The Importance of Crucial Conversations

Written by: Fargo Inc
Eric Piela, Senior Brand Manager, WEX and Certified Crucial Conversations Trainer

Whatever the nature of a relationship, personal or business, crucial conversations matter. However, unfortunately, the majority of critical conversations that need to occur either don’t happen at all or they’re executed poorly. What’s at stake is the quality of our relationships and our success.

What is a crucial conversation?

According to Crucial Learning, the research and training organization that created this communication tool, a crucial conversation must have three elements:

  1. You must have opposing opinions.
  2. You must have strong emotions
  3. There must be high stakes

All three components need to be present for it to be a true crucial conversation. For example, I like to joke that at the end of the night after my wife and I have put the kids to bed and finally get to sit down to watch a television show, the debate around what we’re going to watch, while at times heated, is indeed not a crucial conversation. We certainly have opposing opinions as she may want to watch Bridgerton and I might want to watch the football game. I may even be really emotional about the fact that the Vikings are playing the Packers. However, what we ultimately decide to watch most certainly wouldn’t be considered “high stakes.”

Given the high threshold for what constitutes a crucial conversation, it’s not surprising that when I ask an audience how many crucial conversations they have during a typical day, they often underestimate it. Usually, the group will guess that 15-20% of their conversations are crucial. According to Crucial Learning, the real number is actually estimated to be 20-30%. This gap derives from a lack of perception around what is important to the other person involved in the conversation. While a conversation may not feel crucial to us, it might very well be to the person we’re interacting with.

Why are crucial conversations important?

We all get stuck.

Whether it’s a relationship we struggle with at work or a project that is failing, we all want to get unstuck.

“If you don’t talk it out, you’ll act it out.” Joseph Grenny, Crucial Learning

Many times people tend to hold stuff in because either we’re scared to engage in the dialogue or, if you’re like me, you’re a classic conflict avoider. The problem is if we don’t have these conversations the frustration festers. We often either act it out by complaining to a co-worker, saying something we regret in the heat of the moment, or bottle it up and quit out of frustration, keeping us from what we really want.

Another enlightening question I ask during a training is, “What did you do to get what you wanted when you were a child?” It’s hilarious to hear some of the answers. Some people threw tantrums, gave the silent treatment, went to mom if dad said no, and some made PowerPoint presentations pleading their case. While not all are productive, there are a variety of tactics we have all used to get what we want. What’s really fascinating is that we tend to fall back on these tactics as adults. While they may have evolved slightly, we’re still deploying them in conversations which causes us to alter our motives and get emotional. We stop listening to each other and just focus on what we want or go into “fight or flight” mode. The reptilian part of our brain activates and it’s imperative we become hyper-aware of how we respond in these situations so we can manage our emotions and have more productive crucial conversations.

Focus on what you want and let that motivate you.

What you want should not be simply winning the argument. It shouldn’t be about having that perfect “zinger” for someone you dislike. Instead, start with the heart. If you enter a conversation with the frame of mind that the other person is both wrong and intolerable, you’ve already set yourself up for failure and predetermined the outcome. Try to understand why you view them the way you do, and more importantly, how they might view you. Focus on the outcome you want, which is hopefully a better working relationship or project outcome.

Control your story

Have you ever had a boss send you a message with “Come see me in my office” in the subject line? You know how quickly you can start telling yourself a story. You may wonder “Oh no, what did I do wrong now?”

In the absence of information or context, we create stories in our heads. Sadly, we rarely tell ourselves a positive story in these types of situations.

Here’s an example: You’re working on a report for your manager and she stops by your desk three times, in one hour, to see how it’s coming along. Her simple actions cause you to begin to create a story in your head. You think to yourself, “She doesn’t trust me. She doesn’t think I’m capable, “ or “Why didn’t she just do this report herself?” In worst-case scenarios, those thoughts turn to behaviors such as holding a grudge or resisting direction next time she requests a report from you.

In these stories, we create a villain, play the victim, or worse, convince ourselves we’re helpless and there are no healthy options for taking action. When we let these stories dictate our behaviors, we’re never in the right frame of mind for a constructive crucial conversation. Instead, before you start storytelling, be sure to look at things from the perspective of the other person involved. For instance, in the example involving the report, maybe your manager is getting pressure from her boss or perhaps the future of your department is dependent on the quality and accuracy of the report. It’s often easier to point fingers or extrapolate the intent of the other person because it keeps us out of the equation. Fight the urge of falling into those story traps.

You can argue as strongly as you want for your opinion, as long as you were equally vigorous in encouraging others to disagree.” – Ron McMillan, Crucial Learning

It’s easy to be passionate about what you want to share, but it’s vital to be equally passionate about listening to other people’s perspectives. Remember that a conversation should be a dialogue with two people and two perspectives.

Here are some tangible tips for engaging in a crucial conversation. Initiating the discussion in a prescriptive and safe manner can often be the most important step to a healthy dialogue.

5 Tools For a Crucial 5 Conversation

1. Share your facts

Focus on factual information and summarize what you have seen and heard. Facts lack emotion and are rarely a source for disagreement. They provide a safe ground to begin the dialogue. Start with what actually happened and leave out emotion and storytelling.

2. Tell your story.

Now is the time to share what you think the facts mean. What do the facts lead you to believe? How does it make you feel? What are your opinions? How do you think it’s impacting the situation?

3. Ask for others’ opinions.

Remember that quote about being equally vigorous to hear their side of the story? Now’s your chance! Let the other person know that while you’ve shared your viewpoint, there is a chance you could be misinterpreting the situation. Share that you would like help understanding their perspective. This is important step because we know from our own experience how infuriating it can be when we aren’t given the opportunity to tell our side of the story.

4. Talk tentatively.

How you engage in a crucial conversation will be an indicator if the other person will go into “fight or flight” mode. Make sure you’re creating a safe space for the other person to tell their side of the story. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, your nonverbal actions, and where you engage in the conversation. Sometimes choosing a neutral place such as a coffee shop or public meeting room instead of your own office can help lessen the power dynamic and create the best outcome.

5. Encourage testing

Last, encourage their involvement in the discussion and make sure they play an active role in developing a solution. As an equal stakeholder, they’re more likely to be invested in how to move forward. When possible, all parties should feel ownership in the decision process.

The limiting factor of all communication is not the riskiness of the message you want to share, but how safe you can help others feel hearing that message.

Hopefully, this information will help you engage in more effective dialogues and spot the conversations that are keeping you from what you want.

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Brady Drake is the editor of Fargo INC!