In general people do not like feeling uncomfortable. This seems like the most obvious statement that you will read today, but it needs to be stated. Being uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable. But even though these conversations are uncomfortable, they are crucial to your success in both your personal life and your professional life. According to Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, “crucial conversations occur when stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong”.
Why should you focus on becoming adept at handling crucial conversations? First, the issue isn’t going away just because you don’t want to have the conversation. You can run, but you can’t hide from the issue at hand. Kerry Patterson points out “if you don’t manage the conversation, the conversation will manage you.” People in general don’t like to have conversations that could make others uncomfortable, hurt their feelings or impact their self-worth. But at times, not having the conversation has a greater impact to the relationship.
Like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you will get at managing the conversation. Some people will naturally be better than others, but anyone can grow their ability to manage these conversations. The first step is to gain a better understanding of what a crucial conversation is. In Crucial Conversations, Patterson acknowledges what makes a conversation crucial varies between individuals, but some conversations are inherently crucial. For example, anytime you need to talk about whether to continue pursuing a relationship (either work or personally), providing feedback on behaviors, addressing someone who is not living up to his or her commitments or responsibilities, trying to help someone who is behaving in a manner inconsistent with your organizational values or critiquing a colleagues work. Steven Covey has said “there are a few defining moments in our lives and our careers that make all the difference.” Becoming ready for these moments is invaluable for your success.
But what happens when avoid the crucial conversation or you avoid the situation? For starters, the issue is never resolved. It just keeps lingering like the elephant in the corner of the room that nobody wants to admit is there. Secondly, you get stuck where you are in your relationship. Because the issue is never resolved, your relationship can never move forward. Your relationship will always keep coming back to the issue, slowly rotting others perceptions of your performance like a cavity slowly rots a tooth. It doesn’t matter if the issue is with your spouse or your employee, the result is the same.
How do you begin the process of having a crucial or uncomfortable conversation? Start by making the conversation safe for all parties involved. Explain the goal is to find the root cause of the situation and not to attach blame to anyone. Second, recognize the existence of emotions. By definition, crucial conversations exist when “stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong.” Don’t try to pretend emotions won‘t be present. Third, find a common ground to build from. Building from a position where both parties agree will convey a feeling of belief and reduce the feeling of discomfort. Lastly, make it alright for either party to step out of the conversation when feeling unsafe. The only way to work through an issue is to ensure both parties are equally invested in the relationship. Nothing will derail a conversation more quickly than one party feeling attacked by the other and feeling they are destined to be the “loser” in the conversation.
The ultimate goal of the conversation is to reach a common resolution. If your expectations of the end result of the conversation are aligned from the beginning, it is much more likely you will end up in a place equally agreeable to both parties. The goal of a crucial conversation is to resolve an issue, not to “win” or “lose” the conversation. Anytime a conversation takes on the flavor of “winning”, the other party will dig in their heels to defend their position, save face and try to reverse the outcome. Regardless of the topic, the goal is to find a resolution where both parties can walk away feeling respected. It is out of the feeling of respect that you can move forward.
In time these conversations will become easier. But it will take patience, planning and work to get to the place where crucial conversations cease to become a big deal. By putting in the work, you will learn the skills necessary to have more productive and positive relationships with everyone in your life.