By Tom Fitch
Every organization has its “issues.” Maybe the boss the breaking his own policies, a co-worker’s performance is below standard or someone isn’t keeping commitments. Whatever the issues are, sometimes they go unresolved or last longer than they should because of someone’s fear of having a crucial conversation that will bring about the needed change.
A crucial conversation happens between two or more people when opinions vary, stakes are high and emotions run strong. In that type of setting, people could disagree, hurt each other’s feelings and someone might leave or quit.
But as difficult as crucial conversations are, nothing changes without them.
Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes are High is a guidebook for leaders who need to have crucial conversations in order to bring about needed solutions in their organization. It was written by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler – the founders of VitalSmart, a corporate training and organization performance company that works with Fortune 500 companies.
The book points out that when it comes to having crucial conversations, our DNA works against us. Our adrenalin levels spike, robbing the reasoning section of the brain. So when we need our rational thinking lobes the most, our body says, “Not so fast – I’m getting ready for a fight.” Our body conspires against us at the worst possible moment!
The other challenge is that crucial conversations are often spontaneous and in the heat of the moment. It’s hard to think on your feet in situations like this. And even if you have mentally rehearsed, the conversation probably won’t go as you plan because of the emotions involved.
But what if you could master these moments? What if you had a model to emulate (instead of the many “what not do” examples set by family, friends and coworkers)? What if you could say anything to anyone in such a way that the other person felt respected and even motivated to change their behavior? Everyone wins – your organization wins and the other person wins.
Many leaders get this wrong. They think leadership is all about organizational charts, utilization rates, policies and processes. But the authors’ research begs to differ. They have found through their research that organizations that continually pursue new non-human performance goals fail more often than they succeed. They link this directly to their ability to connect with people on a human level and have crucial conversations when needed.
The authors’ research also shows the connection between high performers and their ability to have crucial conversations. They can stand up to their bosses without committing career suicide. They have the ability to make their voices heard – without offending or upsetting. As a result, they go far in their careers.
Dialogue is our most powerful – and misunderstood – tool in business. A common misconception people have about crucial conversations is that they have only two choices: tell the truth or keep a friend. But this is a fallacy. By having a crucial conversation the right way, you don’t have to choose; you can be honest and maintain a positive relationship with that person.
So what does “good” dialogue look like? The authors use an analogy of a “pool” with everyone feeling safe to put their thoughts and ideas into the “pool.” When dialogue is going well, everyone feels safe enough to put their ideas and perspectives into the pool. Once that is done, you satisfy a basic human need that people want to have their opinion heard, respected and valued. If you do that – people are more likely to support the best outcome, regardless of whether it was their thought to begin with or not. Good dialogue is the means by which people are able to deposit ideas into the pool.
It’s also helpful to understand what “bad” dialogue looks like too. The authors list the common behaviors of “silence” and “violence” that occur during dialogue. We’re all too familiar with these both in our professional lives and personal lives as well. Examples of these behaviors include things such as using sarcasm or snide remarks to express frustration; avoiding situations where a crucial conversation might be necessary; or exaggerating in order to make a point. All of these things undermine the benefits of dialogue.
So to be good at crucial conversations, you need to have good dialogue skills. The authors talk about specific strategies and skills that you can use to become better at dialogue. This is how people can stay focused on their goals and not get caught up in a negative spiral in a crucial conversation.
- Start with the heart and work on yourself first, then others. Learn to recognize your own behavior and reactions during dialogue. Get those under control first.
- Focus on what you really want. When you start moving toward silence or violence, stop and reflect on your motivation. Think about what you really want to happen as an end result of this conversation and the relationship you want to have with this person. Are you behaving in a way to support what you really want?
- Learn to look. Introduce “looking skills” to recognize what is happening during a crucial conversation. Silence could indicate that people are masking things, avoiding confrontation or withdrawing from the situation. Silence indicates that people are masking the truth, avoiding confrontation or withdrawing from the situation.
- Make it safe. Often when discussions start to go bad, it is really someone’s way of saying they don’t feel safe in the conversation any longer. Remembering that skilled dialoguers keep focused on what they really want they recognize their true goal is at risk and work to restore safety – so that the crucial conversations can continue.
Think about your own organization and how it could benefit from talking about those things that no one wants to talk about. How could things change as a result? If these conversations would bring about much-needed change in your organization, then it’s time to speak up. But first, read “Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes are High” to guide you in your conversation.