How many times have you felt that you wanted to say something important to someone but you couldn’t? Maybe to your manager, or your partner, your mom perhaps? Or how many times have you felt anger or fear in a conversation with someone and even though you didn’t want to turn it into a fight, it did turn into a fight were at least one of you was raising their voice or saying hurtful things?
Many times, yes. It is the same for me. When it came to having difficult conversations were I felt cornered, trapped, criticized, or accused I was also reacting from an emotional place and this, in turn, made the other person respond in a similar manner. Nothing good ever came out of these conversations, because we were not communicating, we were just fighting for who gets to have the last word.
All these conversations were the so-called “Crucial Conversations” that needed to take place in one way or another and so but were handled poorly by me. Knowing how to communicate about our needs and wants without being aggressive, passive, or avoidant is a crucial (pun intended) life skill that nobody teaches in school. So we need to learn it by ourselves.
So, “What is a crucial conversation?” I hear you ask.
“A discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.” as the authors mention.
Every day we engage in numerous conversations, each which play important roles in shaping our expectations, relationships, and outcomes. But navigating conversations effectively, especially the crucial ones, takes certain skills, such as social intelligence, courage, self-control, and even humility.
Imagine how your life would change if you would learn how to open up about your frustrations with your manager, or to have that talk with your mom that you are avoiding for years, or to tell your partner what is that is bothering you about his behavior? How amazing would that be?
Pretty damn amazing, I tell you that! 🙂
Once I’ve managed to communicate assertively and stop avoiding the hard, but necessary conversations, without turning it into a fight, my life quality changed dramatically.
I stopped arguing with my partner, I stopped taking things personally, I started to verbalize things that bother me when they happen and not to wait until I turned into a ticking bomb…
My life improved massively just by leaning this one skill because.. well, life is all about effective communication. With everyone around you. Life is all about having balanced, healthy relationships that do not leave us drained from energy but help us have lived a fulfilling life.
I’ve learned about turning my difficult conversations into opportunities for dialogue from the ‘Crucial Conversations – Tools for talking when the stakes are high’ book and a lot of practice.
How do we know we need to have a difficult conversation, or we are already in one?
Well.. it’s because we are avoiding it at all costs and when it happens we are dealing with many emotions, ranging from the initial shock, then comes fear, then our defense mechanism kicks in and we go into our most used defense mode (typical for a fight stress response), or we shut down (typical for an avoidant stress response) and feeling anger or guilt or shame. And it’s not easy. Handling this carousel of emotions and also communicating rationally at the same time, it’s not easy.
Actually, it’s not even possible. Our mind perceives the conversation as a threat to our emotional or physical integrity (like a break-up or a discussion with the manager about your performance which translates into a potential termination of contract), so we got straight into a stress response in an attempt to handle the threat. And this does not help us make the most out of our conversation, but only helps us to sink us even more into more uncertainty, fear, and frustration.
Moreover, we display certain symptoms that will highlight whether we’re involved in a crucial conversation:
- Physical signs – we will display the physical sign of stress and anxiety, for example, sweating, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, stomach ache, dry throat, tension etc.
- Emotional signs – we will experience a strong emotional response e.g. fear or anger.
- Behavioral signs – we may avoid or engage in unhelpful behaviors, such as, leaving the conversation, becoming quiet, not saying what we really think, raising our voice, and so on.
Typical examples of a crucial conversation
All of these are perfect examples of difficult conversations and they all have in common one important thing: they all have the potential to alter the relationship you have with that person in a big way. If done poorly, of course.
- Ending a relationship
- Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments
- Asking a friend to repay a loan
- Giving the boss feedback about their behavior
- Approaching a boss who is breaking his own safety or quality policies
- Critiquing a colleague’s work
- Asking a roommate to move out
- Talking to a team member who isn’t keeping commitments
- Discussing problems about sexual intimacy
- Confronting a loved one about something
- Giving an unfavorable performance review
- Asking in-laws to quit interfering
- Talking to someone about a hygiene problem
The importance of dialogue
In the Crucial Conversations book, the authors discuss the importance of dialogue. They define dialogue as the free flow of meaning between people. This essentially means that you should talk openly and honestly with each other.
Dialogue is meant to fill the “Pool of Shared Meaning”. This is where the views, facts, opinions, theories, emotions, and experiences shared in the conversation are understood and valued by everyone involved. The greater the shared meaning there is, the better the decision. However, this is not easily achieved because not everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinions and views.
Steps needed to manage crucial conversations
For effective dialogue to take place, the following steps are needed to manage crucial conversations:
- Approaching a crucial conversation – Start with yourself
First, before even starting a difficult conversation, we need to identify our frustration and the emotion behind it. What do you feel about the situation? What exactly seems to be the source of your frustration? What do you want to change? Be specific. “I want my manager to reply to my emails in a timely manner. I’m fed up with waiting for his input for 3-4 days or more and then when asked about the project, he seems to not be aware that it’s stuck because of him.”
2. Notice when safety is at risk
To be able to have an honest and open talk there has to be a safe space first. And by that, I don’t mean booking a small meeting room for a 1-1 talk, but start taking notice of any signs of silence or violence in their speech and behavior.
The most common forms of silence are masking, avoidance, withdrawing and for violence: controlling the talk by imposing views on others, interrupting others, overemphasize facts, or labeling (name-calling or generalizing), and also attacking (intimidating and ridiculing others).
3. Make it safe to share – maybe the most difficult part of a conversation is to create a safe (you or both of you) a safe space to you can both share your opinions, views, thoughts, and feelings without feeling judged, scared, or criticized. We can do this by creating mutual respect and mutual purpose.
We create mutual respect by apologizing when we make a mistake, by stating what is your purpose of the conversation (beneficial change for both of you), allow them to speak their mind, and listen what they say, co-create a solution for the situation to improve. Finding a mutual purpose based on both’s needs and values is the pillar of an efficient conversation. For this, both parties involved need to state their purpose and then they need to find the middle ground.
4. Master your stories – dealing with strong emotions
We have to tell ourselves stories about things that happen to us or we see happening. It’s important to understand that our story (interpretation of things) maybe not be 100% correct or have a complete, 360 degrees understanding of it. Our interpretations are ours and they led us to specific emotions. If we manage to master the stories we tell ourselves before going into a crucial conversation, we are able to master our intense emotions during the talk as well.
To do this, we need to separate our interpretation from reality (they are not one and the same) and to start relying on evidence, hard facts (specific behaviors) that sustain our view. Always look at yourself, how you react, what to say from a 3rd position, and evaluate your emotional state constantly. “Is this over-reacting? How am I behaving? What do I feel? What are the facts and what am I telling myself? In what role am I in right now: is it the victim? Am I the bad guy? Am I surrendering my power?”
5. Speak honestly without offending
Even though it might seem difficult to share speak up without offending the other person, it is possible with some training. We do not want to offend anybody, our purpose is to find a middle ground and build a solution together. So we must pay attention to talk only about ourselves, and not use attributes and adjectives directed to the other person, don’t make it personal.
Share your facts, talk only about your feelings, then ask for their opinion/input and encourage them to open up.
6. Explore others’ paths
At this point, we need to listen. Listen carefully to what the other is saying. Try to be present and follow their story. Do not try to formulate answers in your mind while their speaking, but instead do this:
Ask questions or encourage to continue: “Ok, so you mean…? Please continue”
Mirror to confirm feelings: “Am I correct to think you are upset/sad/unsure now?”
Paraphrase: “So what I think you’re saying is … “, “ I thin you are saying … is this correct?”
At some point, you should find a middle ground or something you both believe, even though it’s not the main issue, but maybe a consequence of it. Start to build on that by saying “Ok, so I think we both agree that this situation …” or “ Yes, I agree, the situation now is hectic and uncertain..” and then compare the two views. Are they very different? How? Is there a middle ground?
7. Turning crucial conversations into actions
Ideas may not be put into action if people are unsure of how the decision will be made and if people don’t follow-up on their promised action. Conclusions and decisions must be clarified.
Types of decision-making
There are four types of decision-making:
- Command – The authority makes the decision without the involvement of others but they explain their reasoning.
- Consult – The authority invites others to provide information to influence them before making a decision. Consultation is important when: many people are affected by the decision, it’s easy to gather the information, people care about the decision and there are multiple options.
- Vote – This is where an agreed-upon percentage swings the decision. It’s used when there are multiple strong options. It shouldn’t be used when people won’t support the outcome if it goes the way they oppose – the losers shouldn’t really care about the result. Never use voting instead of dialogue.
- Consensus – Everyone honestly agrees with a decision and supports it. This is only used for high-stakes and complex issues. It’s important not to pretend that all participants will get their first choice
To decide which decision-making process to use ask:
- Who cares? Establish those that want to be involved, it’s not worth including those that don’t.
- Who has the expertise needed to make the decision?
- Who must agree with the decision? You might need certain authorities to cooperate.
- How many people should be involved? The preference is to involve the fewest number of people that will produce a high-quality decision.
Transferring decision into action – finishing clearly
- Who? Allocate each responsibility to a person.
- What? What exactly is their responsibility – make this very clear.
- By when? Set deadlines.
- Follow-up: Decide how you will follow-up and the timeline for this.
- Document the decisions made and all of the commitments promised.
- Hold people accountable to their promises or it’s time for another crucial conversation…
Not every conversation is a crucial conversation
Not every conversation is a crucial conversation and thank God for that. But every conversation can turn into a crucial conversation where the parties involved have strong reactions and emotions. And this can turn into a regretful event in less than 1 minute.
So, we need to ask ourselves all the time while in a conversation, if this a sensitive topic to us or to the other party, be mindful of our response and the way we react. Especially if we find that we were pulled into a crucial conversation and we didn’t even realize it at first. Usually, the one at the receiving end is the one most impacted one.
Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. The consequences of either avoiding or fouling up crucial conversations can be severe. When we fail a crucial conversation, every aspect of our lives can be affected-from our careers, to our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health.
As we learn how to step up to crucial conversations-and handle them well-with one set of skills we can influence virtually every domain of our lives.