Bet It on Red

Published: May 15, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Eric Patten, Kerry Patterson

Recently, a story was published about a man who took his entire life savings—$137,000—and bet it on red. With a 47.37% chance of success, the odds were against him. What’s even worse, the risk was high. If he lost, he’d lose everything. If he won, he’d be moderately more comfortable. Lucky for this man, he won.

Now, imagine this scenario—you’re at lunch with your boss and he or she makes a racist joke that causes others to squirm. With just a few words, your boss forfeits some hard-earned and valuable respect from his or her direct reports. Or what about this: one of your team members cusses like a sailor and this unseemly behavior is beginning to damage morale and relationships with clients. Are the stakes high? Definitely. Moreover, what are the odds of navigating these high stakes crucial conversations successfully? Unfortunately, most people are better off betting everything they own on red.

The question is—why? Why do we turn communication with others into a high-stakes game of roulette?

When we enter a crucial conversation—a conversation where stakes are high, opinions differ, and emotions run strong—our rational brain shuts down and more basic instincts take over. When these situations arise, we enter a vicious cycle where we either lash out in violence or we retreat into silence.

We go to violence because we’re so unskilled at holding crucial conversations. While research shows that the ability to hold crucial conversations is the key to influence, job effectiveness, and even marital success, most of us have little or no formal training on the topic. Not so much as 10 minutes. We’ve developed our existing communication style by watching our parents, friends, and former bosses. That’s a scary thought—picking up on the not-so-great skills of our extant role models. When we do decide to speak up, we typically employ sarcasm, caustic humor, guilt trips, debate tactics, and other forms of verbal violence. Eventually we note that we’re in trouble for having said something and we pull back into silence, laughing politely, changing the subject, or ignoring the situation all together.

Everyday, we analyze these conversational risks and make unnecessary trade-offs—choosing either to go to silence or to go to violence. The reason these trade-offs are unnecessary is that there is a better way.

So, what’s the better way? The better way is simple and obvious: speak up in a way that gets you the results you really want. So if you’re reading this thinking, “Gee, thanks. If I knew how to do that, I’d already be doing it,” here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Reverse your thinking. Most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize if they don’t share their views, they will have to live with the poor decisions that will be made as a result of holding back their informed opinions.
  • Change your emotions. The primary reason we do badly in crucial conversations is that by the time we open our mouths, we’re irritated, angry, or disgusted with the other person’s views and opinions. Then, no matter how much we try to fake it, our negative judgments creep into the conversation. So, before opening your mouth, open your mind. Try to separate people from the problem. Try to see others as reasonable, rational, and decent human beings—even if they hold a view that you strongly oppose. Hold a good thought and you will come across entirely differently. Remember—if you hold court in your head, the verdict will show on your face.
  • Help others feel safe. Unskilled people believe that certain topics are destined to make other people defensive. Skilled folks realize people don’t become defensive until they feel unsafe. Try starting your next high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and your respect for them. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they let their guard down and begin to listen—even if the topic is unpleasant.

Invite different views. After you create a safe environment, confidently share your views. Once you’ve done so, invite differing opinions. This means you actually encourage the other person to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations aren’t just out to make their point; they want to learn. If your goal is just to dump on others, they’ll resist you. If you are open to hearing others’ points of view, they’ll be more open to yours. And finally, if you can’t remember anything else in the heat of the moment, ask yourself: “Are we in silence or violence?” If so, do your best to return to healthy dialogue.

One final note: the man who bet it all on red, won—and the odds were against him. When you strive to become a master of crucial conversations, you tip the odds dramatically in your favor. Minimize the risk by mastering the skills and you’ll see your odds improve.

About the Author(s)

Eric Patten is a senior consultant for VitalSmarts—an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. At VitalSmarts he is developing a series of products to enhance Crucial Conversations Training, a powerful tool for improving organizational effectiveness, building teams, and enriching relationships.
Kerry Patterson coauthored the New York Times best-sellers Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations and is an acclaimed keynote speaker and consultant. He is also the chief development officer of VitalSmarts. Patterson has designed and implemented major corporate change initiatives for the past 25 years. Visit