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When Conversations Get Crucial: Navigating Arguments in a Healthy Manner

*Originally published January 17, 2020*

I don’t believe any couple or set of friends that tell me “We don’t fight” or “We don’t argue”. It is virtually impossible to be genuine friends with someone without reaching some sort of conflict. If you really are in a relationship where you “never fight”, I just assume that neither of you is allowing the other to grow.

The fact of the matter is that society has a way of demonizing arguments. For whatever reason, people have started to believe avoiding conflict is a sign of a healthy relationship. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are human and you are dealing with another human, disagreements, and conflict are inevitable.

The truth is, arguing is not a bad thing. It just means you have thoughts and opinions that differ from someone else’s. What is a bad thing, however, is not knowing how to argue. More often than not, people practice very negative behaviors when arguing with their close friends, significant other, or even their coworkers. I wanted to delve into what makes an argument healthy and what makes it unhealthy, using the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High as a point of reference.

What Makes a Conversation Crucial?

According to the book, a crucial conversation is “a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.” A number of things, both personal and professional–can fall under this category:

  • Breaking up with someone

  • Addressing something your significant other did to offend you

  • Giving your boss honest feedback/critiques

  • Discussing a coworker’s hygiene issues

  • Asking a friend about money that they owe you

  • Addressing you and your spouse’s conflicting parenting styles

These are just a few examples listed in the text. But you get the point: It’s a conversation that can be uncomfortable and has the potential to escalate in a negative direction.

What the VitalSmarts team seeks to accomplish with this book is to have readers understand that crucial conversations don’t have to take a catastrophic turn. In fact, relationships tend to deteriorate not because of differences of opinion, but how we discuss or argue in regard to those differences in opinion.

Dialogue: The How is Greater than The What

The authors describe dialogue as the ‘free flow of meaning between two or more people’. More often than not, when people get into arguments stemming from a crucial conversation, most of the emotion is in the how.

How we communicate our emotions and ideas is usually what sets us off when things get heated during a discussion. Whenever we are in a situation in which we feel we are being attacked, the instinctive thing to do is become defensive and stand our ground. That could mean doubling down on a stance (regardless if you believe in it or not), and getting into a full-fledged argument for the sake of protecting your own pride and ego.

The authors describe the concept as the Pool of Shared Meaning. People who have become skilled at dialogue “do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.”

Our mission during tough discussions is to fill that pool of shared meaning. Filling the pool doesn’t mean that we agree with every idea. Rather, it means that we do our best to make sure all ideas find their way out to the open. This is especially true in workplace settings. Office politics can really work against us if we want to have healthy crucial conversations.

In the text, an example is used in which a boss of a corporation calls a meeting to discuss some ideas. The boss presents an idea and it’s pretty apparent that no one in the room likes it, or thinks that it’s effective. In fact, most of them believe it could have a devastatingly negative impact on the company. However, almost everyone in the room keeps quiet. This is because they do not understand the concept of the Pool of Shared Meaning.

In this scenario, the office workers believe that they can either A) Speak up and piss off the boss or B) Stay quiet and roll along with a decision that could jeopardize the company. The mentality here is referred to as The Fool’s Choice–believing that we have to choose between telling the truth or keeping a friend (or in this case, keeping a job).

Focusing on What You Want

“If you can’t get yourself right, you’ll have a hard time getting dialogue right. When conversations get crucial, you’ll resort to the forms of communication that you’ve grown up with–debate, silent treatment, manipulation and so on.”

This point is what drives the third chapter “Start with Heart”, in which readers are encouraged to think about what it is they want at the end of a crucial conversation. What is the end goal?

The writers point out that when we reach a crucial conversation, our main problem is that our motives tend to degenerate. In other words, in the heat of the moment, we lose sight of what our end goal was in the first place. It becomes: I have to set them straight, I have to save face, I have to be right, I have to “win” this argument, etc.

When we are faced with pressure or a strong opposing opinion, we stop worrying about the goal of adding to the pool of shared meaning. Instead, we start looking for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace.

Winning – I’ve always hated the idea of “winning” an argument, especially when it came to having a crucial conversation with a friend. The desire to win drives us away from having a healthy dialogue or really getting anything accomplished to resolve the conflict. Let’s say you’ve outwitted the other person. Congratulations, you won the argument! You really showed them! But now your friend doesn’t want to speak to you, your spouse is crying, or your boss doesn’t want to assign you any high-profile projects. So what exactly did you win?

Punishing – This tactic is particularly damaging because the goal goes from solving the problem to intentionally doing something to hurt the other person. For a couple, that could mean resorting to pointing out the other’s insecurities or behaving in a way different than normal. The boyfriend who usually sends you a sweet text message every morning might “forget” the day after your argument. The wife might just bring up her husband’s subpar performance in bed to attack his ego. Essentially, the punishment just serves to “get back” at the other person because we ourselves feel hurt.

Keeping the Peace – A method I have had to work on in the past due to my phlegmatic temperament. This is the idea of going into silence rather than contributing to the shared pool of meaning. It is an avoidance tactic to steer away from the conflict altogether, just because we detect the possibility of a crucial conversation. At the moment we think that this is us “being the bigger person” or solving the problem. In actuality, when we opt to keep the peace and keep our dialogue to ourselves we are only prolonging the problem.

Crucial Conversation in Action

I’ll highlight a recent happening between me and my boyfriend.

One day he sent me something on FB Messenger. He wanted to bring my attention to something I had posted. A post that crossed out the phrase “Boys will be boys” and replaced it with the phrase “Boys will be held accountable for their actions”. Along with some other phrases that have contributed to the culture of toxic masculinity. He said:

I never viewed this quote to be any of these things. Boys will be boys refers to how boys play in the mud, do “dangerous” things that may hurt them, as well as just being energetic. This post implies that being a boy means you’re held to a lower standard than girls and idk how to feel about that.

I was taken aback, as it was a response I wasn’t expecting. In fact, I didn’t think the post would bother him at all because I was under the assumption that the meaning behind it was obvious. I want to point out something that he did correctly. Instead of commenting on that post, he sent me a direct message about it. This is extremely important because it shows me that his intentions were not to “call me out” or create a spectacle for all our friends to see. I’ll admit if he had done that, I would have felt attacked and I would have felt the need to protect my stance by any means necessary.

Even so, I still had to do my part in this. I had already in the past expressed wanting him to share his feelings more and to be more open. That’s exactly what he was doing, but it was in a way I didn’t expect. I could have easily gone on the defensive, made assumptions, and gotten angry. Granted, I didn’t like it, but there wasn’t any need for me to let my emotions dictate how I would answer. Especially since he was careful with his dialogue–“I never viewed this phrase to mean any of those things". He didn’t state it as fact but highlighted what the phrase meant to him specifically. I kept this key thing in mind: the objective is to understand and keep the conversation from escalating.

I let him know that I understood what he was saying, but that we were talking about different contexts. Yes, the phrase is originally meant to refer to general rowdy behavior that is typically associated with boys. However, I pointed out that the phrase these days has been manipulated to be an excuse for problematic behavior among boys and men that don’t involve those innocent things at all.

I won’t go into detail about the conversation in its entirety, but just bring out the main points:

  1. Filling the Shared Pool – The topic wasn’t something we were going to reach a 100% full agreement on. However, we did come to the understanding that both sides–in their own right–have a degree of accuracy to them. We both understood that the original context of the phrase is fine, but the newer context of the phrase is unethical.

  2. Start with Heart – We both understood the objective of the conversation was not to “win” or “make the other person admit that they are wrong”. Our focus was to understand why the other person has the perspective that they do.

The end result wasn’t me being right, him being wrong, or vice versa. The objective was mutual understanding and respect. We both acknowledged that with him being a heterosexual man and me being a heterosexual woman, our life experiences are going to be inherently different. Our difference in interpretation of the phrase is a result of our own perceived realities. Because he had not experienced the phrase in the way I experienced it, he interpreted the correction of “Boys will be boys” as an attack on “boyish” behavior. As a result, he believed that I and the original poster were taking the phrase out of context when really we were just interpreting it in its updated context in combination with personal experiences. To put it briefly, the conversation allowed us to have a better understanding of each other.

Overall Takeaways

I could only highlight a couple of things without reiterating the entire book, but I most definitely recommend Crucial Conversations for just about any context dealing with communication and relationships. Even now, a lot of offices use it as a training tool to strengthen teams and increase organizational performance.

I read Crucial Conversations in the context of individual self-improvement. Originally I was planning to read it alone, but was pleasantly surprised when my boyfriend expressed interest in reading it along with me! We spent a week reading through it and found that some issues in conversations we had in the past were brought to light. It was an activity that allowed us to reevaluate how we communicate, as well as what we can do to improve in order to keep discussions or “arguments” focused with a clear objective to reach a resolution.

The authors, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Greeny, Ron McMillian, and Al Switzler, co-founded the company VitalSmarts. The company’s primary focus is to combine high-leverage best practices with cutting-edge training techniques in order to develop leaders and transform corporate culture. I would definitely recommend their resources for business owners, managers, and other people who are taking on other forms of leadership.

I hope this helps! Happy reading!

- Raven

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