Crucial Conversations

There are some conversations you would like to avoid. In the moment, it is easier to defer it or avoid having it, but in the long run, not having these conversations will prevent you from achieving your goals. Be these conversations personal, such as family finances or differences in child rearing; or professional, such as department goals or job performance, there are conversations that should be dubbed crucial. In their book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, authors Patterson, Grenny, and Swizler define a crucial conversation as one in which the stakes are high, there are strong emotions, and there are differing opinions. It is the job of the self-differentiated leader to recognize when these conversations are needed and to execute them following the precepts outlined by Patterson, Grenny and Swizler.

Get Unstuck

unstuckFor my innovation plan to launch successfully, I need to, first, identify where I am stuck and unbundle the problem with CPR (the content, pattern, relationship analysis). It is clear to me where I am stuck: I and members of my team live in the whirlwind. The prospect of starting a major initiative in the midst of the daily duties is daunting. I would characterize this problem as one that falls into the Content domain. It is essential that I and the people I will be working with–CTE instructors, and Campus Instructional Technologists are supportive of this endeavor.

Start With The Heart

heartNext, I need to engage in self reflection and honestly assess whether my actions are indicative of what I really want. I need to be perfectly clear of what I want for myself, for others and for the relationship. This stage of the crucial conversation is about managing my own emotions and focusing on how my message is being delivered as much, if not more, than the content of my message. The key to successfully delivering the message I am trying to impart is to be open, honest and respectful to my colleague with whom I am conversing.

Learn to Look

lookWouldn’t it be nice if when we were engaged in a conversation that was turning crucial we could hit the pause button like on a Tivo remote and get our ducks in a row before proceeding with the conversation. Unfortunately, conversations are organic that can ebb and flow due to a number of factors. Practicing learning to look for moments and cues that can turn the conversation into a negative experience rather than a positive one is extremely important. It’s tough to do on the fly, but three things to be on the lookout for are:

  • The moment the conversation is turning crucial
  • Signs the your conversation partner isn’t feeling safe. They are exhibiting silence and or violence behaviors, which means their fight or flight reptilian brain is taking over and reducing the likelihood of meaningful conversation
  • My own style or behaviors under stress. When I feel my top lip starting to curl in anger involuntarily or my hands start gesticulating more wildly, that’s a sure sign I need to pull back and refocus.

Make it Safe

Being guided by your emotions during a crucial conversation is a recipe for disaster. When emotions dictate the conversation, we are more apt to say hurtful things or disengage, leaving the problem to fester. Sometimes it’s helpful to clarify what you do not want. For example,  “I don’t want confusion or ambiguity to persist around this issue.” Another strategy for keeping the conversation safe is to share something you respect about the person. This tactic can defuse hostility. Finally, it is appropriate to apologize when one has said something disrespectful. Some say apologizing is a sign of weakness. That is inaccurate. If an apologize is warranted, give it.

Master My Stories

storiesThe key is to master my stories, not let them master me. We compose narratives for ourselves to make sense of the issue we are trying to resolve. When a CTE instructor was angry with me for not receiving the equipment she had been promised and was expecting, I created an elaborate victim story absolving myself of any responsibility and placing the blame on the shoulders of everyone from the procurement department to the vendor, even to our legal department for not having executed the MOU in a timely fashion. The more productive strategy is to turn my victim/villain/helpless stories int a useful story that will lead to productive dialogue.

State My Path

path-into-the-hillsWhen striving to articulate your rationale for the path forward, consider how open you are being to others’ views. Are you talking about the real issue facing your organization? Are you expressing your views confidently and effectively? it is helpful to keep the acronym STATE in mind:

  • Share your facts.
  • Tell your story.
  • Ask for others’ paths.
  • Talk tentatively.
  • Encourage testing.

Explore Others’ Paths

Sometimes we should try to “walk a mile in their shoes.” Presumably if the person you are having a crucial conversation with is a family member, friend, colleague, or you have some other kind of meaningful relationship with him or her, we should be able to consider that person reasonable, rational and decent. Keeping this in mind will go a long way in defusing highly charged conversations. I can, on occasion, become flabbergasted by a friend’s political stance. Regardless of how misguided I believe their positions to be, when I stop to remember how much more we have in common than we disagree about, just acknowledging that mid-conversation does wonders to keep the talk civil and increases the likelihood of arriving at some kind of mutual understanding.

Move to Action

action-clapboardAt the end of the day, it is about more than the conversations. Getting in touch with your emotions and triggers is extremely beneficial. Understanding how others are approaching an issue is helpful. But the goal in having the crucial conversations is to move to action. The crucial conversation is a means to an end. That end is executing the mutually accepted plan you have formulated to accomplish your Wildly Important Goal. How do we ensure we are progressing from talk to action? We are checking in regularly with our 4DX scoreboard.


Patterson, K., Grenny, J., & Swizler, A. (2012). Crucial conversations: tools for talking when stakes are high. (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill New York, NY.  ISBN-10: 0071771328

Covey, S., McChesney, C., & Huling, J. (2012). The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving your wildly important goals. Simon and Schuster. ISBN B005FLODJ8

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