difficult conversation

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.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

Do you know how to start a difficult conversation? Where do you begin? How do you make the conversation go smoothly?

According to the authors of Crucial Accountability, establishing mutual respect and a shared purpose are the keys to learning how to start a difficult conversation. There are three steps you should take to avoid overwhelming the other person.

Read more to learn how to start a difficult conversation.

Initiating a Conversation

The authors of Crucial Accountability assert that the first step in initiating an accountability conversation is creating a safe space. When learning how to start a difficult conversation, you’ll need to establish both mutual respect, so the other person doesn’t feel you’re belittling them, and a feeling of a shared purpose, so they understand that you’re working toward a common goal rather than trying to point out their faults. 

Establishing Mutual Respect and Shared Purpose

The authors explain that in learning how to start a difficult conversation with mutual respect and a shared purpose, we must explain the issue succinctly and respectfully. If we fail to do this, we could risk overwhelming the other person with information, compromising their feeling of safety. This can be a make or break when navigating how to start a difficult conversation.

To accomplish this:

  1. Lay out the facts of the situation. Explain what your expectations were and how the other person broke them. Remember to focus on facts rather than emotions. For example, if you’re discussing the issue of someone constantly interrupting you, you could say, “It’s important to me to allow other people to finish speaking before chiming in to show respect and consideration for what they have to say, but at dinner last night, I noticed that you frequently cut me off mid-sentence.” 
  2. Share how the situation impacted you. To do this in a way that ensures the other person feels respected, use tentative language and highlight the fact that you could be wrong. For example, you could continue the conversation with, “I could be wrong, but this makes me feel like you don’t respect what I have to say, or don’t think that it’s important.”
  3. Ask for their side of the story. Open the floor by asking, “I know you may not be aware that you’re doing this, but I’d like to hear what you think about the situation.” Ask this sincerely and listen to the answer carefully. Once the other person has answered, reestablish the key issue by determining if it was a motivation or ability issue, and whether personal, social, or structural factors were at play. 

When you are approaching how to start a difficult conversation by laying out the facts, expressing your feelings, and asking for their perspective, you lay out the issue succinctly while letting the other person know that you’re not accusing them, rather informing them of the problem you’re facing and asking to work together to solve it, benefiting both of you in the long run. 

(Shortform note: In Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, and Heen recommend a similar approach to bring up the issue while maintaining a safe environment. While they essentially recommend taking the same steps, they combine the first two steps from Crucial Accountability into one, recommending that you lay out the facts and explain how the situation impacted you in the same statement. They add that you can most effectively do this by taking a third-party stance—in other words, focus on the facts and consequences and avoid emotional explanations. Their next step lines up with the third step presented by the authors: Invite the other person to respond.)

The Four Horsemen of a Relational Apocalypse

The authors use original research and insights throughout Crucial Accountability to explain how we can make problems worse by not properly addressing them, but it’s likely that their argument was inspired by John Gottman’s interpersonal communication theory, “The Four Horsemen of a Relational Apocalypse.” Gottman’s theory asserts that there are four primary toxic communication behaviors that lead to relationship termination—contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This theory is the foundation of the majority of modern interpersonal communication research on relationship maintenance, which is the basis of Crucial Accountability.

The authors’ discussion adds to Gottman’s research by addressing each of the four horsemen in different places throughout Crucial Accountability—either encouraging the reader to avoid the behaviors or explaining how we might unintentionally cause the other person to engage in them.

In the section above, the authors explain that choosing silence over speaking up can result in passive-aggressive behaviors that leak out unintentionally, such as snarky comments, a rude tone of voice, or rolling your eyes. These behaviors indicate Gottman’s second horseman, contempt, which is a loss of respect for the other person that results from long-simmering, unspoken issues. Gottman makes the same argument as the authors: These contemptuous forms of communication can seriously damage relationships, but they can be avoided by effectively voicing our concerns instead of trying to stifle them.

Maintaining Mutual Respect and Shared Purpose

The authors explain that sometimes we may unintentionally say or do something that makes the other person sense a lack of mutual respect or shared purpose. When this occurs, we must be able to identify the issue and re-establish safety immediately. This is a crucial concept to remember when learning how to start a difficult conversation.

To ensure that safety is maintained throughout the conversation, the authors explain that we must continually monitor the other person’s perception of mutual respect and shared purpose by looking for indications that they’re feeling anxious or defensive.

In the below sections, we’ll discuss how to re-establish mutual respect and shared purpose when we sense they’re in jeopardy. (Shortform note: While the authors suggest monitoring safety by looking for indications that the other person is feeling anxious or defensive, they don’t specifically state what these indicators are. Psychologists explain that we can pick up on aggression or defensiveness by looking for behaviors like placing hands on hips, clenching fists, rolling eyes, repeating motions like tapping fingers or feet, or closing posture with crossed legs or arms. Behaviors that can indicate anxiety or discomfort are avoiding eye contact, rapid blinking, biting or pursing lips, and closed posture.)

How to Start a Difficult Conversation

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al.'s "Crucial Accountability" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Crucial Accountability summary :

  • How to broach sensitive conversations with loved ones and coworkers
  • How to prepare for, execute, and follow up on accountability conversations
  • How to solve issues while improving your relationships

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.