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Conquer Crucial Conversations in 2012!

Posted By Jim Boomer, Tuesday, January 10, 2012
As we start off 2012, we all have a list of New Year’s resolutions we will work to achieve. 
I’d encourage you to add one more to that list – facing difficult conversations head-on rather than avoiding them.  Conflict is a natural part of working in a team environment, and how you handle it determines whether it is healthy or destructive conflict.  Too often, we think we are keeping the peace by remaining silent when the topic becomes controversial.  What we’re really doing is compounding the problem.  Ill feelings fester, negative attitudes spread like wildfire and the important conversation essential to getting the team on board never happens. And, thus problems escalate.

"Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler offers an excellent blueprint to constructive, difficult discussions.  I’ve seen its resolution strategies work firsthand.  Here is a top line summary of the valuable lessons.

What is a Crucial Conversation and Why are They Important?

First off, according to Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, a "crucial conversation” is one that involves opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes.   

These conversations define our relationships and relationships, in turn, define our lives.  Whether it’s with co-workers, family or friends, improving your skills to successfully navigate these tough talks will make you and everyone around you more successful (and happier).

Set Out to Create Dialogue

When approaching a conversation you know will be particularly delicate, enter with the goal of creating dialogue.  Aim to facilitate the exchange of facts, ideas and thoughts, all of which build a shared meaning or pool of information that can lead to an outcome all parties feel good about.  In order for this dialogue to take place though, everyone has to feel safe to add to the shared meaning.  The tricky part is training yourself to step back from the heated discussion and assess the situation while you are in the midst of it.  You must be self-aware and, at the same time, watch for verbal and physical cues that things are headed down a negative path.  That’s not always easy when you’re also thinking about what to say next in the conversation.  

Look for Signs that Safety is at Risk

The most common reasons people feel unsafe are because they don’t feel like you’re both working toward a mutual purpose or there is a lack of mutual respect.  So how can you identify when others don’t feel safe (or when you don’t feel safe)?  Look for the signs.  They usually come in one of two forms – "silence” behaviors or "violence” behaviors. 
  1. "Silence” behaviors – any act to intentionally withhold information from the pool of meaning.  It’s almost always done to avoid conflict and typically takes one of three forms.·         
    • Masking – consists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions.  Sarcasm, sugarcoating and couching are some of the popular forms
    • Avoiding – involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects.  We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
    • Withdrawing – pulling out of a conversation altogether, either by exiting the conversation or exiting the room.
  2. "Violence” behaviors – any verbal strategy aimed at convincing, controlling or compelling other to your point of view.  It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool and also usually appears in one of three forms.
    • Controlling – consists of coercing others to your way of thinking by either forcing your views or by dominating the conversation.  Common forms include cutting others off, overstating facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects or using directive questions to control the discussion.
    • Labeling – putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under general stereotype or category.
    • Attacking – this is pretty straightforward – it’s a verbal attack that can take the form of belittling or threatening.  All with the purpose of making the other person suffer.
Make it Safe

So once you identify these tell-tales signs of safety issues, how can you restore the safety?  When safety is at risk, you need to first recognize what is going on and why and then step out of the content temporarily.  You can then build safety by getting back to the facts and eventually get back into dialogue.  Some specific techniques for rebuilding safety include:
  1. If you are at fault, apologize.
  2. When your intentions have been misunderstood, contrast.
  3. When you have conflicting goals, find a mutual purpose.
Apologizing is pretty straightforward but you’re apology must be genuine.  People can see through an insincere apology pretty quickly and this will further emphasize their feeling that you don’t respect them.  

Contrasting is a skill that helps you clarify your intentions so that the other person feels safe.  You start by stating what you are NOT talking about and then follow that with what you are talking about.  

Creating a mutual purpose requires a little more work.  First you need to explore the purpose of all parties involved.  What you see on the surface is the person’s behavior or strategy for getting what they want.  The interest is what lies underneath so you need to ask "why” questions respectfully to drive out any hidden or buried agendas.  Once you’ve clarified each person’s goal, the next step is to find a solution that satisfies both goals.  If that’s not possible, build a goal you both like just as well or better.  This is not always easy and takes some creative thinking and the ability to be patient and think outside the box.  It also requires that we are invested enough in the other person to put in the work.

Control Your Emotions

Controlling emotions can be very difficult during a crucial conversation, especially when we’re hard-wired to react when our safety is threatened – often referred to as "fight or flight.”  Stepping back and analyzing the root cause of our emotions can be a very powerful skill.  

Have you ever blamed someone for making you mad?”  Did they?  Or did you make yourself mad?  If you really think about it honestly, you were the one that caused the emotion.  When we see or hear something, the little voice in our head quickly develops a story to provide meaning to the event.  Over time, our mind fills in blanks and adds details (often exaggerated and ugly) and they are most often based on assumptions.  This story is what really caused the emotion and our subsequent action.  Often, what we believe is reality (the story in our mind) is much different from what actually occurred.  Recognizing this is what is really happening is the first step to controlling our emotions so we can use healthy dialogue to explore the facts and determine what actually occurred.


Crucial conversations aren’t easy.  They are very challenging.  As we often say at Boomer Consulting, Inc., it’s about progress not perfection.  If you can work on one or two skills from this book at a time, you’ll drastically improve your communication skills during difficult conversations.  Start off 2012 by committing to conquering crucial conversations.  The first step is to read the book!

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