Crucial Moments, One Conversation at a Time

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re at the end of your rope with a situation and yet you’re kicking crucial-conversationsyourself because the person that’s driving you nuts has no idea how you feel… because you’ve never told them? And has this ever happened to you – a colleague walks hastily into your office, stands tensely in front of your desk, tells you in short, stressed tones how upset he/she is about something you’ve done …which ends up causing you to react defensively and of course the conversation ends badly?

If you’re nodding your head yes, don’t worry – you are not alone. Like so many others, you are being held back by not understanding the power of how to conduct a crucial conversation.

The first element to understand is that some conversations are more important than others. But it doesn’t stop there – just because you don’t think it is important doesn’t mean it’s not significant to someone else. As a leader, you need to learn how to recognize when people come to you about what you think is a tiny issue yet for them, the stakes are high and their emotions are strong.  These conversations can go poorly if you are caught by surprise; if you are confused by what they’re trying to tell you; and if you get revved up and end up saying or doing something to make the situation worse. Because we all know what this feels like, we often retreat to the first example and avoid necessary conversations at all costs.

The following three steps will help you get started on the path to having successful, crucial conversations:

Step 1: Determine the Driving Force

When you make the decision to have a crucial conversation, you should start by considering what’s driving you: What do I really want? Am I clear about this? What do I want from others? What do I want from our relationship? What do they want? Why do they want it? What does the outcome look like?

Fun stuff, right? As a leader, you need to take the time and do it. Sometimes the answer may come back on you: “Uh oh. My ego’s in the way.” So the crucial conversation you need to have is actually with yourself. That’s OK too – think of the damage you can control by truly understanding what’s motivating you!

Step 2: Plan the Conversation

For the times when you’ve determined that it’s not you, then it’s time to plan how to have the conversation. No, planning is not “next time I see her; I’ll pull her aside and just tell her once and for all exactly what I think!” Planning is making time to create a situation where the conversation is safe – you set the tone by creating a calm presence and sharing your perspective with facts, not emotion. Allow your perspective to be challenged. Don’t interrupt! Listen! Only respond once you’ve fully heard the other side. You should ask questions, too, in order to have a better understanding of where they are coming from. Recognize and accept if some of the “facts” you thought you were working with were actually driven by emotion. It is extremely powerful to have the confidence to admit when you are wrong and apologize for the misunderstanding. It is equally powerful to allow the other person to admit fault and accept their apology by offering to move forward together, leaving the past misunderstanding behind you.

Listen. Ask questions. Think before responding. Do not become emotional.

If you are approached by someone having a crucial, unscheduled moment you can diffuse the situation by acknowledging that you are open to having the conversation when you are able to be prepared for it. Schedule a time together (and for heaven’s sake, do not cancel it!) as soon as possible and meet under better circumstances.  If he/she is insistent that he/she needs to talk to you right at that moment and your gut tells you to do it; then commit to yourself to stay calm. Stay in a place of inquiry: This is clearly important to the person in front of me. Listen. Ask questions. Think before responding. Do not become emotional.

Step 3: Make the Time

I get it – this sounds simple and impossible at the same time. Who has time for all of this? And how could just a little more dedicated effort make such a difference?  My challenge to you is to ask: Who can afford to not make time for this? Aren’t the problems in our lives what we spend the most time fretting about and trying to fix? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could approach it just like the oil light on your car – “Oh! It’s time to change the oil! Done.” versus “Oh! It’s time to change the oil! I hate going to the shop… I’ll get around to that when I have time…Darn it! Why did my car break down on this important day when I’m on my way to a really big meeting? I have the worst luck…”

Managing the conversations you have is no different than maintenance on your car. You need to be intentional about it and take the time to make it happen in a timely manner. Think back to a recent challenge you have experienced or observed. What were some of the stories being told to create the problem? How could there have been a shift in the conversation to make the outcome positive for all involved?

Managing the conversations you have is no different than maintenance on your car.

Don’t beat yourself up if you when you first try, you don’t get it just right. It takes practice and time to grow comfortable when shifting our behaviors. Accurately describing your reality can be complicated. So take time to learn more about how the other person thinks and find some common truths together. This will strengthen your relationship and in the end, produce better results.

Susan Spears

Susan Spears


Susan Spears is president and CEO of the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Leadership Colloquium @ UMW advisory board. Check her out on twitter @Susan__Spears.

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