Starting a Critical Conversation While Bracing for a Punch

One of the most important determining factors in the success of a crucial conversation is the ability to create safety. When you make it safe, you create an environment where it’s possible to talk to anyone about anything.

It’s a great concept, but how does this look in the real world?

Let me share a life-saving experience I had that illustrates this point.

After working several weeks in Bangladesh, I arrived at the airport, ready to go back home. As I entered the building, my heart sank. The airport was crammed with people, the computers were down, and the employees were scrambling. The lines stretched long and moved slow. I didn’t I had any chance of making my flight, but I got in line and started waiting.

About an hour later, when I started to believe I might actually make my flight, a woman came across the lobby with a cart loaded with luggage and pushed her way into the line a few people ahead of me. She didn’t know who she was messing with… and it wasn’t me.

While I felt irritated, the guy she cut directly in front of felt irate. He went ballistic.

“You get out of line!” he yelled.

She refused, “No! I have to get in line to make this flight! My kids are expecting me. Please, please!”

Again, he insisted, “Get out of line!” and then pushed her luggage cart.

She pushed back. He pushed back again and so on.

Finally, as the situation escalated to a peak, he shoved the cart aside, doubled his fist, and reared back to punch her.

Standing about five people back in line, I knew I had to get involved. In my panic, all I could think to do was jump between him and her. Bad idea.

The first look I saw on his face was confusion. But then, that confusion turned into white, hot rage. His eyes bugged out of his head and he clenched his fist even tighter.

What story was he telling himself about me? Now I was the bad guy.

As I stared at his bulging eyes and clenched fist, I knew it was time for a crucial conversation.

My question to you: What would you say first? You don’t have much time!

This is no different than when you need to confront a physician in a fast-paced, time-bound urgent situation. What do you say first?

Here’s what I said: “That was unfair for her to cut in front of you. She shouldn’t have done that. You’ve been standing here in line for over an hour and she got right in front of you. That’s not right and she shouldn’t be allowed to do that. I’ll help you solve the problem. We’ll get someone from the airport over here and we’ll work this out. It’ll be okay.”

What did I do? I created safety.

To feel psychologically safe, people need to know two things:

1. You care about their problem.

2. You care about them.

Once someone knows you care, they’ll let you say anything! This includes a doctor or peer you need to challenge about a diagnosis. If they feel safe, they’ll listen. They may not always agree, but they’ll listen. Safety paves the way for a crucial conversation.

An amazing thing happened once the man in the airport knew I cared. His hand went down. His faced turned back to normal.

And then I said, “And you don’t get to punch her, but we’re going to solve the problem.” And he was alright with that because he felt safe.

When people don’t feel safe in a conversation, they become silent or violent.

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