In my last article on Crucial Conversations in Couples Therapy, I explained how to notice when motives have shifted from dialogue to winning, punishing, or keeping the peace. These methods of approach can be further simplified into a broader category. When under stress, according to the creators of Crucial Conversations, people tend toward one of two reactions: silence or violence. A person of silence will begin to shut down and withdraw; a person of violence will press into a conflict and aggressively truth-tell or simply attack.

Again, when a conversation turns crucial, three things are happening: emotions are strong, opinions differ, and the stakes are high (meaning this conversation will have disproportionate influence in your life, compared to run-of-the-mill conversations). In addition to these stressful conditions naturally evoking stress responses, many people tend to respond poorly since crucial conversations are rarely planned.

When someone has an important conversation ‘sprung’ on them, they don’t have the luxury of carefully preparing what they will say or a plan to stay engaged in a healthy way. Thus, a person is greatly benefitted by practicing these skills beforehand! Whether you are a person of silence or violence, being more present in a conversation and staying focused on what you really want keeps you from letting stress turn into reactivity and take over the interaction.

Skill 1: Clarify What You Want

After realizing that your motives are off (see my last article for practical motive-checking skills), it can be helpful to take a step back and ask yourself some simple questions to clarify what you really want:

A common initial response to the suggestion of stopping an argument to ask yourself a question or two, is that it would be both impractical and impossible. And that is correct: biochemically, it actually is pretty difficult. However, that is one reason why you should do it!

Let me explain what I mean. When a crucial conversation takes place, your brain tends to subvert functioning from your prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is the center for executive functioning: making rational, complex decisions. The amygdala is the part of our brain designed as an automatic responder to kick in when we are in danger. When you are functioning from the danger center in your brain, you basically enact one of three responses: fight, flight, or freeze.

The large majority of people, when conflict arises with another person – though they are not in real, physical danger – end up acting out of their “lizard brain.” Usually these responses are more severe than necessary and end up hurting rather than helping. By asking yourself more complex questions, you’re actually forcing your brain to redirect blood flow and functioning to the reasonable, rational part of your brain that will allow you to have a productive conversation. Asking redirecting questions to yourself can help you find your bearings, clarify what you really want, and change your behavior accordingly.

Please take a moment to go over these suggested questions with enough focus to be able to remember them for the next time your ‘lizard brain’ attempts to commandeer your interactions. These should help you stay focused and keep perspective:

1. What do I want? (for me, for the other person, for the relationship)

“I want to not be stuck with all of the housework (me). I want my husband to share the chores (other) and for our relationship to feel equal in that area (relationship).”
This question is essential because it simplifies and guides. As humans, we can spend an enormous amount of energy on a fight that is really just an exercise in figuring out what we’re asking for. This is because a conflict gives rise to feelings, and from there we tend to react in fight or flight instead of instinctively doing the relational work of discovering and declaring our actual desires. As a tip, try to figure out what would make you feel satisfied. Sometimes being satisfied is our last objective, because our new objective is to win, punish, or run.

2. What do I not want (what’s the worst possible outcome)?

“What I don’t want is to have a heated conversation that leaves us both feeling miserable and angry with each other – and doesn’t lead to change.”

This question is specifically around the conversation. The first question is the direction in which your conversations starts. This second question gives a perimeter, an ‘out of bounds’ that will help avoid unhelpful motives and work to keep the crucial conversation from becoming hurtful. I often tell clients that we must resist the idea that there is a ‘right’ way to communicate; we can only do our best to say what we want and be warm and open to the other. Asking yourself what you don’t want allows yourself the freedom to do your imperfect best, while avoiding damage.

3. Is there a way I can pursue what I want, AND avoid what I don’t want?

“I need to not attack and also not avoid this conversation. Stay focused on my desire for equal housework without violence like critique, or silence like giving up if I feel misunderstood.”
This is obviously a mash-up of the first two questions, however it certainly has its place. This is a critical piece of conflict management: seeking the win-win. We instinctively believe that conflict automatically means one winner and one loser, which effectively destroys our relational success. The thing which opens a heart toward you and your desires is feeling like someone is seeking a mutual benefit –that you care about their desires. If the crucial conversation does not get you attacking or running away, then two people are being heard.

In my next article, I’ll explain a second and third skill that should give your crucial conversations a noticeable boost in success.

“Argument,” courtesy of Vic,, Creative Commons License 2.0; “Conversation,” courtesy of Thomas Szynkiewicz,, Creative Commons License 2.0; “In Thought,” courtesy of Dave Hosford, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Options,” courtesy of Patrick Denker, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)


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