Manage conversations with consequences: a simple roadmap for success


“Are there a handful of moments when someone’s actions disproportionately affect their KPIs?”

This is a quote from a best-selling book called ‘Crucial Conversations’.

I read the book earlier on this year and, following a recent incident in which I witnessed a Senior Leader’s credibility being crippled as a result of a badly managed discussion, I have decided that the answer to the question posed by the authors is emphatically YES and rarely for the better.

I’ve worked with Leaders and their teams for nearly 20 years now and it saddens me to continue to see the damage that a single destructive exchange can have on all concerned.

These moments often happen in the blink of an eye. Casual comments in the corridor can be as corrosive as a tension-infused performance review or, as was the case in my story, an ad-hoc Q&A session at a routine team meeting.  Whatever the setting, Leadership authority can be shredded in a heartbeat, personal self-esteem irretrievably damaged and challenging KPIs slip surreptitiously out of reach.

Arriving at my conclusion to the question shown above, I wondered whether this book provided any new insights or ideas that added something fresh, new to the well-worn territory of Communication.

I revisited the chapters to look a little deeper, and reflected on my own experiences and passion. I wanted to see if I could offer up some sort of roadmap to help anyone develop the habits necessary to successfully navigate each and every ‘crucial conversation’. Here is what emerged:

When is a conversation a ‘crucial’ one?

A crucial conversation is differentiated from a casual chat when three elements are present:

  • opinions differ,
  • the stakes are high, and
  • strong emotions are a certainty.

The authors of this powerful book argue that we are genetically hard-wired with only two responses to the potential conflagration that arises: fight or flight.

Whether you agree with this rather uncompromising theory or not, I certainly see that most people become masters at avoiding tough situations (myself included, although I work hard at persuading myself that that is why I have teenage children: so that I can mess up in the privacy of my own home).

Maybe this is because we are simply not configured to deploy ‘intelligent persuasion and gentle assertiveness’ when in the grip of a running battle between reason and retaliation.

So, until re-engineering our personal DNA becomes an established asset in the Leadership toolbox, I’d like to introduce a Quick Reference Roadmap that is the result of my deliberations.

Start with heart

My own passionate belief is thatauthentic leadership emanates from the heart and underpins every aspect of great leadership. This perspective is endorsed (in part) by the starting point set out within this book: and that is that we must start with having the right motives in heart and mind.

By using these two reference points as our personal ‘North Star’, we are more able to stay focused, and alert to the discipline required to keep mind open and emotions in check.

Read the emotional dynamic (yours and others)

For every word that is articulated, dialogue is expressed just as powerfully through an emotional vocabulary too. You’ll have read or heard me go on about this time and time again.

Patterson et al urge us to ‘Learn to Look’. We too have always strongly advocated that an effective Leader is highly skilled in deploying all their senses at all times. They powerfully listen to hear what is not being said.

This book also reinforces the need to be highly connected with reading our own emotional dynamic: ‘Perhaps the most difficult element to watch closely as you’re madly dual processing is your own behaviour.’

Make it safe

We all know that when people don’t feel safe, emotional sabotage sets in.  Success in any challenging conversation is only possible if both parties feel safe to express themselves openly and honestly. It isn’t about safety nets though: it’s about genuine commitment to assuring safety.

And just to be clear, it isn’t about trust either. Safety is distinct from but not mutually exclusive to trust. Whilst building trust is undoubtedly a primary hallmark of great leadership, it is possible (indeed crucial) to hold a great conversation even when there is a marked absence of trust.

Unashamedly plagiarising the ideas in this book (but only because they wholeheartedly tally with my own views and experiences) the two aspects that are vital to maintaining safety are:

  • Mutual purpose: ‘…Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue.’ This is the desired outcome that both parties share above all else. It is the overarching goal that trumps everything. It sets out the common outcome that binds everyone within an ethos of ‘we all win’. It is the scaffolding that stays our hand when the pressure of raised voices, heated tensions or hardened attitudes risk opening the trap-door on the toxic emotions that take over to drive a desire to win at all cost, punish without compassion or simply duck out.
  • Mutual respect: [Mutual respect] is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it, but if you take it away, it’s all that people can think about.’Respect is a word that I see on just about every organisation’s statement of Core Values but it is the aspect that is invariably conspicuous by its absence. So, even when struggling to respect someone’s point of view, respecting the fact that they have the right to hold one helps to keep us in the dialogue.

Please note: This wonderful book is rich with tools and tactics to help consistently tack and re-tack to maintain these two vital elements. Do read the book in full for details (and avoid any repercussions of breach of copy-write for MB Leadership!)

Manage your GAILs 
(Gremlins, Assumptions, Interpretations and Limiting Beliefs)

The book alludes to the emotional ‘back story’ that each of us instinctively draws on to give meaning to what we hear. In my experience, this refers to the filter or lens through which we perceive what someone is really saying.

It is the reason why 10 different people can hear the words ‘I’d like to talk to you about that project you’ve been working on…’ in 10 different ways, triggering 10 different responses, ranging from: ‘Great! That promotion’s on its way’ to ‘Oh no, what did I do wrong?’

Our personal values are a primary driver within this emotionally charged maelstrom. So too is the back catalogue of stories drawn from our past experiences – many of which go back years. Sadly, it is invariably the more negative and painful ones of these that unhelpfully dominate our consciousness and colour the kaleidoscope of the lens that we apply to what we hear.

The deeper our individual awareness is of how these powerful, indefatigable forces influence what we feel about what we hear, the more able we are to make the conscious choices involved with responding (in control) versus reacting (control at risk).

Choose with care

‘Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.’Ambrose Bierce

How often have we been word-perfect in the mirror and still  found ourselves reaching for the words that enable us to say the right thing, at the right time and in the right way?

A Golden Rule for anyone involved in a crucial conversation is to choose wisely: choose words with caution, tone with insight and body language with grace.  Actively leverage those emotions that serve our best interests and shun those that are the saboteurs in waiting.

In conclusion

Crucial conversations are emotionally charged. They should be. We have a point of view that we have a right and a responsibility to share.

We also have accountability to do so without traumatising ourselves or others in the process and sometimes one of our greatest assets gets overlooked. This is our scope to do nothing. Absolutely nothing other than breathe. Just for a moment…just to give ourselves the chance to re-calibrate reason and passion so that they both work in harmony and in service of our success.

These conversations are also unique opportunities to create transformational outcomes and inspire others to embrace their own crucial conversations with confidence and skill.

Finally, thank you to the VP whose harsh experience prompted this article and to Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler for writing the book that I wish I had.

PS! If you have liked what you have read, we would be delighted if you could ‘like’ this article so that others may do the same.

Thank you!

This article has been written by: Annalise Cowley, Director of Mansfield Buchanan.

An experienced Consultant and qualified Coach, Annalise works exclusively with LifeSciences clients worldwide and helps Leaders and their teams to use insight into what people need and value to deliver the business results that matter.

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