What are “crucial conversations” and why do they matter so much?
Crucial conversations can be turning points in an organisation and they’re particularly relevant where the corporate culture is involved. Also known, perhaps more bluntly, as difficult conversations, the ability to conduct these dialogues effectively is a key attribute that distinguishes successful leaders from those destined to fail.
The term originates from the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High”. The reason that the concepts outlined in the book continue to gain traction is that they strike a chord with CEOs and others who are attempting to change the culture of their organisations. The authors studied communications over a long period before summarising what set successful leaders and peer group influencers apart. And this was their ability to have the right conversation at the key moment, without upsetting or alienating people.
Crucial conversations are typically high-stakes interactions where disagreement is likely. If an organisation is “stuck” in an unproductive culture, then it is likely that crucial conversations with employees, managers and others need to take place in order to move things forward and bring about change.
Shared meaning produces better conversations
One of the points the authors make is that when people sit down to have a conversation, they reference thoughts, feelings, ideas and opinions that they feel they can share. The more information in that shared reference space, the more authentic the conversation will be. So the basis of dialogue that can change things must include transparency, openness, honesty along with shared goals and feelings.
Managers and others need to be able to spot the signs of a conversation that is going wrong. These might include violent language or worse, silence, in which the person closes down. It’s not necessarily that they don’t speak - just that they don’t speak from the heart and their authentic self is not engaged in the conversation. When this happens, there is no dialogue.
No need to water down the content
Part of the ability to have crucial conversations without people shutting down springs from the awareness that the other person must feel “safe”. So if you run into problems in a conversation, the answer isn’t to dilute the message. The answer is to reassure the other person that their best interests are being safeguarded and that there is genuine care and concern for them. This respect for them will be communicated, even when it isn’t stated.
Conversely, a lack of care or interest will be communicated too, no matter what words are used. People sense underlying emotions or lack of them. They are immediately on guard, meaning that the conversation will not be open or productive. So it’s not a case of soft-pedalling and watering down the message - it’s a case of changing how you communicate it.
Speak your mind without upsetting anyone
The authors of Crucial Conversations make a great distinction between “persuasive” and “abrasive”. The persuasive person can speak their mind but does so humbly and sincerely. In fact, they recommend a tentative manner as far less likely to shut down the other person in the dialogue. This is in sharp contrast to some of the toxic cultures we read about, where hectoring and abrasive interchanges are meant to raise performance. They don’t - except for the lawyers involved when the employee sues for bullying.
Changing corporate culture is a mammoth task. But taking an honest look at how leaders and peers talk to each other and trying to make it more honest, transparent and productive is a great place to start.