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"Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation." -- Henry Ward Beecher

No two conversations are ever the same. However, conversations are the method through which we build relationships. In order to master the art of productive and effective conversation, it is essential to know the common types of conversations we all experience in our professional lives. Let's continue with part two of this three-part series on conversation.Every leader has had to manage someone who could be labeled as virtually unmanageable. They don't accept feedback very well, they break all the rules, and they might even be downright insubordinate. What happens when you finally decide to deal with this person? In many cases, it won't be pretty. Voices could be raised, drama could ensue, and you could both walk away with hurt feelings and absolutely no resolution.

That type of interaction is what we call a "crucial conversation." These are discussions where the stakes are extremely high and opinions differ. Typically, the emotions of each person run hot and the outcome of the conversation can have a significant impact on each person's life.

Facing A Crucial Conversation

No, crucial conversations are not fun -they can be draining and even a little bit scary. Most of us handle crucial conversations in one of three ways. We either:

  1. Avoid them all together.
  2. Face them, but handle them very poorly.
  3. Face them and handle them well.

Most people fall into the first two categories of avoidance or handling them poorly. Generally we don't like conflict - it's human nature. Life is typically much easier without it. In fact, it is our human nature that leads us to handle crucial conversations poorly. They often catch us by surprise, which sets off our biological fight-or-flight response. We might become confused by the sneak attack, and many times we simply say the wrong thing, which makes the situation worse.

How To Spot A Crucial Conversation

Because crucial conversations are going to happen whether we want them or expect them, it is important to be able to spot them early on. You know you're in a crucial conversation when:

  • You are having a bodily response like sweating, flushed cheeks, tense muscles, or tight stomach.
  • Voices are being raised.
  • Someone literally points a finger.
  • You or the other party completely shuts down and stops responding.

When you've identified a crucial conversation in progress, it's up to you, as the leader, to step up and reel it back in, so that a productive resolution can be reached.

Turning The Tide Of A Crucial Conversation

When you start to notice the signs, it's not too late to keep the conversation from getting out of hand. You can be persuasive, even if emotions are running high. In a crucial conversation think "STATE:"

  • Share the objective facts.
  • Tell your side of the story.
  • Ask the other person to tell theirs.
  • Talk tentatively - don't rush to judgement; don't make assumptions.
  • Encourage testing.

Active listening is also a great tool for keeping a crucial conversation in check. Ask them for their side of the story, and then paraphrase back to them. Confirm that you understand their feelings, and if you aren't making much headway, go ahead and say out loud what it is you believe they are thinking. You may even consider apologizing, just to take the tenor of the conversation down a notch.

Crucial conversations are tough, and they can deteriorate quickly. When you spot the signs, do your best to stop yourself from lowering yourself into an argument. Instead, keep things as objective as possible, and focus on active listening and your "STATE" of mind. You'll likely find that when your approach changes, the other person will respond in kind.


Larry Hart

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