I just finished a terrific book called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Authors Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Kerry Patterson, and Al Switzler define a “crucial conversation” as one where opinions vary, something is at risk, and emotions are running high.

The results of truly crucial conversations have a large impact on your quality of life. However, despite their importance, we often back away from crucial conversations because we feel awkward or fear that we’ll make the situation worse.  And when we do attempt to have them, we’re prone to making stupid or offensive comments that lead to disaster. Some work-related topics that involve crucial conversations include:

  • Talking to a co-worker who is behaving badly
  • Giving the boss feedback about his management style
  • Critiquing a direct report’s work
  • Confronting a team member who is shirking her responsibilities
  • Giving an unfavorable performance review

Twenty-five years of research involving 17 organizations and more than 100,000 people led the authors to conclude that the most critical skill of competent leaders is the ability to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues.

My own crucial conversation

I have a confession to make. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a few years now, but I consulted it today because I need to have a crucial conversation myself.  There is a woman I work with who never meets deadlines. I’ve talked to her multiple times about this issue, but the situation hasn’t improved. At this point, she’s acknowledged that I’m nagging her, which probably makes her even less likely to comply. I wish I could just let it go, but every missed deadline is costing me time and money.

According to Crucial Conversations, I’ve been addressing a symptom rather than the problem itself. The real problem here is that my co-worker doesn’t feel that it’s important to fulfill her commitments, and a symptom of this is missing deadlines.

The book suggests that I look for patterns in her behavior (i.e. other instances where she doesn’t do what she said she was going to do) and have a calm and honest conversation about those. And if I do seem a little frustrated, my emotions won’t seem out of proportion because I’m not addressing a single incident but a global problem that signals a lack of trust and respect.

My plan of attack

So what might my approach to the conversation look like?

“Jessica (not her real name), I’ve noticed that lately you’ve been missing deadlines, leaving the office before we’ve finalized client deliverables, and forgetting to make your prospecting calls. When you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, it makes me feel like you lack commitment to this job and that I can’t trust you.   I would like to understand where you’re coming from so we can decide if this position is a good fit for you.”

I recognize that this conversation has the potential to grow defensive and heated and I will do my best to remain calm, listening carefully to Jessica’s point of view. Throughout, I must remind myself of what I really want, which is for Jessica to change her behavior to demonstrate a true commitment to our work.  If she can do that following this interaction, then I need to let bygones be bygones.”

What crucial conversations have you had recently? What did you do right, and what did you do wrong? What do you feel you need to work on to be even more effective?

(Photo credit: Middle-aged Man Holding Phone While Young Woman Yells via Shutterstock)

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