• Jim Boomer, CEO

How to Conquer Crucial Conversations


Most of us have a list of goals we’re working on achieving. I 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.

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

What are crucial conversations and why are they important?

A “crucial conversation” is one that involves opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes. These conversations define our relationships which in turn define our lives. Whether it’s with co-workers, family or friends, improving your skills to navigate these tough talks successfully will make you and everyone around you more successful (and happier).

Set out to create dialogue

When approaching a delicate conversation, 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. For this dialogue to take place, 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 signs such as sarcasm, avoiding sensitive subjects, exiting the conversation, trying to dominate the conversation, putting a label on people or ideas, or verbal attacks.

Make it safe

Once you identify these tell-tales signs of safety issues, how can you restore the safety? When safety is at risk, you need first to 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:

  • If you are at fault, apologize. Apologizing is pretty straightforward, but your 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.

  • When your intentions have been misunderstood, contrast. 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.

  • When you have conflicting goals, find a mutual purpose. 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 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. Next, find a solution that satisfies both goals or build a goal you both like. This is not always easy and takes some creative thinking and patience. It also requires that we are invested enough in the other person to put in the work.

Control your emotions

Controlling emotions can be tough 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 cause of our emotions can be a very powerful skill.

Have you ever blamed someone for making you mad? If you 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 often based on assumptions. This story is what 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 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. But remember: it’s about progress, not perfection. If you can work on one or two skills at a time, you’ll drastically improve your communication skills during difficult conversations. Commit to conquering crucial conversations. The first step is to read the book!

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