Ninth Edition
 August 9, 2011
The Art of the Difficult Conversation – Part III of a Four Part Series

When Dialogue Breaks Down
We concluded Part II of this series last month, by stating that when a dialogue breaks down (“when safety is at risk”), you should step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in. In discussing this issue, a friend raised a question that I have grappled with and perhaps you have faced: “Can you show respect to people you don’t respect?” Patterson et al., in Crucial Conversations point out that in order to treat a person respectfully you do not have to agree with every viewpoint or respect every element of another’s character. The authors suggest that we look for ways that we are similar (not different). 

In addition, any judgmental attitude will soften when we recognize that we all have weaknesses. I have found that approach to work very well for me. When I contemplate the times that I have not lived up to my highest standards or hurt somebody’s feelings, regret and deep humility sweep across my heart, making me a compassionate listener. Some good can come from our failings! As an old prayer goes, “Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I.” 

ACC to Re-Establish Mutual Purpose
Sports fans know the ACC to mean the Atlantic Coast Conference. Here’s another meaning to ACC: Apologize, Contrast, Commit. Commit is further described by the acronym, CRIB. Patterson et al. describe the ACC approach this way: 

Apologize – Take ownership for your part in the breakdown of the dialogue. When you apologize, do it with sincerity. Half-baked apologies only get half-baked results. 

Contrast – When the other party misunderstands, explain what you do NOT mean, describe what you DO mean, and restore safety. 

Commit – CRIB as described below: 

C – Commit to seek a mutual purpose. Without a mutual purpose, there is no sense in further dialogue.

R – Recognize the purpose behind the strategy. The reason we fight over strategies sometimes is that we don’t share with the other person the real purpose behind that strategy. If both parties understand what is important to each other, they are more likely to find a mutually acceptable strategy. 

I – Invent a mutual purpose. What do you do when you cannot discover a mutual purpose? Invent one! Look beyond the purposes that divide you to a broader, more encompassing purpose that both parties can agree on. 

B – Brainstorm new strategies. Once a purpose is mutually agreed upon, the door is open to brainstorming strategies to reach that goal. Suspend judgment, be open to new approaches to arrive at your desired destination, and focus on quantity of ideas, not their quality. Later, you can put on the critic’s hat, evaluate the ideas, and select the best possible strategies. 

Watch out for the conclusion of this series, part IV of “Difficult Conversations,” in the September issue of this E-newsletter.

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If you’ve found these tips and insights on effective communication to be helpful, and especially if you’ve applied any of them successfully, we’d love to hear from you! If your story is selected, we will feature it in a newsletter. Please send your entry to: with the subject heading: “Difficult Conversations.”

Quote to Think About

"We can stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and regard another person’s basic humanity."
-- The Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace

Recommended Reading

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.
By Martin E.P. Seligman

I had heard the name of Martin Seligman lauded for his teaching, writing, and research by people I respect. Finally, when my daughter presented me with his latest book, Flourish, I made the time to begin reading Seligman. I have been enthralled by the book. For someone like me who is invested in helping people live up to their communication and performance potential, this book is required reading! A pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, Seligman's book lucidly reveals how one's sense of well being and ability to build and maintain positive relationships with self and others can be purposefully enhanced. I'm happy to recommend this book.


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