Handling Crucial Conversations

How to have crucial conversations by Avril Kidd, EQ in Action - man and woman arguing
Written by: Avril Kidd
When conversations matter the most, we are often on our worst behavior as we go into the Amygdala hijack which results in the fight, freeze or flee reaction.

Do you ever avoid having difficult conversations because they can make you feel physically ill or uncomfortable? Maybe one of these sounds familiar:

  • Ending a relationship.
  • Talking to a colleague or friend who may have a hygiene problem/substance abuse issue.
  • An associate who hasn’t repaid money you loaned them.
  • Trying to resolve a custody battle.
  • Conducting a sub performance review.

In these scenarios, emotions are strong, stakes are high and opinions vary! These are examples of Crucial Conversations.

There are numerous times when we need to have these conversations and how we handle these can have a huge impact on relationships, our career, and our success. Managers who are skilled at Crucial conversations will be far more successful than those who avoid or don’t handle them well. Sadly, we often find it easier to talk about people than to them.

If we want to maintain Trust, we need to develop the skill of addressing critical issues face to face – not via emails, voice notes or avoidance. What we need to achieve is an effective dialogue, which is the “free flow of meaning between 2 or more people”.

When conversations matter the most, we are often on our worst behavior as we go into the Amygdala hijack which results in the fight, freeze or flee reaction. The cost of NOT having crucial conversations can be incredibly high.

In a study of over 7000 doctors and nurses, 84% of respondents said that they regularly see people taking short cuts, exhibiting incompetence or breaking rules but they say nothing! Fewer than 1 in 12 nurses will speak up to a doctor, even when a patient’s safety is at risk, which is resulting in patient deaths, high nursing turnover, lower Physician satisfaction & productivity.

An example was a surgeon in the USA who started operating on a patient’s foot when the patient was booked for a tonsillectomy. Not one of the 7 people present in the theatre spoke up to prevent the surgeon removing part of the patient’s foot!

As Martin Luther King so wisely said …

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

We need to speak up to hold people accountable!

How do we have these crucial conversations?

1. Start with Heart

Use your empathy and positive intent by asking yourself:

  • What do I want for me? This helps you find your bearing or North Star, ie. your Intent.
  • What do I want for the other person/people? and
  • What do I want for this relationship ?

This helps us to …


2. Find Mutual Purpose.

When we have mutual purpose the other person/people will believe that you care about their goals, interests and values and you believe they care about yours. With a shared goal you both have a good reason and healthy climate to start a conversation.

We all enter conversations with our own opinions, feelings and theories, which makeup our pool of meaning. When we enter a crucial conversation, we generally don’t share the same pool as our opinions differ. Because of this, we need to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the pool, even if we don’t agree with their opinions. The larger the pool, the smarter the decisions as we are exposed to more information. Remember, individually smart people can do collectively stupid things.

Announce your intent or mutual purpose up front to create safety. People in defensive mode are not safe and will not listen or engage in an effective dialogue, ie. ‘in the free flow of meaning!’ People need to trust your motives. We need to be able to speak up without breaking connection, so consider how they will feel having this conversation.


3. Maintain Respect in the conversation.

Respect is like air. When we have it, we don’t think about it. But take it away and it is all you can think about. When people feel disrespected their emotions will run high and you will not be able to have an effective conversation.

One form of respect is actively listening to what the other person has to say – listen to understand not just to reply. Apologize if you are wrong or become reactive. Own your behavior and if need be, step out and commit to seeking mutual purpose again.Remember you can’t control the other person only yourself.

Respect lets the other person know that it is okay to feel differently from you.


4. Learn to look

Watch for safety problems, notice when things become crucial, and look for signs of silence or violence. Notice your own style under stress. Do you or the person you are engaging with use any of the following masking techniques?

  • Sarcasm or sugar coating when talking.
  • Avoidance, withdrawal, or steering away from a conversation or topic.
  • Violence which can show up in various ways:
  1. Controlling, ie. forcing your views on others or dominating the conversation.
  2. Labelling people or ideas so we can justify dismissing them under a stereotype or category – “those darn Accountants! They always make life more complicated for everyone!
  3. Attacking, ie. make the other person suffer by belittling or threatening them.

Also notice physical changes, like flushing of the face, sweating, clenched fists etc as these are physical signs of ‘unsafety’.

We need to manage our emotions and …


5. Watch the Stories we tell ourselves.

These stories are our interpretation of the facts. We see and hear , then we tell ourselves a story to interpret the facts. We then feel (hurt or worried), then we act (silence or attack). When we feel we are at risk, we tell ourselves clever stories. These self-serving stories allow us to justify our behavior. We use them when we find it hard to own our mistakes, or when we fail to do something. When we go into silence, we use it to justify why we don’t speak up.

Some examples of stories we tell ourselves:

Helpless stories: “There is nothing I can do” We make ourselves out to be powerless. “It’s not my place to speak up when there are more senior people in the room”.

Victim stories: We exaggerate our own innocence or ignore our role in the problem. “It’s not my fault” “if I had said something I could have lost my job…”

Villain stories: we over emphasize the other person’s guilt or stupidity. “It’s all their fault”. “He is such a control freak, we daren’t say anything.”

We need to change our clever story to a useful story by owning our part in the story and reverting back to mutual purpose, ie. what do I really want for myself/others and the relationship?

We need to have the confidence to say what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it!

Use a respectful, honest manner with humility, not arrogance. Humility enables you to see your opinion as a starting point and to listen to others’ opinions without judgement and with curiosity. You can tell the other person what your story is – but state it as a story not a fact.

For example …

“When you talk over me in a meeting, the story I am telling myself is that you don’t value my opinion and it makes me feel disrespected so I tend to disengage, when what I really want to do is be an active, contributing member of this team.”

You have stated your story and announced your intent, as opposed to …

“Do you think, just maybe, you could listen to me for once!?” or,

“Do you have to speak over me every time!?” or shutting down and moving to silence (generally viewed by others as sulking).


6. Finally, Explore Others paths by being curious and patient.

Ask for their views, respectfully acknowledging their emotions and, if necessary, restate what they have said to check your understanding of it. This also allows them to hear how you have interpreted what they have said.

If circumstances allow, practice the conversation with someone you trust before engaging in it. In our medical case, statistics show that this is a pattern of behavior, and that medical disasters and even death could be prevented if people were more skilled at having a difficult conversation!

How do YOU have difficult conversations?