Crucial Conversations


The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.

— Mark Zuckerberg

When I was a new manager, my employer gave me the opportunity to go through a training course called Crucial Conversations. It was a wonderful framework and methodology to teach leaders how to become better skilled at difficult conversations where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. This skill is essential in the people profession, as I very frequently find myself serving as facilitator and mediator, guiding two parties through these high-stakes, emotionally-charged discussions.

Joseph Grenny, coauthor of the book Crucial Conversations says “You can measure the health of a relationship, the health of a team, even the health of an entire organization by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems.”  He says that at a very young age, we start thinking we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend, so we remain quiet.  However, Grenny points out that silence is never truly silent and if we aren’t talking it out, we are acting it out, and our actions can end up causing more damage.  We tend to look at crucial conversations as a dangerous pit to be avoided at all costs, when in actuality, “crucial conversations well-held accelerate the building of trust between individuals.”

So how do we navigate these discussions?  For a crucial conversation to be productive, people need to feel safe.  Crucial Conversations teaches that safety is a byproduct of mutual purpose and mutual respect, which I believe are best demonstrated when we broach difficult subjects with clear intention and proper timing.  Below are my practical tips.

Tip 1 is Intention

In my experience, when your intention is known immediately, it paves the way for what needs to be said and is surprisingly effective at diffusing emotion.  Start a disciplinary discussion with “It is my intention to correct an issue so you can be successful and thrive in this organization.”  Conveying your desire for the other person’s success reveals your mutual purpose and helps them feel safe.

Tip 2 is Timing

The longer you wait, the harder it gets.  Don’t delay what needs to be said.  As long as you have all the facts and are in control of your emotions, take action to discuss it as soon as possible.  Initiating difficult topics in a humble, yet straightforward and direct manner communicates mutual respect.  When you postpone or avoid what needs to be said, the silence raises tension and that tension builds, making the conversation that much harder to approach.

As I mentioned previously, many leaders fail to master this methodology because they feel it is too risky.  However, hopefully now you can see that passivity and inaction yield a much greater loss.  Don’t let fear freeze up your professional and personal relationships.  Take your timing into consideration, move towards others with intention, and watch trust transform a challenging topic into a focused and fruitful dialogue.

Mastering the Art of Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny

Want to learn more?  Watch Joseph Grenny’s presentation from the 2015 VitalSmarts REACH Conference.  If you are limited on time start watching from 24:44 for the key takeaways

Looking for more Leadership Insight?  Check out CEO’s Level Up.

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