The Crucial Conversations framework for handling difficult conversations


The first step to handling difficult conversations is to be aware of when they start happening and to be aware of your behavior when in the midst of such a conversation. The book “Crucial Conversations” defines these conversations as,

The day to day conversations that affect your life. They have the following characteristics: Opposing opinions, Strong emotions and High stakes.

The results of these conversations could have a huge impact on your lives. Despite the importance of these conversations, we some times back away from having them. We remain silent, we send email, we leave voicemails, we change the topic! Given how important these are and how much of an impact these could have on us, we surprisingly don’t do well at them. In fact, we are on our worst behavior. We default to a primitive state where emotion takes over, adrenaline + the fight/flight drive kicks in. We resort to sarcasm, thinly veiled attacks, passive aggression etc.

Leaders: don’t avoid hard conversations

Leaders don’t always directly address issues because they are not comfortable having those conversations. Numbers are easy, reports are easy but talking to human beings especially when delivering negative feedback is not easy and leaders tend to avoid or postphone them. They sometimes just work around the problem by changing policies, processes, KPI’s etc.

It’s also not fair to those employees who are missing out on hearing feedback that could tell them where they need to improve, how they could fix things etc etc. Today’s world is one where everyone learns and improves and does bigger + better things. If we do not give folks the opportunity to learn everday, from things they do everyday, how do we ensure success? How do we go about building a high performing team with this critical piece missing?

Free flow of information

The best chance of working successfully through a difficult conversation is to ensure free flow of information. Once all the potential information that could affect a decision or a viewpoint is on the table, a decision made then, could be the closest thing to the right decision. The other benefit of having everyone share their thoughts and opinions before making a decision is that people support the decision, once its made. For people to buy in to the decision, having been part of its making is a great plus.

Fools choices

Fools choices are when you believe you need to choose from one of two bad options.

When all the information is on the table, there’s also a better chance of avoiding Fool’s choices. For example, you may feel like you need to choose between being honest and being truthful, when you don’t really have to choose one or the other. You can do both at the same time.

With some free flow of information, you may actually realize that there are more options than you initially realized, going into the discussion. Listening to other’s thoughts may actually help your realize why they think that way, that they are not really wrong and how your initial options may have been formed based on incomplete information. When you get all the information out during a discussion, before a decision, you are building the pool of shared meaning.

A shared pool of meaning

The pool of meaning: each of us enters conversations with our opinions, feelings, theories and experiences about the topic at hand. This is our pool of meaning, this is what drives us in certain ways and in certain directions.

When we start the conversation, we may not share the same pool of meaning. We are all operating from our own private pools. Once we start discussing, start sharing openingly the pool grows. All the information that would have otherwise remained in our heads and affected how we view the decision is now part of a public pool that others share. Individuals are now exposed to more accurate and relevant information. They can now make better choices with the better information they now have.

Putting it all together

When you provide a forum for discussion and to honestly air your views, there’s a good chance that people will talk about their ideas or what’s bothering them about a certain solution. This gives the group and you as a manager to address their concerns and thus come to a mutually agreeable conclusion. You are able to move people from quietly criticizing + passively resisting to openly discussion + actively supporting the decision.

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