Power, Privilege, and Dialogue

We often get asked if the skills taught in Crucial Conversations training presume a degree of privilege not afforded to many i.e. do they work best if you’re in a position of power?

For example, imagine you’re in a cutthroat culture where people use authority and popularity and politicking to achieve ends and get their way when faced with disagreement. Wouldn’t the Crucial Conversations skills be moot in that situation—unless you were one of those who has power and authority? Will these skills work with my boss? My parent? Does gender make a difference? What about ethnicity? Popularity? Education? Wealth?

It’s not that these skills only work best if you’re in a position of privilege or power, it’s that you need them most if you are.

At the outset of a high-stakes disagreement, we experience a fight-or-flight response. Should I back down or step up? Give in or dig in?

Whether we flex or flee, argue or attempt to escape, often depends on what advantage we hold, or think we hold, in that given situation.

If we are predisposed to arguing (and some of us are) or believe we have the upper hand, the temptation is to wield our advantage in order to “win” the disagreement. This is known as coercion or manipulation, not dialogue.

Think of a recent heated and high-stakes disagreement you’ve had. Even if you are versed in the skills from Crucial Conversations, and even if you used them, for a brief moment you may have been tempted to wield whatever advantage you had or think you had. Or you may have recognised the other person doing this.

The problem with this approach is that it damages trust and respect. When we damage trust and respect, we compound our problems and disagreements.

Remember Kevin, from the book? In the second chapter of Crucial Conversations we describe our early research, in which we followed several top managers to see what set them apart. It didn’t take long for us to discover why Kevin’s peers had told us he was exceptional. It wasn’t because he was the VP.

What we learned from watching Kevin and others like him over the years is that top managers don’t wield their authority in crucial moments. Nor do they succumb to coercion when threatened with it. Whether they hold an advantage or disadvantage, they handle disagreements with respect and candor.

Wherever two or more people gather, there will be social disparity. Sometimes those disparities are obvious and outward. Usually they are subtle and nuanced and don’t appear until we disagree, for disagreement brings our differences to the surface. And in every disagreement, somebody will have an advantage. But to seek that advantage and wield it is to lean on a crutch that has the capacity to cripple you.


Because having the advantage is relative to context. How will you attempt to resolve disagreement when you find yourself at a disadvantage?

Over the years we have just as often received the opposite of the original question. People who find themselves in a position of privilege or power want to know how the skills will work for them. Will these dialogue skills work with my child? My sensitive direct report? My younger peer? My introverted partner?

These questions come from people who are mindful of an advantage they may hold, and they don’t want to wield it. They recognize that if they use their authority or seniority or any other social edge to coerce or compel, they will likely damage trust and respect.

Therefore, the skills taught in Crucial Conversations are essentially democratic. They are a great equalizer in those moments when we may be tempted to exploit social disparity to manipulate others. They teach us how to disagree with another person as a person; without any bias. This doesn’t guarantee you can dissuade someone from malintent. You can only control how you show up.

Finally, can having good dialogue skills place a burden on someone? Of course they can if they are seen as a burden. But it can also be viewed as a blessing and a boon. An opportunity. 

It’s healthy to question the efficacy and the ethics of the skills we teach. Through critical thinking we might improve our understanding. And through a better understanding we might improve our ability.

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