Episode 115 – Justin Hale, Mastering Crucial Conversations

This week we continue our special series on the Art of Difficult Dialogue with master trainer and training designer, Justin Hale. Justin has traveled the world teaching businesses and individuals how to engage the art of productive dialogue by having Crucial Conversations. Today, Justin and Jessica have an incredibly helpful and practical chat about how we can better walk into our relationships ready to learn, grow, and have the conversations that are so important.


Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Alright, this week we are joined by a Difficult Dialogue expert. His name is Justin Hale and he is a speaker, trainer, designer, and master trainer at VitalSmarts, a leadership training company based on the works of the authors of “Crucial Conversations.” If you’ve read my book “Imperfect Courage,” you know that that book “Crucial Conversations” was actually the launchpad for me to grow in how to have a dialogue. And it was from reading that book that I began to see that I really just cared about being right in a lot of my conversations instead of caring about listening. That book sent me on a transformative journey, and while the authors have retired, I was really thankful to get to have Justin Hale, who has been mentored and trained by them, to join us today and it is a really good conversation. I think I liked it so much because it’s very practical. He actually gives us a blueprint on how to have a difficult conversation. Listen in.


Justin Hale: Mastering Crucial Conversations

Jessica: Well, thank you for hopping on. I read the book, "Crucial Conversations" a few years ago, but it ended up being pretty critical in my life, and especially it came into my life… Well, usually you find what you’re needing at the time. So, my business partner and I were just having a hard time with dialogue and conversation. And I remember we actually ended up hiring a coach trained in crucial conversations, and he walked the book with us. I mean, that’s how crucial it ended up being in our lives. And then a couple years after that, we ended up hiring a full-time executive coach who we actually had on this series. And her work is really around listening, and how we have completely overlooked what listening actually means.

What does it mean to be experienced, as a listener? And I thought it tied in so nicely to "Crucial Conversations," because so much of what I learned from that book was that the goal of dialogue is to create a space where everyone feels able to add to the meaning, to add to the pool of common meaning. That was like my big, big “aha” takeaway from "Crucial Conversations" was, okay, I need to create a space where… And then it gave some really great tools, like, “Tell me more,” and “Okay, so that’s how you feel?” Where does that come from? I’d love to hear more. And so, creating that openness, but usually, in a crucial conversation, that’s the last thing you’re wanting to do.

Justin: That’s right.

Jessica: Pretty much, it goes against everything that our body is wanting to do when we are in a critical conversation. So, I’m thankful that you’re on the show, and welcome. And I just gave a long intro to why I wanted you on the show. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you became a crucial conversation expert?

Justin: Yeah. So, for the last almost 13 years, I’ve been working at VitalSmarts doing quite a bit of work with organizations, individuals, and teams, trying to help them build the skills they need to be more vital, more successful, more fulfilled in their work, in their life. And so, much of that work has been crucial conversations. So, I’ve had a chance to travel to many different places around the world. And whether it’s speaking to large groups or doing small workshops where I’m coaching a group of executives, or I’m teaching a group of employees from across the organization. And the focus has really been saying, "Here’s a skill, an idea, but then let’s practice it. And I wanna give you feedback and coaching the same way that if you were learning a new sport or you were learning any new skill you would need to have a lot of practice." And so, I spend quite a bit of time supporting people, teaching people how to do these things, crucial conversations, as well as a number of other skill sets around productivity, and influence, and things like that.

Jessica: So, tell me about your journey, because usually, you become a coach when you yourself realized “I need to learn this.” So, what’s been your journey in becoming a master conversationalist yourself?

Justin: Well, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because when I was in college, I had a great interest of the topic of why people do what they do. So, I picked up books and I started to read the research. And I was reading research around intrinsic motivation, what makes people tick, and why they do what they do. One of the things that I came to find, and that we’ve come to find over and over again, is one of the biggest sticky points in people’s lives continues to be their ability or inability to connect with other people. And so, for me, my journey was learning a lot of the methodology, and the research, and what the experts said in terms of here’s what the science says around how you should best handle those kinds of moments. And I started to discover when you realize the best practices, you start to realize your own inadequacies, right? So, I started to think about… We do an exercise in the beginning of the workshop called how you got your way as a child. And for me is a big “aha” moment, right? You start to say, "How did I go about getting my way with other humans growing up?" What are the strategies and tactics I used? And it feels a little shameful.

“One of the things that I came to find, and that we’ve come to find over and over again, is one of the biggest sticky points in people’s lives continues to be their ability or inability to connect with other people.” Justin Hale

Jessica: Well, that’s a really good question. And what’s the output that you’re wanting from that exercise?

Justin: The idea is, we want people to start looking at sort of their own styles under stress, starting to think about how they’ve gone about getting their way throughout their life. And it’s interesting because you get such a variety. People start saying, “I was always someone who was into negotiating with my parents,” or “I would throw fits,” or “I would throw temper tantrums,” or some people would say I’d go to silence. And we always ask this question and we say, "Well, now that you’re an adult, and you’re so educated and reasonable and rational, what’s changed?" And people giggle and laugh, but then they’re also a little bit this nervous laughter that people say, "Have I really changed, or do I just do the adult version of some of these things?" It’s always kind of funny to when people say things like, "Let’s stop talking the way we’re talking, and let’s have an adult conversation."

And my experiences watching hundreds of these conversations is, an adult version of crucial conversations is rarely productive. I mean, adults just… becoming an adult doesn’t naturally make you good at this kind of stuff. There’s nothing with growing with age that automatically gives you the skills to be effective at handling conflict or disagreement. And so, typically, whatever you did when you were younger, whatever you were either born with or you sort of saw modeled by your parents, and you started to duplicate, likely, you do some version of that now. You don’t just grow out of it. Now, you can learn and practice your way out of it. But you don’t just grow out of it. And I think that that’s the thing we’re trying to get out of that exercise, and everyone should consider for themselves is, how did I go about getting my way when I was a child, when I was a teenager, when I was inexperienced? And do I do some version of that now? And is it getting me the results that I want or not?


Conversation is a Two-Way Street

Jessica: That’s a good question. I’m curious, have… and you can keep this anonymous, in working with clients, describe a situation where you just thought, "Oh, my God, these people, like, they are stuck in their ways. They’re getting nowhere." And then you were able to come in, they had some “aha moments,” and they were actually able to move past that place of being stuck in their ways. Do you have a story you could share?

Justin: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because I have so many examples. But even when I think about one of the first courses I ever taught, and I walked into this group. And usually, the courses when I teach them, there’s 15 to 20 people in the room. And I walked into this large manufacturing plant. And there were six people in there. And they were these big, mean-looking, hard-nosed men who had these white jumpsuits on, and they gave me this look like, "I dare you to try to teach me." And so, I was intimidated. I was young. I was inexperienced. And I leaned on the content, sort of teaching some of the skills. And it was interesting, you started to notice a few more hand raising, a few more questions being asked.

And I had a gentleman that never smiled, come up to me at a break and say, "Hey, you know, I got to tell you something, I’m a manager and I manage this team of people that I’m struggling to get moving, get them doing what I need them to do. And these things you’re telling me, these skills are so important. I needed this so badly. I wanna go tell our head of training that everybody needs this training." That was one early experience that I had very quickly. But I’ve had a lot of individual experiences where people will come in and say things like, "You know, I need you to teach me how to deal with this difficult person." And they start to notice as we teach them, specifically a skill called “Master my Stories,” that they start to realize that they are a larger contributor than they ever wanted to admit.

So, when we’re in this state, this state of holding crucial conversations, we often get into this fight or flight mode, right? And this idea that we’d be, you really get dumbed down in some ways because we go into this reptilian brain mode, and we’re all about survival. And the unfortunate part is in that moment, we become acutely aware of how the other person is engaging in the conversation. We’re acutely aware of how they’re mishandling it. We become horrible self-monitors, terrible self-monitors. So, I’ll be sitting in a class teaching people, especially this principle about “Master my Stories” about where your emotions come from, and I’ll have people, you’ll see it in their eyes, and the light bulb goes on. And they start to realize that they are contributing to the problem. The problem isn’t the other person, but it’s the stories they’ve been telling themselves, their own opinions, their own biases, their own assumptions that are actually creating so much of their problem.

“The problem isn’t the other person, but it’s the stories they’ve been telling themselves, their own opinions, their own biases, their own assumptions that are actually creating so much of their problem.” Justin Hale

There’s actually a really interesting exercise we used to do in a previous version of one of our classes. And it was really fascinating, and it was based on some research that was done around how our perceptions affect what we think about others. And in essence, the exercise went like this. We had everybody think of someone that they would say was their least preferred co-worker. And they would write that person’s name and I wouldn’t ask them to share with the group for anonymity. They’d write that person’s name down. And then we would have them rate that person on 10 or 12 different scales. Scales from hard-working, to trustworthy, to loyal, to all these different scales, they would rate them on these scales either being very low, like disloyal, or very high, very loyal, those types of things, on about 10 to 12 different measures.

So, they had named this least preferred co-worker, and then they rated them all at all these things. And then we had them… we wanted to see who was the harshest in rating their least preferred co-worker. And then we would have them share the score. Once again, we wouldn’t have them share a name. We’d simply say, "Who gave the harshest score?" And one of the things that we talk about, and this is based on some other research that was done, was that often what happens when you have an intact team going through that class or doing that exercise with us, often the person who was the harshest in their rating of their own least preferred co-worker is often the person whose name has shown up on many of the other people’s piece of paper.

So, the idea here is that the harshness of your rating says more about you than it does about the other person. And I had dozens of those types of situations where people feel like clearly, it’s the other person. And to be candid, that’s something that I’ve come to discover at times when I become maybe even a little overconfident as a trainer saying, "Yes, I’m helping these people see the light." But then I’ve been reminded how often I personally do that. Moments when I look at them and say, "See, now they’re realizing they’re the problem." I am very quickly reminded that, oh, I am actually part of the problem. I’m my own problem, whether it’s in my marriage, or whether it’s in my work with my team that I work with at work. Being able to see your own contribution is at the essence of being successful in holding crucial conversations.

Jessica: Break that down for us.

Justin: Yeah. So, what you wanna think a little bit about is, when you’re trying to contribute effectively to a crucial conversation, you always wanna start before you prepare what you’re gonna say, how you’re gonna say it, you always want to work on yourself first. And I know that’s hard for people because some people say, "The other person is one that messed up. They’re the ones that made the mistake. They’re the ones that hurt my feelings." And maybe it’s true, maybe the other person made a clear error. That being said, you got to ask yourself, what’s the goal? The goal is to have an effective conversation, get to dialogue, and solve the problem. Okay, so if that’s your goal, I’m gonna tell people, the best chance they have, before they do anything else, is to work on themselves first, even if the other person was in error. Working on yourself means a couple things. One, it means getting your motive right. People’s motive goes wrong way before what comes out of their mouth goes wrong.

So, what I tell people is, "Hey, often in the middle of a crucial conversation, your motive degrades. It goes from wanting dialogue, and getting results, to being right and winning and punishing, blaming." So, the first thing you can do is get your motive right. Ask yourself the question, “What do I really, really want long-term for this conversation, for me, for the other person, for the relationship, for the team, for the organization?” You have to ask yourself the question. You need to focus on long-term motive, not short-term motive. Short-term motive will move you into ineffective strategies in the conversation. A long-term motive will help you focus on being respectful and candid in the conversation.

The second thing you can do to work on yourself first is get your emotions in check, right? Our emotions get all crazy, and we don’t act in effective ways. And what we teach is the science. The brain science teaches us that your emotions don’t come from what other people are doing or saying. Your emotions are a function of the story you tell yourself about what other people are doing. So, we teach them that science. And we say, "Here’s how your brain works. You see and hear things and then your brain puts it through a filter. You tell yourself a story about what you just saw. And it’s the story that determines how you feel." So, two people can go into a meeting and feel very differently, why? What they saw and heard was the same. But what their story was, their perception was different. The filter they put what they saw and heard through was very different. Thus, their feelings are very different. So, those are the two key things that people have to do before they enter any conversation, any tough conversation, any crucial conversations, no matter if the other person is at fault or not. You have to work on yourself first. And that means getting your motive right and it means getting your emotions in check.

And what’s great is, is when people can start to own the fact that their stories create their emotions, they can start to separate out the facts of the situation from their stories. They can start saying, well, what did I actually observe? What did I see and hear? Versus, what’s my assumptions about what I saw and heard? What are my conclusions about what I saw and heard? And when I can start separating those two out, a couple things start to happen. One, I start to discover that my stories aren’t facts. My stories are just my stories. And as I separate the facts from the stories, I start to be able to better suspend judgment. And I neutralize my emotions and become more curious and less condemning because I realize, you know what, with the same set of facts, anyone can tell an infinite number of stories. The things that I’ve been telling myself are just my perceptions. And when I start to own that, I start to realize, you know what? Maybe there’s something else going on here. But I’m going to go in, focus on the facts, and thus my emotions are focused more on the facts rather than focused on my own assumptions of the facts. So, working on yourself first is essential before you even start thinking about what you’re gonna say or how you’re gonna say it.


What Makes a Crucial Conversation?

Jessica: I love that. And I love challenging our assumptions and then almost writing out the facts of the situation. I realized we haven’t really defined what a crucial conversation is. I’m just assuming everyone knows what that is. How do you define a crucial conversation?

Justin: Yeah. I think that’s a great question because not every conversation in your life is crucial, some conversation…

Jessica: God, that would be draining.

Justin: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. Some conversations are very low stakes. Some conversations are sort of, “Please pass the butter,” no big deal. But when we talk about a crucial conversation, we’re specifically referencing conversations where there’s high stakes, there’s different opinions, and people have strong emotions about the topic. So, those are the three elements you want to watch for. There are sort of yield signs that tell you that when I see these three things coming together, I need to… Like if you’re driving, I see a yield sign, that says I need to drive a little differently, I need to pay a little closer attention.

“When we talk about a crucial conversation, we’re specifically referencing conversations where there’s high stakes, there’s different opinions, and people have strong emotions about the topic.” Justin Hale

Jessica: Say those three things one more time.

Justin: Yeah. High stakes.

Jessica: High stakes.

Justin: You have different opinions and strong emotions.

Jessica: Different opinions. Okay. So, you just described, really, where our country is at right now. So, I mean, when you think about the last few months… You know what’s been interesting for me is some of my crucial conversations over the last few months have been this surprising place in friendship and how we’re navigating safety differently. Or, what my idea is of wearing masks and staying outside primarily for social things, where I’m thinking, well, I have two neighbors, and we’re, "Potting together," and we’re sharing each other’s germs. But then how another friend might think that safety, it’s actually staying at home 24/7, and not seeing anybody, and navigating that, where you’re wanting the best for the other person, and you’re wanting the other person that you’re creating a safe space for that other person. But then also, you’re thinking, well, that other person might be really extreme and wackadoodle in how they’re approaching… It’s been a dance. I would say the last few months, we have all been doing so many dances in conversations. What specifically have you seen arise because of the last few months? And then I would love for you to share what those principles are for mastering the kind of conversations that most of us are having right now.

Justin: Yeah. I think that’s great. I think more of us need to be having these conversations. I did an interview about a year ago with someone about conversations around politics. And this is very similar. And in many cases today, those are crossing over, whether it’s the COVID-19 discussion, or health, or CDC, or politics, many times it’s crossing over for people. But I think that what’s so interesting is, is that when you look at whether you’re posting something online or you’re engaging in a conversation with your neighbor about it, the thing that I tend to encourage people to ask themselves is, ”Why are you bringing this up? Why are you posting that post? What are you trying to accomplish?” And a lot of times their initial reaction might be a little defensive and say, "Well, I’m just educating people." And say, "Yeah. But why is it that you’re posting and saying it that way? Why are you stating it with those exclamation points? Why are you saying things like ‘the fact of the matter is…’? What are you trying to accomplish by stating it that way?" And when you really dig down, what you notice is that too often you and I are trying to state our perspectives as if they’re facts. Why? Because we want to prove other people wrong. We want to be right.

“And when you really dig down, what you notice is that too often you and I are trying to state our perspectives as if they’re facts. Why? Because we want to prove other people wrong. We want to be right.” Justin Hale

And that motive is something all of us fall into at times. And yet, it’s something that people don’t realize they’re doing. They want so badly to be right about something more than they actually care about the safety of themselves or even their neighbors or their friends. They wouldn’t admit that initially, but it’s shown very clearly in the way that we often deliver our messages. And so, I watch dialogue that’s happening on social media or between conversations with people. Just this last week we had a family get-together. We had a funeral and I was with my uncle, my father, and other family members. And I had a family member that was very passionate and incredibly spiteful about the other perspective and the other side. Clearly, in his perspective, they were wrong. And all he could focus on was that they were wrong, and he couldn’t believe that someone could feel differently.

So, what I would suggest to people is first to get very clear on why they’re bringing something up or having a conversation. Are you doing it to learn? Are you doing it to candidly hear different perspectives and share yours respectfully and say, “here’s what I think”? So that’s the first, is really ask yourself, because if you can’t say you’re doing it for a reason that’s truly beneficial for you and the other person, don’t have the conversation. Don’t do it until you’re ready, until your motive is in a good place. The other question is when you’re sharing your perspective, I think it’s more important to share why you think what you think, than continuing to shove what you think down people’s throats. So often, it’s okay. I mean, it’s very good. It’s healthy for us to disagree and have different perspectives. I think that’s okay. And it’s gonna continue to be an important part of us as a society and as a world. Growing, and learning, and developing is inviting different perspectives.

That being said, I think that what’s most helpful to start to humanize each other and be open other perspectives, is to stop focusing on saying, "I believe this, I believe this," but then describe the experiences that you’ve had that drove you to have that perspective. So, if you’re having a certain opinion towards COVID-19, describe for your friend why you came to that. Was it a personal experience? Was it a sick child? Was it a sick grandparent? Or was it the opposite? I had someone who shared with me. He said, "I don’t know a single person who’s gotten sick." And I was glad they shared that with me because it helped me understand how they came to develop the perspective they developed. That it was less about, I was sitting there thinking, oh, they’re not educated, or they don’t understand. It was more about saying, their data stream and their experience is different than mine. And of course, that educates their opinion.

And so, with any of these conversations, we tend to think as soon as we see that someone else has a different perspective, we go after trying to villainize that other person to justify our disrespect for them or their perspective. And so, one of the first things you need to do in any of these conversations is find commonality. When you don’t see commonality, when all you see is difference, it becomes very easy for you to justify your own bad behavior and acting disrespectful to someone else. Of course, I would act that way towards them, because they think X, Y, and Z. The solution to that is to do the opposite. Start by looking for commonality. Start by looking for things that you share and use that as a place to build. And so, even if you have strongly disagreeing perspectives, maybe you’re on the very opposite sides of political opinions, or political parties, or perspectives on a policy, or a social policy. Start by finding out what you do agree on. That is such a wonderful place to start for creating the kind of psychological safety you need to have a very difficult conversation.

“Start by finding out what you do agree on. That is such a wonderful place to start for creating the kind of psychological safety you need to have a very difficult conversation.” Justin Hale

What’s amazing in our country, and many other countries, especially when we’re talking about politics is that people honestly believe that the other side is trying to destroy their country. And yet they both think that. And what my goal in facilitating some of these conversations is to say to each party, “Do you realize the other party thinks as strongly about their perspective as you do? And they think as equally as you do, that you’re trying to hurt the country. Are you trying to hurt the country?” "Absolutely not. I’m trying to adjust the country." Well, guess what? They believe they’re doing the same. Isn’t that interesting that you’re both actually trying to accomplish the exact same thing. You’re just going about it very differently. And yet, we don’t look at each other that way. I think that’s such a helpful way to start, which is trying to find ways to create commonality. Try to find ways the other person is like you not different than you, that makes disagreement much more productive.


Choose a Thoughtful Approach

Jessica: I think it’s hard. I’m just imagining you in this situation with this fired-up uncle with possibly very differing opinions from you. And suddenly, you haven’t been able to prepare for this conversation. You haven’t been able to sit and get your motives right. And you’re just suddenly in it. You are in it. Is that the kind of conversation where you tell yourself, “I’m not ready for this, so I’m just gonna listen and not engage?”

Justin: Yeah. I think it’s more important when you notice that. I mean, that’s the first step that I think is huge that most people don’t ever notice, is that they’re feeling angry or frustrated. And then they say, I’m about to do something I shouldn’t do, and stop themselves. If you do that alone, then good for you. That’s really good. Most people don’t even catch that. So, if you could learn to notice when you’re kind of heating up, so to say. And you say to yourself, "If I engage, I’m not gonna do a good job." But I do think it’s more helpful to not engage. I think that…

Jessica: Really.

Justin: Yeah. Because what would you rather do? Engage in a way that you know immediately is going to hurt the relationship or hurt the conversation? Or you can change the way you’re engaging and say, "I’m not gonna share my perspective. But what I’m gonna focus on for the next little bit is just asking questions to understand why the other person thinks what they think. And I’m not focused on being convinced or convincing them. I just wanna understand why they think what they think. And I’m gonna ask questions."

Jessica: And that is so powerful because that actually usually ends up diffusing the other person.

Justin: That’s right. That’s right. People will feed off of – when one side gets frustrated and defensive, the other side feeds off of it. And so, defensive behavior feeds off more anger, and anger feeds off more defensive behavior. So, I think it’s absolutely true. Now, most of us don’t wanna do that because… and this continues to happen. People sit there and they say… I heard my family members say this. And I’ve heard plenty of other on both sides, neighbors I have, or on the opposite side of my family member would say, "I can’t believe they think what they think. They’re crazy. Don’t they understand what’s going on? Don’t they see it?" To both sides, it seems black and white. So, clearly, for me, the answer tends to be, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. And yet, most people don’t wanna take a sort of measured or a thoughtful approach about topics. They wanna try to take an extreme side because they feel like the other side is going to hurt things.

And so, I think it’s very helpful to be focused on saying, "Why does the other person think what they think? Where are they coming from?" Now, people often aren’t willing to do that because they feel like somehow, it’s a sign of weakness. That if I open myself up to understanding them, then I’m opening myself up to be convinced. And I often say, give yourself more credit. You’re too hard-headed to be convinced. So, don’t worry about that. It’s not like they’re gonna magically convince you. And oh, by the way, if they do, then maybe they have some points to be considered. But most of us aren’t willing to listen or understand. We don’t care about that. We just wanna be right.

Personally, for me, when I hear people engaging in a conversation that way, I’m actually very quickly… I actually quickly make a decision, say to myself, “I’m not gonna focus on sharing my perspective here, if I know I disagree with them. I’m not interested in getting in a fight with them. I’m just gonna ask them questions and understand. And if at any point, I feel like the emotions have dropped, maybe I’ll share my perspective.” But if you feel like you’re ready to make that transition, sharing your perspective, in my opinion, needs to have a format to it. The format is you share your facts, and then you tell your story, and then you ask for the other person’s opinion. What I mean by that is, it creates a lot of safety. It’s a great way to present your perspective without being weak. It allows you to be honest and respectful. The idea is you say, "Hey, here are the facts." And this is, by the way, with political discussions, or social issues, or COVID-19. I’ll say, you need to share the facts. And people say, "Yeah, yeah. I get that." I say, "No, no, I don’t think you get it. You say that you got it…"

“Sharing your perspective, in my opinion, needs to have a format to it. The format is you share your facts, and then you tell your story, and then you ask for the other person’s opinion.” Justin Hale

Jessica: Like, name the facts.

Justin: Yeah. I don’t mean your facts. I don’t mean the facts that you… what I mean is, I mean, actual things you can measure and observe that both parties would agree are facts. These conversations go bad right off the bat because people are immediately disagreeing on facts. And I say, "Well, they’re not facts then. They’re opinions." And it’s okay to disagree on opinions but make sure you know what you’re talking about. You’re not arguing about facts you’re arguing about opinions. So, you wanna start with things the other person can agree on, things that are measurable and observable facts. Whether that’s data. Whether that’s something you could see, hear, or touch. Whether it’s saying, "Hey, you know, I noticed yesterday, this," or I saw this, or my son was sick for this amount of time, using facts is important. But then you can say why the facts matter to you.

And then it’s okay to share what we call your story or your perspective or your assumptions. But when you frame them as ‘these are just my assumptions,’ then the person is less likely to get defensive because you’re not saying the fact of the matter is, and then going on to share your opinion. That is the biggest mistake I hear people make, which is they use the word “fact” to try to make their opinions seem like they’re something more than they are. People use it in political debates. People use it social discussions. They say ”The fact of the matter is,” and then they share their opinions. And I often will help them understand that that is just a subtle way of you trying to force your opinion on the other person. You’re trying to suddenly force them to…you’re trying to nudge them or compel them to agree with you. And if you…

Jessica: Well, and I love you started off by saying that a fact is something that both parties agree are fact.

Justin: That’s right.

Jessica: And so, even before going on into the story sharing part, you actually have to get feedback and say, "Would you agree that this is a fact?"

Justin: That’s right. That’s right. I had a woman in a class who tried to push me on this in one of the courses I was teaching. And she said, "I don’t agree with that." She said, "I mean, hundreds of years ago, it was a fact that the Earth was flat." And I was like, "I think you’re making my point for me." I said, "Just because a lot of people agreed on it didn’t make it a fact, right?" The world wasn’t flat. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. But what you have to be careful of is when you’re sharing facts being named in a conversation doesn’t mean everybody agrees so it’s a fact. It means it’s something observable, something measurable, and that everyone can see. And thus because they can empirically confirm it, they can agree on it. Not because they agree on opinion. That’s where you got to be careful. Because you may say, everybody agrees, it doesn’t make it a fact. This woman made a good point. Everybody thought the world was flat hundreds of years ago, and that it wasn’t. And so, you got to think a little bit about the idea of what is something that’s empirically proven that the two of us can agree on. Whether that is something we’ve seen, heard, and observed. Now, that gets even questionable right now because people are disagreeing on the facts, or what they think are facts. People are saying things like, well, the number of cases… Then someone says, well, that’s not accurate because people are lying about the case…

Jessica: Because it’s still worse or whatever, yeah.


Let’s Not be Too Quick to Judge

Justin: That’s right. So, then you got to find something you do agree on, right? You got to find something you do agree on, that is factual. If you keep debating those facts, okay, then find some facts we both can say, we can both see these facts. We both agree they’re empirically proven. So, we know they’re facts, right? But if you continue to disagree about all that, you’re never gonna get anywhere. So, you got to start with facts, then you can share it. Here’s my opinion of it from those facts. And then you can say, what do you think? What’s your perspective? Ask a question. And the measure of a good question is the degree to which it invites difference, not degree to which a question forces the other person to agree with you. You wanna ask a question that invites difference. Difference is where…

“And the measure of a good question is the degree to which it invites difference, not degree to which a question forces the other person to agree with you.” Justin Hale

Jessica: That’s so hard to do.

Justin: I know. That’s right. But whether you’re willing to do that…

Jessica: So, give some example. Give an example of that.

Justin: Yeah. Well, I was gonna say… Whether you’re willing to do that, it goes back to what we shared before. Remember, I said, you got to work on yourself first. If your motive isn’t to learn, then, of course, you don’t wanna ask a question. If your motive is to be right, then you don’t even want a question. You just want to make a statement. So, if you’re asking a question, some good examples would be things like, very open-ended, how do you see the situation? What’s your view on this? Help me understand where you’re coming from. Or, how are you seeing this? If different, I’d love to hear your view. So, it’s really inviting the other person’s perspective. And I tell them, it’s only hard if your motive is the opposite. If your motive is dialogue, then it’s not that hard. So, once again, that goes back to what I said at the very beginning. I know a lot of people might be listening to your podcast thinking, maybe even fast-forwarding through the beginning, work on myself first, whatever. It always goes back to that. It always goes back to that.

And people tell me, "Oh, the other person." And I’m watching conversations, and they’re blaming the other person saying, actually, did you notice your own contribution? “Well, I was… my contribution…” No, no, your contribution, was just equally disrespectful as the other person’s. And it came from the fact that you came into this conversation wanting to win, or be right, or save face, or look good, or prove them wrong. It started with you. You got to go back and work on yourself first. Don’t even enter the conversation until you’ve got the right motive for dialogue, learning.

I ended up having a really good conversation with my family member, asking questions, understanding. He seemed so passionate. He used to think one thing politically and socially, he now thinks the opposite. I’m curious what made him change his mind. I’m curious what experiences he had and what things he’s learned that made him think so differently, and even more passionately than he used to think before. And I’ve learned a lot of interesting things. That’s what we all need to try. We all need to strive for that more often.

Jessica: Let’s talk about generous assumptions because I think that was another big “aha” that I had while reading "Crucial Conversations" was this idea to assume positive intent. What does that look like? And why is that hard for some people?

Justin: Yeah. Well, and I even challenge that, in crucial conversations, we don’t say always assume positive intent. What we say first is, don’t assume the negative intent first. Even just doing that is gonna help you. The reason why I just wanted to add that is because assuming too much positive intent can be equally unhelpful as assuming too much negative intent. What I mean by it is this, when people assume negative intent, they tend to handle conversations aggressively, or angrily, or in a frustrated manner. When they assume too much positive intent, they don’t hold conversations at all.

Jessica: Yeah. That’s so true.

Justin: And so, they write it off, and they have this Pollyanna perspective. And so, they say the other person must be doing it for all these good reasons. And so, they just don’t have a crucial conversation. And so, what we encourage people to do instead is delay judgment, or suspend judgment, or at least focus on the fact, so for a short period of time, as you prepare for the conversation, you can be curious, and not condemning. Making your mind up about someone else’s intent, good or bad, making your mind up and being sure, okay, that’s the problem. Being sure is really the place where you go wrong. What we wanna encourage you to do is be a little more unsure. Be a little more curious. Say to yourself, "I don’t know it all, I’m gonna go find out. I want to have a conversation." And so, it’s really about that suspending judgment and being more curious. That’s much more important than just assuming any intent, right? Focus on the facts. Focus on what they did, or what they said, or what happened. And that’s gonna go a long way to helping you to suspend judgment as you prepare for that conversation.

“Making your mind up about someone else’s intent, good or bad, making your mind up and being sure, okay, that’s the problem. Being sure is really the place where you go wrong. What we wanna encourage you to do is be a little more unsure. Be a little more curious.” Justin Hale

Jessica: I had this moment yesterday, I got a DM from someone, and it’s someone who is on our team. At Noonday, we have a couple of thousand salespeople on our team. And she reached out via Instagram DM. I don’t know her personally. And she said, "I’m having problems with my leader who’s over me. Can I find a new one?" But me, I am a little bit Pollyanna. She even said, "I’m experiencing bad conversations and I don’t… I wanna find someone else." And I’m immediately like, "Oh, I wanna help her, maybe you can find someone else." I mean anyway, I don’t handle these situations anyway, in my company. I have amazing teams that do. So, I said, "Well, please email support. This isn’t the place for that." But what I noticed afterward was that my immediate impulse was, yeah, let me help you, save you, or whatever. And then I thought, why didn’t I think to say, ”Have you even had a conversation with this person that’s over you to say, hey, here’s how I’m experiencing you? And I would like to work differently.” And it just made me pause again and think about how little we actually have the conversations that we need to be having in life.

Justin: That’s right. Yeah. In our organization, we have a rule that if you come to somebody, you come to your boss, for example, and say “I have this issue with so and so.” We have a rule that says the boss cannot go try to solve the problem for you until they’ve asked the question, “Did you have a conversation with the person?” If you haven’t, they’re gonna give you some coaching. Answer any questions you have. Encourage you to go have the conversation. And if you still have concerns to come back and talk to them. And I think most people don’t want to, and they’re scared to have it. They’re unskilled. So, because their lack of competence, they have a lack of confidence in holding those conversations. They don’t hold them face to face. Their experience is confrontation not going well. And so, I think this idea of having some of these models in your mind of how to start a conversation, facts, "Hey, yesterday, when we were in a meeting, you called my idea moronic. When that happens, it makes me feel devalued. I’m not sure if that’s what you were trying to do or if that was your intent. I’d like to get your perspective on the situation." Something like that, right?

Jessica: Oh my gosh.

Justin: That idea of being able to start the conversation very simply in a way that’s candid but respectful, can be difficult for people, but that’s why those skills help.

Jessica: That skill, but just even I just got the chills all over me. And it’s because you just… that just came out so naturally. You’re an expert in this. You’ve been coaching people in conversations for so many years. But, people, you’re right, they’re scared. They’re insecure. They’re unpracticed in being able to do this. And so, what you’re saying is, “Hey, have a simple framework because breaking it down like that gives you that skill set that you need to at least to begin to practice and start having these conversations.” Tell us more about how the types of conversations we choose to have can form us into more effective and compassionate people.


Practice Makes Perfect

Justin: Yeah. We think about conversations, I think that there’s conversations that might be crucial that are because there’s a problem, but there are so many crucial conversations we need to have because things are going really well, where things could be going even better.

Jessica: Wow.

Justin: We need to speak up to those, right? You talk about making yourself a better person, helping the other person be a better person. I think the number of performance conversations that are not held between a manager and employee because the manager is afraid to hurt their feelings, has held down so much unrealized potential in our world. So that’s a big one. Managers being able to have the crucial conversation to say, "You’re doing great here but here are some gaps in areas that I think you can improve. Let me describe then the facts around them." Rather than saying things like, "Well, other people see you as unfriendly," or, "You need to be more of a team player," or, "I’d like you to be more collaborative." Those are all unhelpful. Why? Because they’re not specific. They’re not factual. So, one of the most important conversations your listeners can have is conversations around helping someone be better, helping someone’s performance improve. And share with them examples, give them facts. And then describe to them what your good intent is for sharing that feedback.

I had to have one of those really tough conversations with someone who worked for me. And I remember thinking to myself, this is some tough feedback, how am I gonna say it to him? And I remember asking myself, “Why am I having the conversation in the first place?” It’d be easier not to have it at all, right? I mean, that’s really the easy out.

Jessica: That’s so true. You’re right.

Justin: That the selfish option is to not have it at all. But I had to say to myself, “I wanna have it because I care about this person. I care about this person’s success. I know where he’s at in his life. I’d love to see him get a promotion. I’d love to see him make more money and grow in his career.” And I thought to myself, “You know what? I ought to say that. I ought to tell him that at the beginning of the conversation. I bet that would make the conversation go so much better.” And I started it. I said, "Hey, John, I wanna talk to you about something. And before we jump in, I just want you to know, this is how I feel about you. Here’s my intentions for you." I said all those things I just said to you, what I was hoping for them, and my aspirations for them, and what I would love to see for them. And you could see just by me saying that their shoulders relaxing, their face just chilling out a little bit. Their emotions dropping a little bit in anticipation of something they thought was going to be more hurtful, realizing this guy is actually trying to help me. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to hear some of that feedback afterwards, but you feel safe enough to hear it.

So, to your question, what are some of the most important conversations we can have in our life? It’s where someone is at a place where they can do better. They can improve. And we need to step up to and really help them understand, “I want you to improve because I care about you. I care about your success. I respect you. Or, in our personal lives, I love you. And because I love you, I wanted to share this quick perspective. Here’s what I’m noticing. Here’s why I think it matters.” What do you think, right? That same model over and over again, fact, story, ask.

Jessica: Fact, story, ask. I wanted to wrap up by asking you for the person who has been listening and has had heart palpitations in thinking about any sort of heated conversation, any sort of conversation that involves feedback or asking about differences or anything like that, with basically a non-confrontational person. What is one thing that that person could do today to begin to practice?

Justin: To do that exact thing you just said. And this is the thing that people don’t wanna do. I mean, thinking about… I know you’re in Texas, right? And so, I think about Kevin Durant and all the Texas alum, right?

Jessica: Yes.

Justin: From the basketball standpoint. And I think about Kevin Durant, one of the best basketball players of all times thinking, okay, if Kevin Durant wanted to learn how to shoot free throws better, what he wouldn’t do is sit for three hours in a room and visualize what it would look like to shoot free throws. He would go on to the court, and he would shoot 1,000 of them. Whether that’s Steph Curry, or Michael Jordan, or LeBron James, or whatever. And the problem with that is we don’t treat our performance at work like athletes treat their performance in their arena, but we should. And so, what I’m suggesting… your question is, what can someone do? Here’s what I’m gonna encourage them to do: the next big conversation they know is coming up, I want you to go to someone else who won’t be in that conversation, or at least it’s not the same person you’re gonna be disagreeing with. Go to that trusted person, and simply take five minutes and role play that conversation out with them. Give them what you’ll actually say. Don’t say something like, "Well, then I might…" No, no, just tell them what you’d actually say as if it were the real situation. Bring it up in the way you’d bring it up, and have that person hear you and give you feedback.

The amazing thing to me is that the first time people bring up some of the most sensitive conversations in their lives are the moment when they need to bring it up. Can you imagine the first time that Kevin Durant shot a free throw was in the game? I mean, that would be crazy to any of us. And yet, that’s what we do with holding important conversations, crucial conversations, is that the first time it actually is coming out of our mouth is in the moment we need to say it. And what you’ll discover is as you practice it with someone, even if you don’t have somebody else to practice it with, as you’re driving your car, say it out loud in your car, what you plan to say at the beginning of that conversation. And I promise, most of the time, you’ll say to yourself, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I was gonna say that because hearing myself just say it out loud, it does not sound good.” Or when your friend will hear you say and go, you weren’t gonna say that, were you? And your friend will say, it’s pretty defensive, or that comes off as kind of an attack. And you say, oh, and then you can make some corrections. So, start preparing to be successful by doing some quick practice before these important conversations. Don’t just leave it up to chance.

“Start preparing to be successful by doing some quick practice before these important conversations. Don’t just leave it up to chance.” Justin Hale

Jessica: I love that. I love that so much. I need to do this with my kids.

Justin: Yeah. Absolutely, I think that’s so true. And with my wife, Christina and I, I think that we’re getting a little bit better with this. But when we have conversations we need to have with our kids like that, we’re getting better at talking it out together and saying, “Here’s what I think we need to talk with Ethan about. And he might say this, and here’s how I think we should respond or how we should handle it.” We are much better off when we prepare for situations and kind of walk it through a little bit. And in some anticipation of what might happen, play it out in our discussion and make plans for how we’ll handle it, if things go well or if things don’t go well. I think that’s so important for people.

Jessica: I have used his advice several times. Especially the advice that said, “If you are emotionally not ready for the conversation, don’t have it.” That has given me permission. I think sometimes I know a conversation needs to be had, I don’t want to be a conflict-avoidant person, which is a little bit more of my go-to. And so sometimes, I’ll just begin a conversation even when I’m not ready.

So, it really makes sense that we need to stop, pause, become self-aware, get our emotions in check, and then follow that simple blueprint for how to enter into a difficult dialogue. And it’s okay if some difficult dialogues just aren’t worth getting into. This is one of the most practical episodes we’ve had in this series so far. I would love for you to share it because if we could all follow these simple tips, we could all engage in dialogue in a more effective, honoring, and listening way.

So, would you hop on to Instagram and let people know about the Going Scared podcast series. I know other people will learn and grow, especially on the series about difficult dialogue. And they find it through you, the listeners who I love. I love you so much, and I just love knowing that maybe I just accompanied you on a walk or while you’re folding your laundry or in between your Zoom calls. Whatever you might be doing right now, I love knowing that I get to just pop into your earbuds. I love getting to do the Going Scared podcast; it truly is a really creative bright outlet in my professional life, and I only get to do it because I have listeners. So, thanks for listening. Spread the love. Spread the word.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.