Eric Krueger

Why Conversations Go Sideways

3-minute read | last updated 1 month, 1 week ago

Mr. Spaceman
Respect is like oxygen, you don't think about it when it's there, but miss it when it's gone.
(Photo by NASA from Unsplash)

If an argument turns confrontational or heated, it’s due to one of two things:

  1. No mutual purpose (condition for dialogue)
  2. No mutual respect (continuance condition)

These two pieces create safety in a conversation, which you can think about as a conversational error margin. The safer a conversation, the more comfortable you feel, and the less focus that's needed on getting your words just right.

Mutual Purpose (Condition for Dialogue)

We're instinctually selfish. If our goals don't match, we're much less interested in conversation. To that end, dialogue falls apart when there’s a disconnect on purpose, because without a shared purpose, what's the point of talking? Mutual purpose is the glue that holds a conversation together.

You won’t be able to have a safe conversation without mutual purpose, so if you don't already have one - find one! At some level, a mutual purpose exists (and if it doesn't, then maybe you shouldn't be talking to that person). If it’s not readily apparent what it is; keep abstracting away detail until it becomes clear.

Most often finding a mutual purpose isn't a problem. The real problem is having slightly different purposes, but thinking you're aligned. It's these nuances that lead to disagreement. Stating your purpose out loud allows you to surface these important distinctions. In doing so, you naturally clear away many conversational pitfalls.

A lack of an agreed-upon mutual purpose is like hiking together without a destination. Picking a destination makes discussing everything else about the hike easier.

Mutual Respect (Continuance Condition)

You don’t have to respect everything about a person to solve a disagreement (if we did, society would probably collapse from lack of cooperation). But, you do need to find something you respect about that person if you’re going to keep the conversation going. Without respect, the conversation shifts from the original topic to defending dignity and identity.

Respect issues are easy to spot. Observe behavior. Look out for a changing disposition and some phrases that signal the other person isn't feeling respected.

It's so easy to spot is because we all desire respect. We know what it looks like when we're getting it. Most often, when people start justifying (explain to you their thought process or how they came to a particular decision), they're looking for respect.

Respect is like air - nobody pays attention when it's there, but as soon as it's gone it's all anyone can think about.

Align on Purpose & Respect

Disconnects on purpose and respect are easily addressed. If you’re having trouble finding either the conversation becomes about that - and you should recruit the other person to help.

Name a significant disagreement you’re having, and it boils down to one of these two points (or both).


I first learned about safety in dialogue from Crucial Conversations, which outlines a broader framework for thinking about important dialogue. Conditions for safety is just one piece from the book that resonated with me, but the entire book is excellent. If you found any of this interesting, I highly recommend reading the whole thing. It has forever influenced my approach to difficult conversations.

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#communication #word smatter