Young professionals in a work meetingIn addition to the recruiting I do for GDI Talent Acquisition Practice I also coach executives and mentor students at my alma mater. The individuals that I coach and mentor always seem to be very interested in the books that I read for my own development. I have put together a short list of some of the more powerful books I have read recently, and I will be writing about some of the important leadership lessons from each over the next few weeks.

The first that I would like to discuss is Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.

This blog entry will be a little different than what I usually write about; as much of what I will be discussing here is not my own work but derived from the Crucial Conversations. I believe what they have shared in this short book has made a tremendous positive impact on how I handle crucial conversations. I have been sharing what I have learned with those that I coach and that I mentor as well as those that I teach through the leadership courses that I instruct at the California Institute of Technology’s Center for Technology & Management Education.

Crucial Conversations presents a step by step process and underlying principles to deal with conversations between two or more people where (1) the stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.

Some examples of crucial conversations are:

  • Ending a relationship
  • Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem
  • Giving an unfavorable performance review

When we (everyone, not just those in a business setting) are faced with a crucial conversation, we often handle them in one of three ways:

  1. We avoid them
  2. We face them and handle them poorly
  3. We can face them and handle them well

Personally, I have never been one to avoid conflict or difficult conversations. But too often have I left a conversation kicking myself because I didn’t say the right thing or the issue wasn’t resolved in the way that I had hoped. Oftentimes, I faced the crucial conversation head-on but handled it poorly.

But why are these crucial conversations so important? The authors of the book posit that “at the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations- ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well…The key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues.” The authors believe that individuals who can handle crucial conversations rise to the top- and I am inclined to agree. I have been doing much writing on communication recently, see “Leaders Need More Empathy” and “How to Better Communicate with Others,” because I know how critical communication skills are to developing as a great leader.

As I review the principles outlined by the book on how to handle crucial conversations, let’s imagine Daniel is giving his employee, Jonathon, an unfavorable review.

There seven principles to follow for any Crucial Conversation:

  1. Start with the Heart… focus on what you really want out of the conversation and the relationship. Refuse the Sucker’s Choice of deciding between outcome one or outcome two. Instead, focus on a win-win for both parties.

In the case of the scenario we selected Daniel will probably want better performance from his employee, Jonathon. He will want Jonathon to understand that he is not making personal attacks but instead focusing on specific areas and behaviors that will help Jonathon become a top performer. Daniel will want Jonathon to leave the performance review feeling good about himself but also leaving with new knowledge on specific actions he can take to become a better performer.

  1. Learn to Look… look for when the conversation turns crucial and the other party begins to resort to silence or violence. Silence is when they retreat from dialogue and violence is when they begin to start to force their perspective into the Pool of Shared Meaning. The Pool of Shared Meaning is when “each of us enters a conversation with our own opinions, feeling, theories, and experiences about the topic. These make up our personal pool of meaning. When two or more people enter a crucial conversation, we build a pool of shared meaning—the more we add of each person’s meaning, the more information is available to everyone involved and the better the decisions made.”

It’s easy for the person being critiqued to resort to silence or to violence. Individuals who dislike conflict will often retreat from dialogue. Individuals who dislike criticism (even if it is constructive and with good intent) will sometimes resort to violence. Let’s say Jonathon is the latter. Jonathon feels personally attacked and begins to respond by stating how he never had the proper training, never has the proper support or resources, etc. Jonathon has resorted to violence.

  1. Make It Safe… when the other party no longer feels safe in the dialogue, find ways to restore safety. Start with a simple apology. Always remember to maintain mutual purpose and mutual respect in dialogue.

As Daniel catches Jonathon moving to violence, he starts with a simple apology. “I’m sorry that you feel personally attacked, that was not my intention. My intention is to help you identify specific behaviors that are stopping you from being a top performer among your peers.” Daniel can re-establish mutual purpose in the conversation by reminding Jonathon that the purpose of the performance review is to ultimately help Jonathon grow and develop as a great employee in the company.

  1. Master My Stories… separate facts from stories. Facts help us fill the pool of shared meaning, whereas stories can make it cloudy. Our stories are important, but are derived from the emotions we feel and from the reactions we have to the underlying facts and details of our stories.

Before Daniel starts his conversation with Jonathon, he should spend time to master his own stories. One story may be that he is disappointed that Jonathon did not perform or did not meet his goals in the way that he was hoping. He should ensure that he is not personalizing the issues with Jonathon. Instead, Daniel should focus on the facts, the specific goals or targets that Jonathon did not meet.

  1. STATE My Path… Share your facts. Tell your story. Ask for other’s paths. Talk tentatively. And encourage testing. Focus on the real underlying issues first before you share how that makes you feel.

Daniel should share with Jonathon that by him not achieving his goals, he is not only hurting himself, but also hurting his colleagues, and ultimately, the company. Daniel should remind Jonathon that the mutually agreed upon goals are designed to help Jonathon excel in the company. By focusing on specific behaviors and goals; Daniel can help Jonathon put a plan together to address his future performance. Finally, Daniel needs to provide ample time for Jonathon to share his stories as well.

  1. Explore Others’ Paths… Actively seek out information from the other party. Ensure that they get their opportunity to STATE their path and agree when necessary and avoid unnecessary disagreement.

If Jonathon seems hesitant to share his perspective, it’s incumbent on Daniel to prime and ask probing questions. The point is to have a two-way dialogue, not a one-way monologue.

  1. Move to Action… mutually decide how to move forward. Document what has been shared and set a time for follow-up. If there is no resolution, schedule a time to talk again.

Both parties should find mutually agreed upon ways for Jonathon to reach his goals. Finally, Daniel and Jonathon should set a follow-up date to review future performance.

There are many tips provided in the book that I have not shared here. These seven principles are just the basics to help individuals effectively handle crucial conversations. I recommend anyone who is interested in developing their communication skills to give this book a read; it has already become one of my favorites.

What books do you recommend for someone who wants to continue their own leadership development?