Impactful Crucial Conversations

Tough conversations can be one of the hardest yet inevitable parts of a leader’s job. Impactful crucial conversations can resolve conflict, deepen relationships, build strong and diverse teams, and keep ideas and creativity flowing.

Often fear stops us having those necessary difficult conversations that we know we need to have. Our fear leads to procrastination and we fail ourselves, and our team continues to provide substandard performance, miss deadlines, engage in interpersonal conflicts and exhibit toxic behavior. Costs can run deep. These crucial conversations require a leader to display empathy, expert questioning and listening skills and a dash of courage.

Here are some tips to take your crucial conversations to the next level*:

1.  Be clear about the issue

Lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions. Ask yourself two important questions:

  • "What exactly is the behaviour that is causing the problem?"
  •  "What is the impact that the behaviour is having on you, the team or the organisation?"

2.  Know your desired outcome

What do you want to accomplish with the conversation – what does success look like?

3.  Remain open-minded

Approach crucial conversations with an enquiry mindset and consider your personal biases. Hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. 

4.  Manage your emotions

Be authentic but manage your emotions. Aim to maintain the other's self esteem, treat them with respect and preserve their dignity - even if you totally disagree with them! In some cases, you may have to respond to a person's tears and this is often a deal breaker for leaders. In the video How to Handle Tears at Work, Anne Kreamer, author of It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, provides several strategies.

5.  Be comfortable with silence

There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs; don't rush to fill it with words. A pause also has a calming effect and can help us to connect better and may lead to better outcomes.    

6.  Preserve the relationship

It takes years to build a relationship with a person and can take only minutes to blow it up.

7.  Be consistent

Aim for consistency in your leadership approach and trust will build. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. 

8.  Choose the right place to have the conversation

Know your people and what environments will work for them and the conversation to be had, and always consider your non-verbal communication; it can change the message significantly.

9.  Know how to begin 

Some people put off having the conversation because they don't know how to start. Work with someone to prepare how to begin. Make sure your words and tone of voice signal an enquiry mindset and NOT one of inquisition or punishment right from the get-go. 

10. Train other leaders on how to handle the difficult conversation 

There are dozens of good books written on this crucial topic, such as Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott and Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson. Conflict is a natural part of human interaction and managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership, and often the skill most in need of development. 

Having courageous conversations is hard. Some believe they are not good at them. Most of us hate them. But at times they need to be had and usually, once you’ve had the conversation, on reflection, you think how much easier it was than you had anticipated.

To be successful you need to consider the mix of what you say and how you say it. As Julian Treasure stated in his TED Talk, How to Speak so that People want to Listen, to be effective in having crucial conversations, remember to HAIL:

  • Honest:  Be clear and straight.
  • Authentic:  Be yourself. Stand in your own truth.
  • Integrity: Be your word. Do what you say and be someone people can trust.
  • Love : Wish them well (it’s hard to be judgmental when you do). Tempered with love ... honesty is a great thing.