2: What Comes First

The chapter opens with a vignette of a complaining executive, on a tare that described his subordinates as incompetent, his partners as unsupportive, the economy as a disaster, his customers as exploitive, and so on. In essence, it's a great deal of whining about things that cannot be controlled, and it simply isn't productive.

In public speeches, executives find very subtle and sophisticated ways to complain - but underneath al the sophisticated language, their message comes down to the same thing: they are frustrated by their inability to succeed, and it's never their own fault.

In some instances, this may be true, but when a person takes that perspective, they are effectively surrendering themselves to circumstances and failing to exert control. If it's not your fault, than you are not to blame, as there's nothing you could have done to succeed in the past - and nothing you can to do succeed in future. You are simply waiting for the world to change - which means that you are powerless and unnecessary.

And aside of being pathetic, it is the mark of a person who refuses to accept responsibility for causing positive change to occur. No progress can be made until they change their perspective to focus on the things they can control - which necessarily entails the admission that they have failed to exert control thus far. And this is a very uncomfortable conversation.

Entering to the Discomfort Zone

From the opening vignette, it is clear that a productive conversation cannot take place if you allow an individual to keep the comfortable perspective that nothing is his fault. But this is not something that is done with the flick of a switch.

If you attempt enter the discomfort zone abruptly, the other person will shut down. "Quit your whining" is the point you need to get across, but if you use that exact phrase, they will regard you as an opponent who is ignorant, uncaring, or even hostile. They will not lower their defenses, but seek to defend themselves from you.

While it would seem most efficient to merely dismiss their point of view and replace it with your own, people simply aren't machines and cannot be switched on or off instantaneously. Moreover, they probably feel quite justified in their perspective, and to dismiss their conclusions is to dismiss their intelligence and experience.

And so, you have to take a more deliberate approach - it may seem inefficient, but it is the only way to be effective.

(EN: I recall a metaphor about guiding someone out of the woods - it can't be done by standing outside and shouting at them to get out of the woods. Instead, you have to go into the woods and walk them out. Or more directly, you must seek to understand their perspective and emotional state before you attempt to direct them.)

Settle into the Flow

Particularly for sensitive conversations, it is important to be "in the moment" and fully focused on the conversation itself. Too often, inattentiveness and distractions undermine the effectiveness of a conversation.

An effective conversation requires intense focus - to keep the conversation on track means being mindful of its purpose, attentive not only to what you are verbally and nonverbally communicating, but also the verbal and nonverbal communication of another person.

The author then balks, suggesting "countless books, articles, and blog posts" discuss the "art of being here now" and offering no further advice on the topic.

A conversation has a point, but cannot be scripted. A script is too rigid, appropriate to a speech or a lecture. Conversation is more impromptu, focused but not rigidly controlled, and being able to participate in a conversation requires awareness and adaptation to momentary changes.

The author indicates that her own routine is to clear her mind - focusing on her opening statement and intent, but allowing the conversation to flow without too many restrictions, so long as it remains on topic.

The "flow" of conversation is more in the nature of a general direction and a conversation evolves as it occurs. You might consider what the other person will contribute, but will never really know until it happens. Quote often, you will be surprised by what you discover, and discovery is the point. It is of the utmost importance to consider rather than discard the information that arises.

Another sense in which she means "flow" is related to engagement. In a successful conversation, both participants become engrossed in the exchange of information and there is a collaboration rather than a competition of ideas. (EN: See Csikszentmihalyi for a much more thorough consideration of this.)

The flow of a conversation can be interrupted if you ignore or challenge what the other person contributes: they may become defensive or withdrawn, and the conversation will become awkward.

Set and Maintain Your Emotional-Based Intention

Within small groups or large organization, there are generally inherent conflicts and negative expectations. When you ask someone to be open and honest, they suspect that you are demanding surrender - drop their defenses while you maintain your assault against their interests. Trust must be earned. It cannot be demanded, and it cannot be taken for granted.

Prior to the conversation, as well as during it, you must take into consideration your relationship with the person and the cultural norms of the organization. In many instances, it may be necessary to work on building an atmosphere of trust before addressing the specific topic of concern. If the culture or relationship has a history of hostility, trust will be very difficult to establish. It may take a few conversations simply to establish a level of trust before the topic of interests can be addressed.

In a general sense, people trust in people who are genuinely interested in their welfare, and distrust those who are indifferent to their welfare. When approached by someone who wants something but offers nothing in return, they become apprehensive and closed to conversation. So the first thing to address, as a prerequisite, is establishing a sense of trust - you must be a "partner, not a puppeteer."

This is particularly important in conversations that touch upon uncomfortable topics: when a person senses that your intention is to challenge their beliefs, they become defensive. In this state of mind, their primary motive is to defend, and they will interpret anything you say as an assault.

Ultimately, the conversation is intended to achieve a positive outcome, and focusing on the outcome is the best way to achieve it - rather than focusing on the problems of the past (and present), focus on the opportunities of the future. And in particular, focus on the benefits of your future vision to the other party. People are very interested in what most benefits themselves and are eager to do what must be done to achieve those benefits - and they are very disinterested when they see no benefit and expect they will be inconvenienced or even harmed for the benefit of someone else.

You may begin the conversation with assumptions about the other party's interest, but you must be able to adapt to consider the actual interests that they disclose. Before you can adapt, you must learn about them - to determine whether your original assumptions were correct and, if not, to change the tactics of the conversation and perhaps even change your own perspective.

In some situations you will need to be direct and blunt in communicating your own interests - and if you are in a position of formal authority, there are instances in which the cooperation of others is expected regardless of their personal interests. But in general, success in gaining cooperation arises when the individual's own interests are aligned to the goal.

Relationship Perspectives

The author schematizes the various attitudes that can be taken in relating to another person. The importance in this is that the manner in which you interact with others derives from this attitude - and it will be interpreted by them in the course of your conversation.

It's suggested that the most effective format for trust-building is to begin from a position of deference (showing greater concern for the other person's interests) and transition to an egalitarian position (where they then show equal concern for yours).

She notes that people are generally in the "I state" - concerned only with themselves. They do not pay attention to anything that does not impact them, and will not be interested in anything that does not benefit them.

It's important to understand this because most conflicts between two people begin with both parties in an I-state and collaboration cannot exist until one begins to understand and consider the perspective of the other.

Demanding that the other person abandon their I-state and serve your interests is hostile and will be unlikely to succeed. To gain trust, you must demonstrate a willingness to enter their I-state, and then transition to a point where they reciprocate by considering your own.

(EN: in any interaction between two people, the one that wants something of the other is always in the disadvantaged position, even if their rank or status in general happens to be superior. Hence the problem is that those who have formal authority or social esteem feel entitled to the deference of others and fail to consider that their perceived advantage does not carry over - the other person is not compelled to defer, but must be influenced if they are to cooperate fully.)

Trust the Process

There is an inherent awkwardness in any difficult conversation, and the natural reaction tends to be to avoid this awkwardness by ignoring the other person's perspective - either by retreating from the conversation and agreeing with them, or by ignoring their reaction and imposing your perspective on them. Neither of these choices is productive.

Instead, you must accept that the conversation is awkward and persevere through times in which you do not seem to be making fast progress. In essence, you must trust in the process and give it time to work out - so that the awkwardness dissipates as a result of an agreement, not ignoring disagreement.

In her own experience, she recounts instances in which conversations seemed to end very badly. Clients were shouting at her, claiming she had no understanding of their situation - only to return to her several days later to sheepishly admit that she had been right.

This is actually quite healthy, as it leads to a discussion of the change in their perspective and underlying causes for it. It is certainly better than having a pleasant conversation that does not effect a change. Sometimes, it takes time for a message to sink in, and you will not leave the conversation with an agreement.

She names three "pitfalls" to be aware of: discomfort, anxiety, and impatience - detailed hereafter.


Discomfort is an emotional defense mechanism that provokes us to be cautious in situations where there is potential danger - and any conflict with another person triggers a sense of discomfort. The problem is that discomfort triggers a fight-or-flight response, neither of which is productive to achieving cooperation: we choose to fight for the other person to accommodate us, or flee by accommodating them, rather than working things out properly.

The best outcome is not often achieved by avoiding conflict, but by settling it - and to settle it, we must work through the discomfort to define an outcome that restores comfort to both parties, and not just one of them at the expense of another.

She also posits that most of our "fears" are based on our speculation about the attitudes and interests of others - and that this speculation is often very wrong. We do not ask a favor because we speculate that the other person will refuse, or instead of asking a favor we present a firm demand because we expect resistance - but we do not actually know what their reaction will be.

Sometimes these fears are founded in fact, but very often they are works of fiction generated by our imagination. Our tendency is to make a knee-jerk reaction and justify it, ignoring evidence to the contrary. It takes effort to maintain an open mind and avid pre-judging others.


To clarify: the author means "anxiety" in the sense of the emotions we have in reaction to others. Specifically, we become anxious about the discomfort that others are feeling in the course of a conversation, and because our social instincts guide us to put others at east, we retreat from areas that cause them discomfort.

Just as we are motivated to find a quick (but ineffective) solution to our own feelings of discomfort, so are we also motivated to take a shortcut to ameliorate the discomfort of others.

This is often evident when we allow the other person to redirect or redefine the conversation rather than bringing them back to the original point: we recognize they are seeking to escape discomfort and facilitate their behavior, even though we recognize that doing so effectively ends the real conversation.


Perhaps the worst problem, particularly for managers, is the desire for a single conversation to solve the problem - and for each sentence in a conversation to be immediately understood and accepted by the other person.

The desire to end the conversation on a positive note, and to avoid long silences, causes a sense of uncertainty: there is no immediate feedback that indicates success, and the fear of failure sets in, causing us to behave irrationally.

In some instances, the lack of immediate success leads a person to assume that what they have said to the other person isn't getting through - whether they believe the other person is stupid, or even when they consider that they may not have said something the right way - and they press on in an attempt to generate immediate success.

Conversation is an organic process, like gardening. The gardener who plants a seed does not see a sprout immediately, but must wait for the seed he has planted to take root. If nothing seems to be happening immediately, pouring fertilizer on the soil in increasing amounts may in fact poison the soil and kill the seed.

She gives the example of pauses in conversation, when the other person falls silent and becomes pensive. This is actually a good sign that they have heard what you just said and are thinking about it. But too many people become impatient and feel the need to say more to fill the silence - which actually prevents the other person from giving their message serious consideration.

(EN: To take it a step further, the other person is well aware that you are not giving them time to consider what you have said, and suspects that you want to prevent them from thinking about it. In effect, they feel like they are being fast-talked into something that is probably not in their interest and their reaction becomes defensive.)

She mentions how apparent this reaction is in infants: when they see something they have never seen before (which is quite often given their limited experience) they stare blankly for a few seconds, often with their mouth agape, before they react.

Adults do the same thing, particularly when what they have heard from you does not correlate to what they already think. This is quite common in conversations where you are attempting to change their perspective - because inherently, what you are telling them does not jibe with their present state of mind. And again, the fact that they are taking time to consider what you have said is a positive sign.

When that happens, the best thing you can do is be patient and allow their brain time to work it out and formulate a response. Rather than filling the pause with chatter that disrupts their thoughts, simply wait for them to respond. To interrupt this thinking is like poisoning the seed you just planted.