Mastering The Art of Crucial Conversations

Today I am continuing with my impressions of presentations from the 2014 Global Leadership Summit (GLS), which I attended last week.

Last week was not the first time I had heard Joseph Grenny speak, in fact I saw him twice in 2013. I have appreciated his approach to communications, especially his work on what he calls “crucial conversations.”

What is a crucial conversation? It is one in which there are high stakes, opposing opinions and strong emotions. Grenny works to give people the tools to successfully navigate such situations. Because we have all been in situations like that, haven’t we? Something needs to be said, and we know it is a pivotal moment in our relationship with the other person, but we are unsure how to even begin. How do you approach the topic, whatever the topic is, without the whole thing turning into a disaster? And that is so easy to have happen – people don’t really listen to each other, we misinterpret what is said, we imagine what is not said and suddenly we are no longer chatting idly about last night’s hockey game, but instead taking sides on whether violence is ever justified in any context, by individuals or nations. Suddenly the air is frosty and emotions are in high gear. The conversation has become crucial and you need to deal with it as best as possible. This is true at the personal level as well as in a business environment.

At the 2014 GLS, Grenny summarized the work he (and three colleagues) published in Crucial Conversations. I`m not going to try and encapsulate the book, but I will say it is worth reading. My impression is that people tend to fail more often than not when it comes to communication, and it seems the more important the communication the greater likelihood of failure. Yes, I know that`s an anecdotal assessment, but I suspect I am not alone in making it. Grenny himself says when conversations turn from casual to crucial we tend to do our worst.

I have seen this in action, and it isn’t pretty. I once had a boss who hired an extremely competent new employee. She understood the business, its objectives and her role. Given a task, she set about with determination to accomplish the goals.

The problem was, those goals turned out to be illusions, an ideal world scenario somewhat divorced from reality. I was supportive of what she was trying to achieve, and aware that the culture of the business made her goals difficult. My cautions to her to move slowly went unheeded. Working single-mindedly, doing what she was told, the woman managed to alienate some long-time employees who had the boss’ ear. They complained about her actions and her attitude.

At this point the crucial conversation needed to take place. The air needed to be clarified, and a decision made as to whether the old or new would prevail. Under pressure from both sides, the boss courageously decided to see if the problem would go away on its own. His method of speeding that up was to stop talking to his new hire.

I wound up as the go-between between them, something I was less than comfortable doing. Then the day came that I was presenting a report from her to him and he asked, “Is this from Suzy?” “Yes.” “Does she still work for us?” “Yes.” “I haven’t seen or talked with her in at least three weeks.” “Maybe you should.”

He eventually did have a conversation with her, a crucial one if not particularly effective. He told her that her services were no longer required, something she had already realized. He definitely had not mastered the art of crucial conversations.


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