How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Open Up

If someone doesn’t want to talk with you, they won’t. Even if you were to practise every skill we teach in Crucial Conversations exactly the way we tell you to do it, you can’t make someone dialogue. This is frustrating anywhere. But at work, it can feel like an obstacle to doing your job. So why aren’t the skills working?

See, these skills are not techniques for controlling others. They’re not tools for manipulating behaviour or eliminating others’ agency. These skills have limits and do not guarantee other people will behave in exactly the way you desire. Bummer!

These skills also aren’t a one-time technique. It’s tempting to think of a crucial conversation as the one chance to solve this problem, one conversation needed to save a relationship, or one opportunity to make everything right. But it’s not. What if instead, we saw the single crucial conversation as the beginning of the dialogue?

Building Safety Into Relationships

The first conversation is often just an entry point for many more interactions to come. These conversations can be the first of many toward making a negative relationship positive, the first of many necessary to right a wrong. What if we seek, not just to have a conversation based on mutual purpose and respect, but rather a rich relationship based on these conditions?

These principles and skills are about more than one conversation. They are ways of building relationships, teams, and families. The wisest use of these skills is to develop healthy habits — not to use them occasionally in single interactions.

Making A Teenager Feel Safe Enough to Talk

Here’s how I saw it in my own family. Years ago, I had serious concerns about one of my teenage daughters. She’d always been a straight-A student, but then her grades tanked. She started bringing home Cs and Ds. Her grooming degraded. And after school, instead of hanging out with her friends, she stayed in her room alone.

I knew something was wrong. But my repeated efforts of using my best skills to get her to talk were rebuffed with icy silence or sullen one-word replies. When she did initiate a conversation, it was only to complain or make a sarcastic comment.

It would be easy to see these crucial conversations with my daughter as failures. Not a single attempt created dialogue with her or solved a problem. Yet, consistently applied principles can have a strong influence over time. Every heartfelt attempt to talk with her made it safer for her. Each time I replied to her sarcasm with respect, I nurtured safety. Every time I stopped probing before she felt overwhelmed, I showed respect for her privacy.

As I shared my good intentions and offered to be of help, her negative stories softened.

Then came the memorable moment. After several weeks of patient effort, when she finally felt safe enough, she approached me, shared a problem, and asked for my help. Our conversation created understanding and options and gave her the resolve to pursue them.

Be Patient: Building Safety Takes Time

If you use these skills exactly the way we tell you to and the other person doesn’t want to dialogue, you won’t dialogue. But as you work to transform your workplace into a place of mutual purpose and respect, be patient. It may take a while to cultivate the safety needed to see the change you’re looking for.

However, if you persist, refusing to take offence, making your motives genuine, showing respect, and constantly searching for mutual purpose, then the other person almost always will join you — even if it takes some time.

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