How To Handle Crucial Conversations

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A patient has cancer. A routine surgery went terribly wrong and your patient didn’t make it. How do you approach clients when you have to deliver terrible news?

Or maybe it’s a tough topic you have to address with your staff: the technician that talks on the phone while performing a dental prophy, the receptionist who inappropriately tells someone on the phone the risks and benefits of a medical procedure, a groomer who is careless about grooming a pet under sedation.

Whatever the issue, it’s hard to know how to handle crucial conversations. It is human nature to avoid awkward discussions, but we should be able to share information safely and freely with each other. The question really is – how can we talk about a difficult topic in a positive way?

That’s where Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler comes in. The New York Times bestseller equips you with tools for talking about the tough stuff.

“Lots of conversations are happening, but they’re not happening well and not with the right people,” said Suzi Streit, a Crucial Conversations coach.

Related Article: What’s the most difficult conversation you ever had with a client, and how was it resolved?

What is a Crucial Conversation?

The book defines a crucial conversation as a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. According to the book, we typically handle crucial conversations in one of three ways:

1) We avoid them
2) We face them and handle them poorly
3) We face them and handle them well

Avoiding crucial conversations is easy. Oftentimes if we decide to face them, we let our emotions get in the way. We yell, withdraw, or say something we might regret.

How do you typically handle crucial conversations? Take the Style Under Stress Test to find out.

How to Successfully Manage Crucial Conversations

The key to handling crucial conversations well, according to the book, is dialogue. Dialogue is defined as the free flow of meaning between two or more people. It’s important to get all the relevant information out in the open.

“There’s almost not any topic that you can’t have a conversation with candor and respect,” Streit said.

In order to facilitate dialogue, you have to fill the “pool of shared meaning,” and ensure that all ideas and concepts are welcomed to be brainstormed and discussed. A critical component of facilitating dialogue is making people feel safe. The key to crucial conversations is to notice when safety is at risk. For example, is the other person becoming defensive or aggressive? Pay attention to the content of the conversation and watch for signs that people are afraid.

Handling a crucial conversation well requires mental preparation and planning. You can’t just wing it. Crucial Conversations highlights how we can successfully navigate through those difficult discussions:

1) Start with the heart
2) Learn to look
3) Make it safe
4) Master your story
5) STATE your path
6) Explore others’ paths
7) Move to action

Start with the Heart
Start by working on your own dialogue skills and examining your own motives. Ask yourself:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?

If you can’t be honest with yourself, you’ll have a hard time convincing others.

Learn to Look
Learn to spot crucial conversations. Pay attention to the signs, whether physical, emotional, or behavioral. Keep a constant watch on keeping the atmosphere safe. Pay attention to what you’re doing and the impact it’s having on others.

Make it Safe
What happens when you’re in the middle of a crucial conversation with a client or co-worker and you begin to notice the other person is becoming withdrawn or defensive? The book suggests 3 steps to restore safety: Step out of the conversation, make it safe and then step back in.

Master My Story
An important step in between what others do and how we feel is the story we tell ourselves. One of many ideas reinforced in Crucial Conversations is that we shouldn’t be held hostage by our emotions; we can either act on them or be acted on by them. Influence your emotions by thinking them out. As a result, you’ll choose your emotion and make it possible to choose behaviors that create better results.

To help master your story, the book suggests four steps:

1) Notice your behavior
2) Get in touch with your feelings
3) Analyze your stories
4) Get back to the facts

STATE Your Path
Until now, every step has been preparation. At this point, you haven’t even started the conversation. Now you’re ready. So what’s next? You should STATE your path, meaning:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Ask for others’ paths
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

Explore Other’s Paths
When you STATE your path, you are the one doing the talking. Now, it’s your turn to listen. Stay curious and be patient as others share their stories. Show genuine interest. Don’t intReinforce their ideas by putting their message in your own words.

Move to Action
You’ve had the crucial conversation. What now? Crucial Conversations states that dialogue is not decision making; you need to decide how to decide, meaning you should decide how to turn ideas into actions. The authors suggest four ways to make ideas happen:

1) Command – decisions are made with no involvement from others
2) Consult – decision makers invite others to influence them
3) Vote – decisions are made based on which idea receives the most votes
4) Consensus – everyone must agree to one decision

Can You Really Master A Crucial Conversation?
You can prepare and plan as much as you want, but you may never be able to truly “master” a crucial conversation.

“We never master it because it goes back to our emotions,” Streit commented. “But the more you keep working on it, the better you’ll be.”

Streit suggests first reading Crucial Conversations. Then, put it into practice in “bite-size” pieces.

“Break it down into pieces. Do it over and over. When you finish, go back and do it again,” she added.

Whether you are dealing with a client or a colleague, learning to manage crucial conversations can boost your career, advance your practice, and improve your relationships. According to Suzi Street, it centers around one essential skill.

“It’s about having as much communication as possible, so we make the best decision and move forward,” Streit said.


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