Crucial Conversations, written by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, is a business self-help book that works to uncover the formula for having real, honest and professional conversations within the workplace. As a team, honesty and transparency are cornerstone values for us so we decided to work through the book together to learn how to better foster our work relationships and have the “tough” conversations when needed.
What is a crucial conversation?
To summarize, a crucial conversation is any conversation where the stakes are high, there are opposing opinions or there are strong emotions. You’ve probably had a handful of conversations like that at work, right?
Here are a few examples:
High Stakes: You’re in a brainstorming meeting with the executive level team. The boss walks in and states that fourth quarter projections appear off and changes to the marketing strategy need to be made in order to gain some ground. Now is the time for a crucial conversation. First, the boss has to have a crucial conversation with the team regarding the low projections (losing money = high stakes).
Opposing Opinions: Consider the same scenario. The boss has walked in, dropped the bomb about the fourth quarter looking abysmal and now it’s on the team to strategize the marketing. Your coworker has the idea to go with a complete digital play—to reshift all of the print, PR and direct outreach budget and put it completely on social media, Google Adwords, retargeting and latter campaigns. You think that shift would be too disruptive in an already volatile financial scenario. Instead, you think that the best strategy would be to boost the PR and influencer presence to create more brand awareness, then sweep in with the digital to close the sale. The act of opposing the opinion of a peer immediately calls for a crucial conversation. Had in the wrong way, the conversation could cause tension, stress or even anger. But had in the right way, the conversation could turn collaborative and the two ideas could work together to become even better.
Strong Emotions: Finally, with the same scenario, consider that you approach your boss with the new marketing concept. Your boss is feeling the stress of the dropping numbers in a big way and isn’t dealing with it well. So, when you propose a complete shift in the marketing strategy, your boss gets frustrated—raises their voice and becomes flustered. In this situation, it could be easy to come back with a similar response. But, there are certain formulas to follow to have a better, calmer and more productive conversation as a response.
How do you have a crucial conversation?
There are seven steps to having a crucial conversation. When employed together, you can almost guarantee a more positive outcome (we’ve tried it!):
- Start with heart
- Learn to look
- Make it safe
- Master your story
- State your path
- Explore others’ paths
- Move to action
Start with heart
The first step in having a productive crucial conversation is to analyze where you are on your side. Are your intentions pure or are you hoping to manipulate the conversation to get your way? Are you coming from a place of understanding or a place of defense?
- What do I really want for myself?
- What do I really want for others?
- What do I really want for the relationship?
“When a conversation turns crucial, you’ll resort to the forms of communication that you’ve grown up with—debate, silent treatment, manipulation and so on.” – Crucial Conversations
The first step in achieving the results we want from a conversation is to first realize that other people are not the source of everything that is bothering us. For example, you may be talking with a coworker or a client who is being stubborn, but they are not the reason why you’re angry. Sure, the fact that they’re being stubborn is frustrating, but you have the choice to be angry or not. No one causes your anger but you.
To have a crucial conversation, first address the anger you’re feeling and remind yourself that you are entirely in control of it.
Learn to look
Safety is a huge part of having a crucial conversation. If someone feels as if they are being attacked, or they feel like the environment isn’t open enough for honest feedback, a crucial conversation will never reach its full potential. When you’re walking into a crucial conversation, always keep your sight on safety. This will not only help foster the best environment, but it will keep your own mind focused on the conversation, not the emotion.
Silence, believe it or not, can take many forms. Any time information is purposefully withheld, it is considered silence:
- Masking – This consists of understating or selectively showing real opinions. This can look like sarcasm, sugarcoating.
- Avoiding – This involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects or conversations.
- Withdrawing – This means pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either leave the conversation or leave the room entirely.
Violence, while still verbal, attempts to control or manipulate the conversation:
- Controlling – This includes manipulating others into your way of thinking by forcing your views on others, or simply dominating a conversation.
- Labeling – Another word for this would be name calling. This could include calling someone a baby, mocking their professional “type” and so on.
- Attacking – If you resort to belittling or threatening someone, you’re attacking.
Make it Safe
If you begin to notice an unsafe environment building around a crucial conversation, it’s important to first step outside of that conversation, rebuild the safety or boundaries, and then hop back into dealing with the issue at hand. No matter the reason for the unsafe environment building, when you are able to step outside of the conversation for a moment, it’s important to:
- Create a mutual purpose
If you have noticed yourself raising your voice, interrupting someone or simply having uninviting body language, now is your time to apologize for your attitude and refocus.
Oftentimes, assumptions get made in high stakes or emotional conversations. This is when miscommunication is the highest and when people hear things that aren’t actually being said. For example, if you have to miss a meeting last minute, it’s possible that your absence could be taken as a disregard for the value of the other person. Employ contrast to state, “I realize that my being absent to the meeting couldn’t have communicated to you that I don’t care, but that’s not the case. I ran into a last minute issue with the VP that needed my immediate attention.”
Have you ever entered into an argument only to realize halfway through that you’re arguing about two different things? By creating a mutual purpose to the conversation, you shift to agreeing to disagree about the same thing rather than carrying on two separate arguments at once. Ask yourself: What am I actually trying to accomplish?
Master your story
Mastering your story is all about taking control of your emotions (the hardest thing to do as you learn to be an adult, right?). It’s all about staying in the conversation despite your angry, scared or hurt feelings.
To master your story, it’s important to note that emotions don’t just happen. You don’t just wake up in the morning with a cloud of emotions resting over you—they get honed and developed based on circumstance and how we deal with those circumstances. And, once those negative emotions are there, you have two options: You can act on them or they can act on you.
When you begin experience angry, hurt or scared emotions in regards to a crucial conversation, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I in some form of silence or violence?
- What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
- What story is creating these emotions?
- What evidence do I have to support this story?
If you can retrace your path to your emotions, you can give yourself the space you need to think through it and process it appropriately.
State your path
Sometimes crucial conversations include some pretty difficult topics (if you’re firing someone, for example—stakes are high and so are emotions). Those difficult conversations can cause a lot of stress in the people having them, and it’s often easier to revert back to more unhealthy communication means.
Before you jump in to a more difficult conversation, remember the acronym STATE:
Share your facts
Tell your story
Ask for others’ paths
When you communicate the tough stuff, it’s first important to state the facts. These are the things that can’t be argued. For example, if you are firing someone, it’s important to first state the quantifiable offenses: X amount of tardies, Y amount of deadlines missed, etc.
From there, share what that actually means to either you or your organization.
Then, ask for their take on the situation—was there something you maybe weren’t aware of or was missed?
Next, talk tentatively. This means not speaking too softly or too harshly. Start sentences with phrases like, “It’s starting to look like…” or “I’m wondering if…” or “I don’t think you’re intending this, but…”. This creates more of an opportunity for someone to contrast your claims.
Finally, encourage testing. This is your opportunity to invite opposing views, play devil’s advocate and give people equal opportunity to be heard.
Explore others’ path
So what happens if you give someone the floor to share their views and they blow up? If they begin shouting accusations, insults and communicating emotions rather than facts, what’s next?
First, start with your heart. Double check your motive entering into the conversation to ensure you’re approaching it from a pure place rather than an emotionally driven one.
Next, listen to what they’re really saying. Try to probe deeper into it by saying things like, “It sounds like you’re upset because I asked you about your missed deadline, is that right?” Continue asking questions until you’re able to uncover the real root of the issue. Perhaps they felt embarrassed because they missed their deadline. Work to understand the heart of the reaction so the issue can be addressed.
Move to action
So your crucial conversation is over and all parties have walked away (relatively) unscathed. What next? Uncover the next steps.
Should there be a follow up meeting in 30 days to discuss any changes that may have happened?
Does there need to be a conversation with HR?
Does your employee need to pull a report to verify data?
Whatever those next steps are, it’s important to document them immediately at the end of the crucial conversation, with due dates attached to them.