The Formula To Creating Safety For Any Conversation

If you’re a regular to our blog then you will know that the ability to create safety in a conversation is the determining factor for success in a crucial conversation.

No matter how complicated, big, or small the issue, if you are able to make the other person feel safe you are setting yourself up to succeed in the conversation.

Creating safety is great concept, but beyond all the theory, how do you actually do it?

Here’s the formula. Mutual Respect + Mutual Purpose = Safety

About 12 years ago a colleague (David) was working with a healthcare company that had 75 small, rural hospitals in the Midwestern United States. One day David called the director of Human Resources with whom he had been working, but his assistant answered.

Here is how the conversation went:

When I (David) asked to speak with the director, the assistant said, “No.”

I asked if she could take a message. Again, she said, “No.”

Help me understand what’s wrong,” I replied.

After a long pause, she told me, “He died.”

I gasped, “Oh no — that’s horrible! I’m so sorry to hear that! When things are worked out, have someone give me a call.”

“Fine, but it could be a while,” she replied.

Surprisingly, the next day, their chief legal counsel — the head attorney for the whole firm — called back. She informed David that she would be stepping up as the acting HR director until they looked for a suitable replacement.

Wanting to know why a head attorney would take on a HR position. She said, “Well, I’ve been trying to handle a (different) problem through HR for a year and haven’t been successful. I sit in court regularly and hear our organisation under attack. I feel extremely nervous because I believe in each of our 75 hospitals, we have at least one physician who needs to retire and hasn’t. So, before we bring in a new head of HR, I need to hold some serious conversations, or what you call ‘Crucial Conversations’.”

This was the situation:

  • The attorney’s primary concern was the company, its liability, and the patients.
  • She’s working toward outcomes that benefit everyone, but the necessary conversations to get there will be high stakes.
  • As she works to purge the hospitals of doctors who should no longer practise medicine, she may be accused of firing loved physicians in small towns and denying doctors the privilege to work.
  • Lawsuits and bad publicity are seemingly inevitable.

With such high risks involved around the conversations that needed to be had the two essential tools she used are.

Mutual respect & Mutual purpose.

As she met with these physicians, she’d first show mutual purpose. She’d tell the physician, “At corporate, we’re putting together a programme. We’ll bring in 3-4 young physicians for you to interview. If you find the right match, we’ll finance this young physician to buy your practice, then you can retire. Want to join us?”

Most of the physicians were in! They found mutual purpose that quickly!

There was also the issue of doctors committing malpractice against their patients. Is there anything left to respect…….

It turns out there was.

Respect is like a glass half-full or half-empty. We can always find something to disrespect about anyone. Yet if we look carefully, we can also find something to respect.

She had immeasurable respect for what these physicians had done for the town and for how they were trying to help their patients now.

To show her respect, she brought a token of the company’s appreciation — a check for $500 written in the physician’s name to the charity of their choice to honour their years of service to the community.

Most physicians immediately pulled out their check-books and matched it. Some families raised additional funds (up to $20,000) to donate in honour of these physicians.

The physicians retired with the mutual respect of both the company and their communities.

Throughout this whole process, one thing never changed: the content of the conversations was still difficult.

The physicians needed to stop practising quickly. Often there were tears, but there weren’t lawsuits and negative news stories.

These Crucial Conversations were successful because they were built on mutual respect and mutual purpose.

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