The ABCs of Turning Friends Into Enemies

Posted on August 23, 2012


This week Rep. Todd Akin very publicly put his foot in his mouth. Last month Pres. Obama very publicly put his foot in his mouth. On a fairly regular cycle in politics, someone with a visible platform is speaking sans the self-editing function and a brouhaha broils for a bit. For those who follow politics, it’s entertaining, or at least diverting. For those who don’t, it’s at the very least annoying and at the very most reason to abstain from political involvement altogether.

I would argue that the acrimony is inevitable because a two-party system based on soliciting a democratic vote automatically sets up an us vs. them mentality and foments behaviors that make it virtually impossible to swim in a shared pool of meaning.

For most of us, the ability to discourse with respect and to collaborate for improvement is demanded of us in a way that we either can’t or won’t demand of politicians. We recognize the need for “give and take” and expect to sometimes compromise. Those with more experience in or aptitude for cooperative work have learned skills in reflective listening and consensus building and consultation. Although many times a two-sided sucker’s choice seems the only set of options available, in most real life situations (as opposed to the virtual reality of politics) a creative set of options is fairly easy to develop.

However sometimes, and often in the severely limited venue of online discourse, a debate among friends (or potential friends) takes a sudden turn and we find ourselves in a bloodfight. If the dialogue is between us and a spouse, it’s painful. Sometimes a teen is aligned against us. Sometimes a co-worker. Sometimes a friend. We come to an impasse of opinion and we’re left with the obvious options: avoid the conflict, or make a mess of it.

Four researchers at an organizational behavior think tank called Vital Smarts put together a NYT Bestseller called Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. In one section of the book, they note that dialogue turns sour and becomes destructive when one party begins to feel unsafe. One example given was of a CEO who had a tendency to bully his team of VPs if he was challenged. When he put forward a proposal that challenged an ethical standard the company operated by, his team was absolutely silent. One employee, however, was able to put forward his dissenting opinion in such a way that the CEO neither felt threatened nor could escape the VP’s conclusions. They were able to continue to dialogue despite a potentially destructive apparent sucker’s choice because of the manner of their dialogue.

Some basic guidelines: 

Watch for content and conditions. When the stakes are high (emotionally-charged subjects) the conversation turns crucial when one party begins to feel unsafe. Dialogue requires a free-flow of meaning, which is only possible when one feels that one’s best interests are unchallenged (quite different from one’s ideas being challenged). The most skilled conversationalists process content and condition cues with an awareness that content will change under different conditions. That difference in content often is the difference between creative solutions and a political impasse.

When people are unsafe, they engage in silence or violence behaviors, falling roughly into three types each:

Masking: Understating or selectively sharing our true opinions (sarcasm, sugarcoating, couching)

Avoiding: Sensitive subjects never come up for review or change because the cost of conversing is too high

Withdrawing: Leaving the conversation or the room out of a general belief that no collaboration is possible

Controlling: Coercing, convincing, cutting others off, overstating data, dominating, speaking in absolutes, hyperbole

Labeling: Categorizing people or ideas or behaviors so that we can dismiss them

Attacking: Moving from winning the argument to making the other person suffer, belittling, threatening

When we’re under stress, and we feel unsafe (insecure) in dialogue, we have tendencies toward certain of these behaviors. We stop self-monitoring and become unaware of our own behavior. Our social sensitivities are blunted as we become consumed with ideas and causes, and frequently perceive the exchange as infused with crisis because standards far beyond ourselves are at stake.

Jump over and take a quick quiz to see which ways you tend to go.

Tools for staying safe in conversation the authors suggest:

Step out and back in. Notice when the content overwhelms and focus on mutual respect and mutual purpose to hit the reset button. If we knee-jerk respond with one of the above avoidance behaviors, we can’t focus on the relationship and shared meaning that makes the flow of ideas possible in dialogue. When mutual purpose is at stake, people end up in debate. When mutual respect is at stake, people end up defending dignity. Either condition produces defensive and highly charged conversation and few results.

Apologize – Correct misunderstandings – Agree to agree

Confidence, Humility, and Skill. Speak your truth with confidence that it contributes to the shared pool of meaning, proceed with humility that acknowledges that others have valuable contributions to the shared pool of meaning, and get good at sifting through the flow of ideas without fouling the water in the process. Skilled conversationalists engage others because they don’t assume they have cornered the market on truth, but realize that they’ve a vital perspective to contribute and can do so without brutalizing others.

STATE your ideas. Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ ideas, Talk tentatively, Encourage testing. Facts are less controversial and provide unemotional beginnings to emotional conversations. They are also most persuasive and least insulting. When you share your story then, it’s grounded in facts and not in hyperbole or inflation. When you ask in sincerity out of a genuine desire to learn rather than be right, exhibiting a willingness to change if the dialogue warrants, you build real relationships and enrich your own life as well as enlarging the shared pool of meaning. Tentative doesn’t mean not confident, but willing to entertain other views (our observations may be faulty or incomplete, our stories may be founded on too few observations, etc.) We can even play devil’s advocate when it appears that someone is not willing to call us out, encouraging a more open conversation.

As the authors state:

“When we feel the need to push our ideas on others, it’s generally because we believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong. There’s no need to expand the pool of meaning, because we own the pool. We also firmly believe it’s our duty to fight for the truth that we’re holding. It’s the honorable things to do. It’s what people of character do.”

Some awkward things can then happen:

  • We feel justified in using dirty tricks.
  • We appeal to authority.
  • We attack the person.
  • We draw hasty generalizations.

“The more you care about an issue, the less likely you are to be on your best behavior.”

The authors note that most disagreements they’ve found in their consulting concern the 5-10% of facts and stories people disagree over. The solution then is to AGREE when you agree, BUILD when others leave out key pieces, and COMPARE when you differ.

While I think the virtual reality of public political discourse is probably beyond salvaging, we needn’t bring the bad behaviors we see there home to our families, friendships, or workplace, creating an us vs. them dynamic there. Crucial Conversations may provide a positive way to engage in healthy dialogue that creates a shared pool of meaning rather than alienating, baiting, and categorizing – the political tools of turning friends into enemies.


  • Where did you fit on the silence/violence spectrum?
  • Do you find public conversations taxing or useful or both?
  • As a leader, which of the negative conversing strategies is most destructive or tempting?
  • As a follower, which of the negative conversing strategies is most tempting or destructive?
  • With the obvious difficulty of sensing conditions in virtual conversations, how can we protect friendships?
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