Conversations are important—a single conversation could change the trajectory of a relationship or career. Crucial Conversations, written by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, recognizes a tendency many of us have to avoid important and difficult conversations out of a fear of damaging the relationship. It charts a path to becoming an excellent communicator by showing how to tackle sensitive topics with tact and heart, and includes a series of stories along the way.
The authors define a crucial conversation as “A discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.” We can avoid these conversations, handle them poorly, or step up our communication capacity and handle them well. These conversations are successful when they achieve a healthy dialogue with a free flow of relevant information.
In the leadership and management arena, when an employee isn’t meeting expectations, many managers fall prey to what the authors call the “Fool’s Choice”—speak up and offend OR stay quiet and allow performance to suffer. Crucial Conversations unpacks the thinking and methods for addressing tough topics in a way that strengthens the relationship.
The following are approaches we can take to improve our ability to excel in emotional high stakes conversations.
1. Avoid barriers to healthy dialogue. Firstly, the need to win hinders productive conversation. We can become defensive when a reality is presented that differs from our own, and our purpose in the conversation can shift from working towards a shared goal to showing the other person how they’re wrong. At the extreme end, this can lead to wanting to belittle or discredit the other person. Secondly, we may try to keep the peace by favoring short-term comfort over dialogue, and withhold relevant information because it may lead to conflict. Instead of contributing to the dialogue, we choose silence. It’s useful to reflect on where we may be at risk of winning or keeping the peace rather than engaging in healthy conversation.
2. Clarify purpose. When preparing for a difficult conversation, we should consider what we want out of the interaction. Specifically, what do we want for ourselves, for others, and for the relationship? And what do we want to avoid? This helps focus on what matters and increases the likelihood of healthy dialogue. We should search for the “and” when framing what we want. For example, after clarifying our purpose, ask, “How can I have a candid conversation with my colleague and avoid creating bad feelings?”, “Is there a way to share my real concerns with my manager and not insult their intelligence?”
3. Look at Content and Conditions. In a heated debate, we can get caught up in the details of the discussion and miss what’s happening to ourselves and others. We may not see others tune out of the conversation or our own tone getting more intense. Emotional and high stakes conversations benefit from dual-processing both content and conditions.
4. Monitor conversations for psychological safety. The authors describe two conditions to watch out for: silence and violence. Silence includes masking, which could take the form of sarcasm, understating, or using technical jargon. Silence also includes steering away from or avoiding a topic altogether, as well as withdrawing from the conversation figuratively or by literally exiting the room. Violence consists of strategies employed to force ideas on others. Someone may try to control the discussion by interrupting, overstating facts, and asking leading questions. Labeling and stereotyping are other techniques to look out for as they can be used to dismiss ideas without thoughtful consideration.
5. Take steps to restore safety when the conversation strays. When dialogue falters, we can pause and reestablish conditions for productive discussion. Is mutual purpose still intact? How about mutual respect? To restore safety, take a step back. Apologize if appropriate, and only if it can be done genuinely. Contrast what’s not intended with what is intended. This addresses concerns and moves toward a shared purpose. The goal is to work together to recognize a mutual purpose and brainstorm strategies for achieving it.
A critical element of any leadership definition is building relationships with colleagues and partners. Each challenging conversation is an opportunity to exchange valuable information, strengthen relationships, and develop shared purpose. Excelling in these situations sets a leader apart as an exceptional communicator.