The Ultimate Conversation Killer

38, 53, and 72. Note these numbers and note them well.

It was 38 degrees on January 28, 1986 when Challenger flight 51-L launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The region had been experiencing unseasonably low temperatures that delayed this shuttle mission time and time again. Pressure was mounting, both from the press and within the NASA community, to get on with the show.

The problem was that the O-rings on the Challenger’s fuel system had been designed for launch at temperatures of 53 degrees or higher. Design engineers were concerned that the rings would fail to seal at lower temperatures, leading to loss of the integrity of the system.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Just 72 seconds after takeoff, Challenger flight 51-L erupted in a fiery explosion. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives and the American space shuttle program was grounded for nearly three years.

38 … 53 … 72

The greatest tragedy of this disaster was that it was entirely preventable. Engineers knew about problems with the O-rings but couldn’t agree on what to do about it. Extended discussions, both internally and externally, were conducted about this issue, but no action was taken to fix it.

I’ve read the transcripts of the actual conversations between NASA’s leaders and the engineers at Morton Thiokol, designers of the space shuttle’s fuel system, hours before the fateful decision to move forward was made. They sent shivers up my spine. The pages are filled with personal attack, angry accusations, and outright arrogance and animosity.

In short, the Challenger disaster was not an engineering failure, it was a failure in human relations.

These transcripts are a clear example of the conversation killer that shuts down constructive communication. What is it? It’s when the course of a discussion moves from being objective to subjective, from logical to emotional, from professional to personal.

When this occurs, the energy and resources of the people in the meeting shift from solving the problem at hand to protecting one’s self from attack. Once that shift occurs, nothing productive comes from the discussion. This can happen in the following relationships:

  • Between you and a customer
  • Between you and a vendor
  • Between you and an employee
  • Between you and a coworker
  • Between you and a spouse
  • Between you and a child

What can you do about it? Here are three steps:

1.  Stop and Reschedule

The very first thing to do when this conversation killer raises its ugly head is to stop. Do nothing. Say nothing.

What happens to all of us in a tense situation is that our emotions sense danger and adrenaline begins to surge through our veins. When that happens, we instantly become more focused, more intense, and more prone to act. Drunk on adrenaline we say things and do things that we regret later. Really stupid things.

Take time for your adrenaline surge to subside and reschedule your meeting. That may mean scheduling a five minute break or reconnecting on another day. Under no circumstance, however, move forward under the influence of adrenaline. Nothing good will come as a result.

2. Reaffirm Areas of Agreement

When you meet again, after a cooling off period, start by affirming the areas in which you have agreement. With most of the executive teams I work with who get stuck in conflict, simply listing the commitments this team shares gets them unstuck. Instantly they realize that they have much more in common with each other than their petty differences and quickly arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.

When people work closely together in a group, their human tendency is to become more aware of each other’s flaws and become fixated on them. Reaffirming areas of agreement is an antidote to this dilemma. Even in situations where adversarial negotiations are taking place, focusing on the group’s agreements can move the conversation forward.

3. Reengage on the Issue

Ultimately, however, a group must reengage on the issue. But do it differently, in a way that’s both positive and productive. Here’s how:

  • Talk about the facts, not personal opinions.
  • Refer to external behavior, not internal motives.
  • Ask for clarification about something you may not understand, don’t assume you know what’s being said.
  • Focus on the future—What can we do about this now?—not the past—How in the hell did this happen?

Whether in business or in life, it’s the quality of your conversations that move your relationships forward. Eliminating this conversation killer will bring more fulfilling interactions with the people in your world and better outcomes from those interactions as a result.

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