Crucial Conversations: The Benefits and the Consequences

By Dr. Kellie Sanders and Dr. Kristine Servais

Most people go through life experiencing a multitude of difficult, and often, crucial conversations. These tough conversations can be with a spouse, a daughter, a colleague, or a boss. A mundane conversation becomes a crucial one when emotions quickly elevate, opinions become oppositional, and the outcome becomes high stakes. Although leaders are frequently in positions to engage in controversial conversations, many lack the skills and experience to identify and conduct these conversations when needed. According to the Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, a majority of leaders choose to avoid, delay, or inadequately conduct crucial conversations in the workplace.

The ability to conduct successful crucial conversations begins with being able to identify the characteristics of a crucial conversation prior to, or at the onset of, a difficult conversation. Once a conversation is considered to be a crucial one, a leader must demonstrate emotional awareness and management for themselves and those participating in the conversation. Too often, a leader’s emotions of anxiety, frustration, or impatience can contribute to the negativity rather than the positive management of the conversation.

When the need for a crucial conversation arises, adequate and thoughtful preparation for the conversation is needed, with attention given to the environment, appropriate time, and use of safe and caring language. In a well-managed crucial conversation, a leader states a clear, mutual goal and uses safe and caring dialogue—as often as needed—to keep moving toward the intended outcome.

A well-executed crucial conversation includes active listening, paraphrasing, and summarizing statements to reach mutual understandings. A successful crucial conversation concludes with a summary of the attained goal, agreed upon understandings, an action-based outcome, and a well identified follow-up.

Is a crucial conversation emotionally and strategically easy to conduct? Of course not. But neglected or poorly conducted difficult conversations maximize controversial and emotional issues, and inevitably damage relationships and productivity of the organization. Like most skills, engaging in crucial conversations takes knowledge, practice, and intentionality. As leaders learn from past difficult conversations, there must be improved planning, emotional agility, mutual goals, and action-based results to benefit the participants and the organization.

Consider the following reflective and conversational questions to further understand and conduct crucial conversations:

  1. Describe a recent difficult conversation. What were several emotions that dominated the conversation for you or the other person? Explain what you did to manage your emotions? What could you have done to improve your role in the conversation?
  2. Consider a recent difficult conversation. What behaviors or emotions might you observe when a typical/mundane conversation becomes a crucial one? What emotions, language, and physical symptoms did you observe when this crucial conversation was taking place?
  3. A crucial conversation generally involves one or more of these three characteristics: high stakes, difference in opinions, or a high level of emotions. Identify a difficult conversation you have experienced. Consider a recent situation where you experienced one or more of the characteristics of a crucial conversation. How did you respond?

Additional Resources:

As a result of reading this blog, what commitments will you make to yourself in the next 30 days to learn more and actively engage in crucial conversations?

Servais and Sanders are the cofounders of Lifeline for Courageous Leadership.

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