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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Crucial Accountability" by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al.. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to have an effective conversation? What issues often arise when you’re looking to have an effective conversation?

When having an accountability conversation with someone, new issues can emerge mid-conversation. To have an effective conversation, it’s important to know when to pivot the conversation to address the emerging issues. The most common issues you will encounter are the person making excuses and getting overly emotional.

Keep reading to find out how to address these issues to have an effective conversation.

How to Handle Emergent Issues Mid-Conversation

The authors of Crucial Accountability explain that unexpected issues often arise in the midst of accountability conversations. When these new issues are more urgent (time-sensitive, serious, emotional, or important to the other person) than the original problem, we must solve them before returning to the primary conversation. Solving these issues first is crucial to having an effective conversation.

It’s vital that you address new, urgent issues like these when they arise because if you ignore them, you’ll likely finish your conversation without finding an effective solution. 

Urgent Issue or Distraction Tactic?

In Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explain that sometimes when an urgent issue arises, we need to finish the original discussion and schedule a later time to discuss the new issue rather than addressing it immediately. This is because sometimes, the other person will bring up a new issue as a distraction tactic to avoid accountability. They call this practice switchtracking, and warn that if we pivot the conversation to this new issue, we may end up derailing the conversation and falling into the other person’s trap—to prevent us from holding them accountable.

In this part, we’ll explore how to pivot the discussion to address the most urgent issue. Then, we’ll look at how to tackle what the authors explain are the two of the most common and dangerous issues that arise: the other person makes excuses, or they get emotional. 

How to Pivot to the More Urgent Issue

If you’ve decided that the new issue is more time-sensitive or emotional, the authors recommend following these steps to keep the conversation effective:

1) Bookmark where you’re at in the current conversation and announce that you need to change the topic: “Let’s return to the discussion about skipping practice later. Right now, I want to talk about what just happened.”

2) Follow the techniques talked about in chapter two to prepare for the discussion: Identify the problem you want to discuss, refrain from making assumptions about the other person’s intentions, and control your emotions by telling a more accurate story.

3) Describe the gap between your expectations and what happened, then ask why: “When I asked you why you skipped practice, you lied and told me you were there. Lying is both a violation of my trust and an infraction of family rules. Why would you lie rather than tell me the truth?”

4) Last, close the conversation by seeking a clear commitment from the other person: “So next time we have a situation that you’d rather not discuss with me, will you promise to be truthful so we can maintain trust in our relationship and solve the original problem in a healthy way?”

5) Assess safety and return to the original discussion if possible: If there is enough safety to continue the original discussion, then do so. If you sense that the other person is feeling unsafe and overwhelmed, refrain from piling on more problems and set a later time to finish the original discussion.

When to Pivot the Conversation and When to Stay on Course

In Thanks for the Feedback, Stone and Heen explain that when someone switchtracks, we shouldn’t pivot the discussion because even though the issue might be important to the other person, it’s a distraction tactic that will derail the conversation. Instead of fully pivoting the conversation as the authors recommend above, Stone and Heen recommend that you get back on track by

1. Acknowledging that there are two different issues at hand. “I see where you’re coming from, but we’re talking about X right now and Y is a completely different topic.”
2. Acknowledging that both issues need to be addressed: “I understand that this is an important topic to you, and that we need to talk about both.
3. Outlining a way forward: “Let’s finish fully discussing the original topic, and then we can have a separate discussion about the issue you just brought up.”

Now that we know how to handle urgent emerging issues, we are one step closer to effective conversation. Let’s look at how to solve the most common emerging issues: excuse-making and emotional responses.

Problem 1: Making Excuses

The authors write that when the other person makes invalid excuses for their actions, it can quickly derail your conversation and prevent you from reaching a solution. If they try to do this, you must address the issue immediately—they’re more likely to repeat the behaviors if they’re left unaddressed, and you’re unlikely to trust the other person to follow through on a solution if you suspect they’ll make another excuse later on. 

The “something came up” excuse is the most common invalid excuse and the primary killer of accountability. People use this technique to escape accountability for the incomplete task by pawning the blame off on an unexpected interference. For example, imagine your roommate didn’t complete their weekly share of the household chores for a third week in a row. When you confront them about the issue, they use the same “something came up” excuse as last week—this time, their mom wanted them to visit home.

To address this issue, the authors suggest enforcing the following rule: “If something comes up, let me know as soon as possible.” When you enforce this rule, you acknowledge that sometimes unpredictable things happen but you also hold the other person accountable by making sure they inform you as soon as they think they might fail to uphold their commitment. Explain to the other person that this rule not only holds everyone involved accountable but also forms a foundation of trust in the relationship.

So next time your roommate has “something come up” that prevents them from completing their chores, ask them to text or call you before they leave the mess—not after. That way you can negotiate alternative arrangements such as adjusting the chores schedule.

Problem 2: Emotions Take Over

The authors explain that the second most difficult emerging issue to deal with during an accountability discussion is when the other person reacts emotionally, expressing fear, sorrow, frustration, anger, and so on. When emotional reactions like these take us by surprise, we must proceed with caution. If not handled correctly, we might end up creating more problems than we started with.

Before addressing the emotional response, assess your own safety. If you think the other person could be a danger to you, remove yourself from the situation.

To handle the emotional response, we want to investigate why the person seems to be irrationally emotional. To do this, follow four steps:

1) Ask what the problem is. Start by genuinely asking what’s wrong. You might need to reassure the other person that you want to help so they feel comfortable enough to open up.

2) Vocalize that you’ve noticed a change in their behavior. Let the other person know that you can tell they are upset by directly stating the change in their behavior—“I noticed that you’re very quiet right now and you look quite sad.”

3) Paraphrase their response. When they open up and explain what’s bothering them, paraphrase their response to clarify understanding and to let them know you’re listening.

4) Encourage them to tell their story. Encourage the other person to tell their whole story by asking questions and providing reassurance. Take a guess at why they’re upset and ask if you’re correct. Reassure them that you won’t be upset, you just want to fix the issue so they feel better.

Once you’ve identified the issue that’s causing the emotional response, take the time to resolve it before continuing to the original discussion.

How to Have an Effective Conversation

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  • How to broach sensitive conversations with loved ones and coworkers
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