High Stakes Conversations

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In a Complex World, How Can You Talk to your Children about Hot Button Issues?

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.  

–  John F. Kennedy

When E was between the ages of two and three, he adopted the very developmentally appropriate habit of running away from me. He thought it was hilarious. I thought it was downright dangerous. The first few times it happened, I envisioned a similar scenario by the road or a steep staircase in which he would take off running on his wobbly, not yet confident feet.  When I moved toward him with an impassioned “Stop! Don’t go there!” he moved in the direction I was moving – toward the dreaded danger – not away from it. After a fall down our staircase (it’s a miracle kids survive these ordeals!), I reflected on how I needed to change what I was doing. After all, it was a critical moment and I was not responding in a way that changed his behavior. And so I stopped and thought about how I could change my behavior in order to change his.

Skip ahead to your tween-age eighth grade daughter whose best friend has been trying to get her to return to school in the Fall when your family is concerned about safety and choosing homeschooling. Your daughter is crying about not wanting to lose her best friend and also not getting to see other friends and while you comfort her, you try and figure out the right thing to say.

Fast forward one more time to your fifteen year old son who has been repeatedly threatened by a group of other boys in the neighborhood. Though it’s been going on for some time, this is the first time you are hearing about it and you fear for his safety.

Whether we are communicating with a preschooler, a fifth grader or a teenager, it helps to think through how to have an open dialogue when those important moments strike. The New York Times Bestselling book, Crucial Conversations; Tools for Talking when Stakes are High1 gives significant insight into how to think about and handle those conversations to move toward collaborative problem solving even when the moment turns intensely heated. The authors of Crucial Conversations claim that the people they’ve observed that are effective at opening up dialogue in those critical moments are those who create a safe space to share personal visions and contribute to shared meaning. In that space, they make it possible to “solve the problem and build relationships.”

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The writers describe dialogue as “a pool of shared meaning.” Those who are effective in high stakes conversations contribute to the pool of shared meaning and open it for others versus typical fight or flight responses like using aggressive language, trying to cram one’s own agenda into a conversation or employing the “silent treatment.”  I’ve taken some of the book’s most important steps for “crucial conversations” and added my own developmental spin for parents who are talking to children. In addition to the steps below, the book is well worth reading for any critical conversations in your life.  The skills involved are not some magical blend of personality and temperament. They are indeed learnable skills. Try the following the next time you are in a critical conversation.

Pause a moment and calm down. Your emotions, whether you are aware of it or not, will be mirrored in your child so take a moment to breathe before proceeding. That short centering pause could mean the difference in your child listening or shutting down.

Move to eye level. For most of us with children, that means sitting or kneeling down at a child’s level. In the case of a teenage son, that might mean sitting so that his taller presence is more on level with your own.

Be direct.  With little ones (toddler through early elementary), use as few words as possible. In the example of a toddler running away, back up to create space for him to run forward instead of away.  You might get down on her level and say, “Danger. Follow me.” Beckon to follow and move away from the street or staircase. (Don’t turn it into a chasing game which only fuels the fun and excitement of that developmental desire for independence and boundary testing.) For older children, they need to exactly what you are concerned about in the simplest terms. Avoid attempting to manipulate your child’s attitude or behavior since children can sniff that motive immediately. If it’s an emotional topic for your child, they may only hear or connect with a fraction of what you say. So make it short, authentic, and to the point.

“Start with the heart.” Voice your genuine concerns in the situation. “You know I want to make sure you are safe but I also know it’s important to you that you have the independence of walking or biking in the neighborhood.” Own your role in the situation since you are the only one you can control. “I know at times I seem overprotective but my goal is just to work with you so that both of us feel you are proceeding safely.”

Articulate “mutual purpose.” Your daughter is focused on her friendship and the fear of losing it. You are focused on her academic performance and integrity. But finding and articulating your mutual purpose will help you find a common ground from which you can seek solutions together. In this case, your mutual purpose could be to help her sustain friendships and be successful in school while playing by school rules. Patterson et al. (2002) write that those skilled in facilitating dialogue do not see “either/ors” but find an “and” in any situation. Explain that she does not have to choose between friendship or integrity. But how can she find a way to maintain both?

Show “mutual respect.” Children will retreat and not be open to a conversation in which they feel a sense of blame from you. “YOU didn’t do your homework! We need to talk about this.” And your child shuts down. And it may take a while before you can reasonably revisit the conversation and get anywhere with it. If you see your child is not listening or backing away, they are likely not feeling respected. Address it directly. “I trust your good judgment. I know you are a good student as evidenced by all of your hard work in the past year. I just want to help you through a difficult situation. I think if we work together, we can come up with a solution that you’ll be happy with.”

Offer the “contrasting” view. Sometimes you need to say what is not true or not your purpose in order to allay any fears on the part of your child. Often in challenging, emotionally charged situations, our minds create a more inflated story than is the actual reality. In fact, teenagers are known for this trait. Saying what the situation is not will help eliminate those worries. “I’m not saying that your friendship is not important. I absolutely know it is. I like Cynthia. But I think she will still be your friend and may even respect you more if you make a choice that is good for you and her.”

Return to “safety.” If at any point during your important conversation, you see you are losing your audience – your child is losing focus, looking away or getting defensive -, focus solely on safety. They are feeling a lack of respect. They are feeling misunderstand or blamed and are pulling out of the “pool of shared meaning.” Quickly create safety by articulating their competence, autonomy and belonging – their ability and track record of making good choices. “When you were faced with a backlog of homework last year, I know that was so hard for you. But you took the challenge head on, worked hard and got through it. I know you can do it because you have already shown you can.”

Critical conversations are a tough challenge for everyone. But take just one of these practices and try to use it. Replay it in your head. And bring it forth when you have a chance. Try it out on your spouse. Maybe there is a lower risk situation in which you can get some practice. As you do, the strategies will feel right and more natural to you so that you will be able to regularly use these skills in critical moments. Being a skilled dialogue facilitator can mean the difference in successful problem solving with work and family challenges. And aren’t these the moments that help define and model character for your child?


1. Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations; Tools for talking when stakes are high. NY: McGraw-Hill.

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