use it to further enhance my communication skills.

If I dodge or mishandle these talks, it ripples throughout the company and determines how my company will be able to strive.

So, what did I learn?

Too much to digest in one blog article.

But one of the greatest levers to improve in crucial conversations, “to make it safe”, is what I will share with you here:

The Power of Safety:

The underlying principle is simple: if participants feel safe, they can express almost any idea without fear of retaliation or humiliation.

The moment participants feel unsafe, the conversation is at risk. The direction veers towards two unhealthy extremes: silence or violence.

In silence, people withhold crucial information, masking their true feelings or avoiding the subject entirely.

In violence, people force their viewpoints on others, using tactics like controlling, labeling, or outright attacking.

Recognizing and Addressing Threats to Safety:

Being a skilled communicator means spotting safety risks as they arise. When they sense the conversation’s safety is compromised, they step out of it temporarily, rebuild safety, then dive back in, ensuring meaningful dialogue can continue.

Skills to Make it Safe

The book emphasizes 3 skills that can redirect conversations that flow toward unsafe territories:

  1. Apologize: True apologies are not just about admitting a mistake but recognizing the effect of your actions on the other party.
  2. Contrast: If a misunderstanding arises because of unclear intent, contrasting can aid in clarifying your message and restoring safety. Contrasting statements are structured to clarify what was not intended (“Don’t”) and then to articulate the actual intent (“Do”). Example: Don’t Statement: “I’m not looking to blame anyone for what happened with our last project.” Do Statement: “I just want to find out how we can identify challenges before they become problems.”
  3. Create Mutual Purpose: A shared purpose can unify conflicting parties. By identifying and committing to a higher, shared goal, conversations can be redirected towards collaborative solutions. Make a conscious effort to find a solution that satisfies everyone involved and vocalize this commitment.

How do you deal with crucial conversations?

All the best,


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