This is part two of a two-part series on Crucial Conversations, an interview with Ron McMillan, co-founder of Vital Smarts and New York Times best-selling author. Part One, Crucial Conversations across Political Divides is here.

Imagine a relationship you are in is stuck. It may be because you see the world very differently in areas that really matter to you. It could be a child of yours who is turning from the Church or it could be that in your own circle of family or friends, suddenly there are political divisions—even noisy ones.

Whatever the reason, we know what it is to be stuck and unable to talk about what matters most to us with someone we love. We are afraid of alienating each other or of destroying a relationship that suddenly seems fragile.

Ron McMillan, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High discusses what he learned from a hostage negotiator one day at the airport about communicating across divides.

He was at the airport with some time to kill when he turned to the guy next to him and asked, “What do you do to put bread on the table?” He answered that he was a hostage negotiator. “What exactly did that mean?” He was the one, who when a gunman was holding somebody hostage was called in to deal with the situation and calm the perpetrator if possible.

McMillan asked, “How do you do that?” and the hostage negotiator told him that first they secure the perimeter and set up a control center, but it was the next part that was really surprising.

The hostage negotiator said “I find a quiet place where I won’t be interrupted, and I create respect in my heart for the perpetrator.” He explained, “People are respect radars. If they sense disrespect, that becomes issue number one and everything else is backburner.”

Ron asked “Can they can tell on the phone if you respect them?” Oh yes,” he replied. “If they feel disrespected, they’ll kill a hostage. It’s as if they are saying, if you don’t respect me, at least you’ll fear me. Now let’s talk.”

Then McMillan asked the most obvious question: “How do you respect someone who is doing such a terrible thing?”

The hostage negotiator said he tells himself “I don’t know what circumstances led up to this situation. I don’t know how you were raised or where, but this I know; you are a human being and you are due the respect every human being deserves. I lock that thought in my head and when I feel it in my heart, we are ready to negotiate.”

McMillan continued “Here is a hostage negotiator who could give someone his respect regardless of their actions, almost in spite of their behavior. This is amazing! I always thought respect is something you had to earn. But, in fact giving someone your respect is something you can choose to give, regardless of their words or actions.

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McMillan said the hostage negotiator’s insight is a critical strategy for our high-stake conversations. While these principles are true in all settings, they may be especially important when we are seeking to have a conversation with close family and friends in these divided times.

Make it Safe

He said, “One of the most important things we learned in our research is if you can make it safe for the other person to talk with you, they almost always will.  Make it safe enough, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything.  There are two conditions that make it safe to talk.  If both are present in a large degree the other person will feel very safe.  If these conditions only exist to a small degree there is very little safety.  If either condition is missing there will be no safety and constructive conversation is unlikely.” 

McMillan shared, “The two conditions that make it safe to talk are Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose.  The hostage negotiator taught us the importance of Mutual Respect.  Always choose to be respectful.  Mutual respect doesn’t require you to love the other person or even want them to be your best buddy.  You don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to show respect to them so you can have an effective conversation.

Mutual Purpose means we both want the same thing.  This reduces conflict. There’s no need to do battle with me if I am helping you to get what you want.  Creating Mutual Purpose begins by honestly answering this question: What do I really want?

McMillan said, before engaging in a crucial conversation, ask yourself “What do I really want to come out of this interaction? What’s my honest hope? Do I want to embarrass you? Do I want to ridicule your beliefs? Do I want to convince you that I know more about history than you, that I am smarter than you? Or do I want to deeply understand you? Do I want to be deeply understood? Do I want to figure out if there’s any common ground that we can stand together and work this out or agree to disagree agreeably and still have a good relationship?”

“Once you have clarity about your purpose you can begin thinking about what the other person really wants. To create Mutual Purpose, look for a purpose you can both agree to.  For example, ‘I want world peace.  Do you?’  See, that’s not too difficult. However, to make it more practical think of a result, outcome, value or a belief that you guess you would both care about, that’s relevant to your conversation. By identifying or discovering a Mutual Purpose and demonstrating your respect you can often make it safe enough to start a productive conversation.  Consider some examples of a beginning statement from work, home, and politics:

  • We both want the company to reach our profit goals and do it without laying off workers. Right?
  • I want to stay within our family budget and I know you do too.  You also feel we need a second car, as do I.   
  • I know you feel strongly about getting the kids back to school soon.  I do as well.  I also want to make sure there are safeguards in place to protect the faculty.”

He said, “Crucial conversations work best when our intention is this: ‘I want to understand why you think that way. I want to understand why you did what you did. I want you to understand why I feel the way I do. I want to see if we can come up with some resolution. When those things are in your mind, you automatically check yourself. You put the brake on before you say hurtful words.’”

“What do I really want? That’s a question that takes the reasoning and logic side of your brain and plugs it in to your values and beliefs. We call it Start With Heart. Get your heart right before you open your mouth and you will have dramatically increased the likelihood of having a helpful rather than a hurtful conversation.”

McMillan said, “As a society we tend to analyze and debate, label, stereotype and argue.  That’s what we are trained in. However, if I can get in touch with my values, if I can ask ‘what do I really want’, if I can anticipate the conversation and think about what really matters, things go better. Do I want to out debate you? Do I want to prove you wrong? Do I want to humiliate you? What do I really want?”

A New Executive

McMillan shared an experience he had while consulting with a large corporation. “There was a new executive vice-president, who asked me to observe her in a meeting and give her feedback on what she could do better.  She was talking to a group of 600 managers and employees and said, ‘One of our most important goals for this next quarter is to focus on cutting costs. Any questions?’

“A manager in the back of the room stood up and raised his hand. She called on him. He stood and said, ‘You say how important it is that we cut costs, yet from what I understand, when you moved into this new building, you had them remodel your office and expand it, taking out two other offices.  I’m guessing that once they finish with the brass and the glass, it will have cost around a quarter of a million dollars. Don’t you think that your emphasis on cost-cutting is kind of hypocritical?’

“She seemed taken back by his accusation. She seemed angry. She paused for an uncomfortable moment then said, ‘Thank you for your question and if you have it, I imagine other people have that question too.’

“She went on to explain that what had been remodeled was not just her office. It was a multimedia reception area where they were going to bring the CEO’s of client companies to come in and get a presentation. She said, ‘I think it is a good use of our money because I think it will help us upsell. Nevertheless, your question is a very important one, because I should have communicated that to all of you. Of course, I should have let you know what I am doing.’

“She was masterful. She turned that awkward moment into a time of being a real hero.

“Afterward I asked her, ‘How did you do that? He asked you that question and insulted you and you got really mad, but then you were calm and cool.’

“She answered, ‘It’s a little trick I learned. My Dad taught it to me. Whenever I start feeling strong negative emotions, she said, I just pause, and ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” My Dad really believed in Jesus, and I do too. So, I thought what would Jesus do? Would he yell at that guy? Would he fire him? No, he would say, ‘Does he have a good question? What’s behind it?’”

McMillan said, “She turned that challenge and insult into an opportunity to get more cooperation and give more understanding. What we learned is that people who can change mid-stream can move from being angry to being contemplative. Her question ‘What would Jesus do’ was a very effective way of Starting With Heart. When she asked, ‘What would Jesus do’, she plugged into her values instead of her debate skills.”  

“So, you start with the heart, and you prepare yourself ahead of time, so you can move the conversation in the direction you want it. If you get in the moment, and your heart isn’t prepared, you can stop.”

Seek to Understand

McMillan said, “The strategy that makes sense to me is a Steven Covey principle. “Seek first to understand, then seek to be understood.” If I work on you first. and you feel really understood, then often your defensiveness comes down. I am not attacking you. I am listening. It introduces reasonableness to our conversation and without even noticing it, we are talking, without yelling or threatening.

“Having sincerely listened, it’s good to check your understanding. Summarize what you just learned about the other person and their point of view. Don’t evaluate or rebut. Just check your understanding of what they said. It might go something like this. ‘You feel strongly about this and this, because of this, and that’s one reason that you think what’s happening is awful and needs to be corrected. Is that right? Did I get that right?’ Give them the opportunity to clarify their remarks or meaning. Sincerely thank them for sharing. ‘I appreciate your helping me. I really wanted to know how you see this’.

“Having respectfully listened and checked your understanding, you have earned the right to be understood and created the respectful conditions that make it more likely they will listen to you. You might ask, ‘Would you be interested in knowing how I see this? Would you be interested in my point of view on this subject?’

“Or you can be a little bolder: ‘I have listened respectfully and tried to understand you. I would like you to understand me, too. Do you mind if I share with you how I see that?’ This can often be a way to express your point of view with strength, and probably reduce their defensiveness quite a bit. Maybe they will listen, and maybe they will even be persuaded a little bit.”

McMillan said when you talk with others where there is the possibility of contention, you rely on principle, skill and strategy, and, even if you follow all of these practices, you cannot always guarantee the outcome you desire. Sometimes silence is best. Consider the words of an apostle.

Marvin J. Ashton said, “When others disagree with our stand we should not argue, retaliate in kind, or contend with them. We can maintain proper relationships and avoid the frustrations of strife if we wisely apply our time and energies.

“Ours is to conscientiously avoid being abrasive in our presentations and declarations. We need constantly to remind ourselves that when we are unable to change the conduct of others, we will go about the task of properly governing ourselves.

“Certain people and organizations are trying to provoke us into contention with slander, innuendos, and improper classifications. How unwise we are in today’s society to allow ourselves to become irritated, dismayed, or offended because others seem to enjoy the role of misstating our position or involvement. Our principles or standards will not be less than they are because of the statements of the contentious. Ours is to explain our position through reason, friendly persuasion, and accurate facts. Ours is to stand firm and unyielding on the moral issues of the day and the eternal principles of the gospel, but to contend with no man or organization. Contention builds walls and puts up barriers. Love opens doors. Ours is to be heard and teach. Ours is not only to avoid contention, but to see that such things are done away.”(Elder Marvin J. Ashton, “No Time for Contention”)

These principles and tools can help us be the peacemakers the world needs so badly today. To learn more, check out