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Isaac Lee
Isaac Lee

Posted on • Originally published at

How to Manage Conflicts: Speak

Based on the bestseller "Crucial Conversations" and my experiences, I am giving a 3-part talk to my Toastmasters club on how to make conversations that matter the most to us. The second part is called Speak.


John and Oli are my best mates that I lost years ago. I had overly depended on them, so John and Oli wanted to talk about my well-being. At the time, I didn't know how to talk to them while I felt fear, anger, and hurt. As a result, I lost their friendships. I miss them to this day.

When I was in graduate school, I wanted to TA for a class that I had never taught before. When I contacted the professor in charge, he addressed his concerns that I was soft-spoken and may not be suitable for this class. Instead of asserting myself effectively—I can do this, will you give me the chance?—I simply acquiesced and let go of a career opportunity.

In both examples, a crucial conversation happened. A crucial conversation is a talk between you and another person, where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions differ, and (3) emotions run strong. It's an easy recipe for conflicts and for lost personal and professional developments.

Here is the good news. A crucial conversation is a skill—just like public speaking and leadership are—that we can practice and master over time. It takes three steps to make a crucial conversation: Listen, Speak, Decide.

Today, we will cover the second step, Speak. Assert ourselves effectively. By the end of this talk, you will learn that, in order to speak, you first have to master your stories. Then, you need to reach the right conclusion with the other person's help.

Master Your Stories

Let's look at the first step: Master your stories. Here's what happens when you can't do this. Last year, at a hackathon, I met two developers who were having conflict, Jim and Kim. When their project didn't win, Jim was upset. I asked Jim what happened between the two and how he could have done things differently.

Jim said, "There was nothing I could do. I know from experience how we can win first place, but Kim had taken over the project and micromanaged every aspect. I was furious but didn't say anything for the sake of the rest of my group. I'm telling you, Kim is a control freak who trusts no one. I did my best."

Let's analyze Jim's statement. Chronologically speaking, Kim did something in the beginning. That's a fact. In the end, Jim felt mad and hopeless. Now comes the important part. Somewhere in between, Jim did something to himself. He told a story to make sense of what Kim did. Here's my claim: Because Jim didn't master his stories, he ended up making himself feel mad and hopeless.

In fact, Jim told three types of stories that we commonly tell to justify our behaviors and emotions. First is the villain story, where we label the other person evil and full of malicious intent. Kim is a control freak who trusts no one. Second is the hero story, where we are always right, good, and brilliant, and don't admit to how we contributed to the problem. I know from experience how we can win first place. I didn't say anything for the sake of the rest of my group. Finally, there is the helpless story, where we say there are no better outcomes. There was nothing I could do. I did my best.

Let's see how we can turn these stories into healthy ones. First, turn villains into humans. If you are Jim, think about why a decent, rational person might do what Kim did. Maybe Kim had a bad experience with working in groups before. Maybe she wants to win the hackathon as much as I do. As we search for plausible answers, our stories and emotions soften.

Second, turn heroes into humans too. Face up to the fact that, quite possibly, you played a role in the problem. After all, you are human and make mistakes. I was so focused on winning the hackathon that I didn't consider everyone else's goals. I didn't tell Kim how her action bothered me, and I didn't give her a chance to explain herself either. As we think about the roles that we played, we become aware of how we minimize our mistakes while we exaggerate those of others.

Lastly, turn the helpless into the able. Ask yourself what you want for yourself, for the other person, and for your relationship. What would you do right now if you really wanted these results? I want to win the hackathon to earn recognition. I also want Kim to be able to make her ideas come true. I want to work well with Kim so that we both have fun at the hackathon. To achieve these results, I can do... Instead of dwelling on negative, cyclical thoughts, give your brain new challenges to solve.

Reach the Right Conclusion

Once you master your stories, it's time to speak. This is when you share your facts and stories with the other person. Please remember that you don't have all the facts, especially ones about the other person. You want to reach the right conclusion with their help.

Kim, this morning, you changed the content of our slide deck without asking me. I'm not sure if you had been feeling this way, but I wonder if you don't trust me. Maybe you think I'm unable to help you with this project. Is that what's going on?

When you ask the other person for insights, it helps to talk tentatively. Since Kim sees that Jim hasn't reached a conclusion and wants to first listen to her, she will more likely offer her facts and stories. With all facts in place, Jim and Kim can begin to understand each other and work on a win-win solution.

Here's an extra tip. If you see that the other person feels defensive, try to restore safety in the conversation by making a contrast. A contrast is a don't-do statement that:

  • addresses the other's concerns that you don't respect them or that you have a malicious intent (the don't part)
  • clarifies the purpose of your crucial conversation (the do part)

Kim, I don't want you to think that I don't appreciate your work into the project. I do appreciate it and think that your deck will help us win. I do, however, have concerns with how we're not asking for each other's input. Do you think we can talk more about this?


To summarize, in order to speak, you first have to master your stories. Gather your facts and arrive at a reasonable explanation. Then, ask the other person for their facts and stories, so that both of you can arrive at the right conclusion.

We saw from my life snippets that not speaking can cost you personally and professionally. We also looked at a conflict between two developers and came up with solutions. I encourage you to take this moment to examine your life. Have you been able to speak when you needed to? If not, what will you do right now to master the skill of crucial conversation?

Next time, we will look at the final step, Decide. You and the other person have listened to each other and have spoken to each other. How do you create a solution that satisfies both?

Top comments (2)

isaacdlyman profile image
Isaac Lyman

Hey Isaac! This series is fantastic. Would you consider letting me use it as a guest chapter in the book I'm editing? More details here:

A chapter about crucial conversations could be really valuable to the book. Please email me at and let me know what you think.

ijlee2 profile image
Isaac Lee

Thanks, Isaac! I'm out for a conference right now, but yep--I will reach out to you by email by this Friday.