When the stakes of a conversation are high, many of us clam up or blow up. A recent survey by Al Switzler, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny and Ron McMillan, co-authors of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” (McGraw-Hill), found that the person most people struggle to hold difficult, life-changing conversations with is their boss. Spouses are second. In the survey, 525 respondents identified a single conversation that had life-altering consequences. More than half said the effects of this one conversation lasted forever. Nearly two-thirds permanently damaged a relationship. One in seven harmed a career.
The authors arrived at the main reasons for failure in a crucial conversation: inability to control emotions, not gaining the other person’s trust, and getting defensive, vengeful or fearful.
Fearing those foibles, many stay mum. People think that hunkering down in silence will save their job or marriage or family harmony. But co-author Switzler said, “When problems linger, you get rigidity and reduced respect. Those are big costs. If you can catch problems and do it in a way that’s civil and courteous, you outperform the competition.
“This is not about holding hands and singing campfire songs, or having a good talk. This is all about putting the toughest issues on the table so you can rapidly and respectfully resolve them.” Here’s how:
1. Reverse your thinking. Consider the risk of not speaking up. One survey by the authors, involving managers and employees at various companies, found that the cost of not holding a crucial conversation, on average, is about $1,500 and eight hours of an employee’s time, spent on avoidance tactics and gossip. Another survey found that, in families that haven’t addressed a high-stakes issue, they can be together for just an hour and a half before there’s an outburst.
Rather than broaching the conversation as a confrontation in which one person wins, ask yourself, “What can I do to resolve the issue AND strengthen the relationship?” Switzler said.
2. Help others feel safe. Assure the other party of your positive intentions and respect. Family members, in particular, know where the hot buttons are. “And when the adrenaline fires, with the moral certainty that ‘it’s my time to win!’ they can argue in bad ways,” Switzler said. “If you have your intentions right before you open your mouth, and you get a response that’s not helpful, you can call timeout. Say ‘Whoa, I wasn’t trying to do that, I was trying to do this.’ There are timeout and retreat tactics that help give people the confidence to put issues on the table. It’s not like you only get one roll of the dice.”
3. Offer observations and questions, not emotions and conclusions. Stick to the heart of the issue and focus on long-term goals for the conversation and relationship, e.g., “We agreed before we changed a deadline we would give our team two days’ notice. On the last two occasions we’ve only had about six hours. Can we talk about it so that we can keep up performance and morale?” Even if the person holds views you oppose, separate the problem from the person.
Emotions can trigger adrenaline. “That puts blood into fight-or-flight muscles so that, when it matters the most, our brain gets blood-starved and dumbed down,” Switzler said. If you feel that happening, redirect blood to your brain with this thought: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?” he suggests. It gives the person the benefit of the doubt. “Whether a boss or a child or a stranger, if you could learn to lead with observations and questions, you can talk to anybody about anything.”