How to Approach Crucial Conversations

Becoming proficient at handling crucial conversations can make work and life in general a lot easier. We communicate all the time, but when the stakes are high, it is less likely we handle the conversation properly.

photo of Anna Mendoza
Anna Mendoza

Principal Portfolio Manager

When I first read Crucial Conversations a few years ago its message resonated deeply with me. In this article I will share some highlights from the book as well as additional lessons from other sources I have come across since then.


What are crucial conversations?

A crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, where opinions differ and emotions run strong. The outcome is likely to impact our lives and there is a significant risk of negative consequences.

Despite its importance, we often back away from crucial conversations because we fear we will make matters worse, but if we know how to handle them, we can hold conversations effectively about any topic. Becoming proficient at handling crucial conversations can make work and life in general a lot easier. We communicate all the time, but when the stakes are high, it is less likely we handle the conversation properly. This happens because we are typically conditioned to communicate in everyday, low-stake exchanges so we become less attentive, and more automatic with our responses.

When someone disagrees with us on a topic that matters a great deal to us, we are often in trouble, because emotions keep us from expressing effectively; there is a reaction that happens to our bodies; adrenaline rushes into our bloodstream, the brain diverts blood from activities it thinks are nonessential to high-priority tasks such as fight or flight reactions.

As a result, we end up facing challenging conversations without being mindful. Our body prepares us to deal with a big threat, not with our boss, colleagues or loved ones.

Crucial conversations often happen spontaneously, forcing us to conduct a complex human interaction in real time. All of a sudden we are facing multiple priorities at the same time: the issue at hand, the other person's argument, and our brain high with adrenaline and a diminished capability of rational thought. It's no surprise that in these situations we often say and do things that make perfect sense for us at the moment, but in retrospect they seem unreasonable.

These exchanges are extremely common. Studies have proven that crucial conversations lie at the heart of almost all chronic problems in organizations, teams, and relationships - the ones that we are either not holding well or not holding at all.

How to manage a crucial conversation:

In crucial conversations, we must be mindful of everything involved in the communication such as thoughts, emotions, words, voices, body language, facial expressions, and behaviors. In these situations, the stress response is likely to be triggered and this effect may hinder communication. The consequences of failing to communicate effectively in a crucial conversation could be extreme and lots of aspects of our life can be affected, such as our careers, our relationships and even our health.

At the core of every successful conversation lies a free flow of relevant information. This happens when people truly feel confident to openly and honestly express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories, even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular.

Effective communicators do their best to create safe spaces where dialogue can happen. They make sure everyone involved adds their voice to a conversation. This doesn't mean they agree with everything said but they do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.

Tips to improve our dialogue skills:

  1. Start with yourself. The first step to achieving the results we really want is to stop believing that other people need to change in order for us to communicate better. The best people at communication understand that the best approach is to "work on me first, us second". As much as others may need to change, or we may want them to change, the only person we can continually inspire and shape - with any degree of success - is the person in the mirror.

  2. Clearly understand your purpose. Begin your crucial conversations with the right motives and stay focused, despite constant invitations to slip away from your goals.

  3. Notice when safety is at risk: A conversation becomes unsafe when we are no longer trying to contribute to the free flow of meaning and we begin trying to "win" the argument. Clear signs of risk are when participants start justifying their posture, defending their arguments, or accusing the other person. When a conversation becomes "unsafe" we often fall into one of these three behaviors:

    • Winning: As soon as someone raises the red flag of inaccuracy or challenges our correctness, we immediately switch our purposes. First, we start to correct the facts. We quibble over details and point out flaws in the other person's arguments. And of course as others push back, trying to prove their points, it is not long until we change our goal from correcting mistakes to winning.

    • Punishing. Sometimes as our anger increases we move from wanting to win the point to wanting to harm the other person. Eventually, as emotions reach their peak, our goal becomes completely perverted. We move away from adding meaning to the pool of information and now all we want is to see others suffer.

    • Keeping the Peace. Sometimes we choose personal safety over dialogue. Rather than adding meaning to the conversation, and possibly making waves along the way, we go to silence. We're so uncomfortable with the immediate conflict that we accept the certainty of bad results to avoid the possibility of uncomfortable conversation. We choose (at least in our minds) peace over conflict.

When you find yourself in one of these scenarios:

  • Recognize that the conversation is no longer safe

  • Step out of the conversation for a moment

  • Analyze the situation

  • Reinsert yourself to address the issue and re-establish safety.

Keep in mind that when people feel safe, they can talk openly about anything; they can share what they truly feel and contribute to the free flow of meaning.

There are two main strategies that can help re-establish safety in a conversation:

  • Seek harmony. Recognize that all parties are trying to reach the same goal, remind them that everyone is standing side by side looking in the same direction, wanting the same thing. This doesn't mean we have to agree with everything and to convince others of our point. It means we need to work together to find the common purpose behind the disagreement.

  • Choose honor. Recognize that every person is valuable even if they disagree with us. The moment the other person perceives even the slightest disrespect, intended or unintended, effective conversation is over. The other person will now shift to defend their dignity, to reassert their worth and to prove their value.

We reestablish honor by owning our part. We step out of the conversation for a moment, we recognize we may have intentionally or unintentionally disrespected the other person and we question what is the role we need to take to bring respect and honor back to the exchange.

If you have intentionally disrespected the other person, by either bringing up something you knew was going to trigger them, by questioning their integrity or their work ethic on purpose, you need to own it by going back and apologizing. This solution may sound simple but on most occasions, we just don't do it. There are some ways of apologizing that aren't apologizing at all. If you say "I'm sorry but…." it doesn't matter what you say after, all you are doing is offloading the responsibility to someone or something else. What you need to say is "I'm sorry I…" and own your part.

When the disrespect wasn't intentional, the way to reestablish honor is by restating your intent to the conversation, explaining "this is what I really want", "this is what I am not suggesting" and "this is what I am suggesting". I once experienced this when working as a Program Manager. I was talking to members of my team and found out that the work they were doing was not as far along as it was expected. I was frustrated, they were also frustrated, we ended up arguing and they started defending themselves. This was the right time to stop for a moment, reset and restate my intentions. I told them "I am not insinuating that you are not working really hard at this" and "I am not suggesting that I care more about the outcome than you do", "What I am saying is let's talk about how we can get this to move forward, how we can figure this thing out together". By restating the intent I brought the conversation back to safety.

Communication is one of the most valuable skills that we can develop in today's workplace. We all deal with multiple stakeholders and collaborate with one or more teams to generate value. In this setting, it is expected that we disagree on some things, and being equipped with the right skills and tools allows us to navigate these situations in a confident and comfortable manner.

If you found this article interesting and you would like to learn more, I suggest you take a look at the following sources:

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

Mastering The Art of Crucial Conversations | Joseph Grenny

Author's Blog

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