Conversation Killers, and How to Avoid Them (Full Article)

HARVEY SCHACHTER – The Globe and Mail

Conversation Transformation

By Ben Benjamin, Amy Yeager and Anita Simon

(McGraw-Hill, 246 pages, $19.95)


When a conversation fails, we tend to blame the people or the topic. Someone, usually the other guy, is at fault. Or the topic was too explosive for the conversation to succeed.

But communication skills consultants Ben Benjamin, Amy Yeager and Anita Simon say both conclusions are usually misguided. The culprits, invariably, are communication behaviours – patterns of words and voice tones that trip us up.

“You can think of communication behaviours as the packages that carry our ideas out into the world. Often we’re so focused on the content of what we’re saying that we’re completely unaware of the package we’re sending it in,” they write in Conversation Transformation.

“We fail to notices that our brilliant idea is wrapped up in the conversational equivalent of a stink bomb or a sign that says ‘kick me’ – making it highly unlikely that our message is going to come across in the way we intend.”

The authors highlight six types of destructive behaviour in conversations, and how to avoid them:


The behaviour: You offer token agreement with the other person, followed by advancing another, supposedly better idea. This often becomes serial: The other person responds with a yes-but, and you meet it with yet another deflection. “When yes-but communication takes hold, any conversation can quickly turn into an argument, damaging relationships and making it hard to get anything done,” the authors note.

The fix: To avoid this trap, they suggest you build and explore in your response, augmenting your “yes” to include three specific things that you genuinely like, agree with, or can do about what you heard. Then convey your concern through a broad, open-ended question.

For example, when pressed by your spouse to take a vacation during a busy work period, first respond with three reasons why you would like to do so. Then ask, “Do you have any ideas about how I could fit a two-week trip around my work schedule?” Then explore the options, together.


The behaviour: You make an assumption about someone else’s thoughts and feelings and state them as a fact. This leads you to base your relationships on speculation, wishes and fears, rather than on reality.

The fix: To avoid this tendency, state the thought you are having in a single clear sentence, so it’s a statement about you, and your thoughts, rather than the other party. Then ask a question that can be answered yes or no, such as, “Is this true?”


The behaviour: You toss out negative speculations about the future, which you state as fact, preparing for catastrophe. This causes misery as you start to react as if the dreaded event has occurred; sometimes, it can make the prophecy self-fulfilling.

The fix: The solution is to grab real facts that can help you to reconnect with reality. If you are worrying about messing up your big speech, look at facts that show you succeeded in the past in such situations and are reasonably well-prepared now. Then ask yourself realistic, unemotional questions about the situation to help you prepare for, and avoid, the misfortune you fear.


The behaviour: When you ask questions, you make clear what answer you expect by expressing an opinion. Naturally, this doesn’t generate the most open conversational responses.

The fix: One solution is to separate your opinion from the question, allowing a more honest response from the other party. The best tactic is to leave out your opinion and just move straight to the question.


The behaviour: You’re continually whining about how bad and unfair situations are. “Communicating in complaints tends to block problem-solving, perpetuates a sense of hopelessness, and elicits responses from others that fail to help, or even make things worse,” the writers state.

The fix: Behind your griping, the authors say, are two issues: You want something, and also feel powerless to get it. The solution is to ask yourself what you want and how you can move toward getting it. Often there’s a way, if you stop complaining and start acting.


The behaviour: You vent strong negative feelings in a hostile way. But this actually makes it difficult for your conversation partners to understand your feelings and help to resolve them.

The fix: Take a breather to calm yourself. When you’re in a better frame of mind, put your feelings into words, set a productive goal for your communication, and express your feelings to the other person in a way that meets your goal.

All of us exhibit these six behaviours to some extent or other. The book helps you to recognize conversation killers and gives helpful tips for dealing with situations when you are the precipitator; when someone else tries these behaviours on you; or when you see it in conversations that you aren’t a direct party to but can intervene to help. There are also a series of techniques you can practice to become more skilled at avoiding these behavioural traps.