Navigating Crucial Conversations: Holding Even the Toughest Conversations with Confidence

April 27, 2021
Written by: Elizabeth Krol, CREW Boston
Strengthening your conversational competence in even the most difficult interactions can give you the business advantage. 

The 2021 CREW Network Winter Leadership Summit kicked off with an impactful and timely professional development training provided by Karen Curnow, founder of Compass International. Curnow is an internationally recognized leadership coach, helping senior executives, teams and coaches develop into powerful, compassionate leaders.

Curnow defined crucial conversations as “high stakes, high risk, high emotion, and/or have history, which could be as simple as a repeated, ongoing action by someone that finally needs to be addressed.” While crucial conversations are always important, they are now happening in new settings such as online platforms like Zoom and Teams, or while masked and six feet apart in person. To ensure you don’t miss key context over phone or email and can interpret the tone and body language of the other party, ask to move the conversation to in-person or video.

You should also avoid the two extremes—being a “hammer” or alternatively, a “marshmallow”—which allows you to have these interactions without exhausting yourself or the other person. She shared these five steps to effective crucial conversations:

1. Prepare your thoughts and words—be clear.

As you prepare for your own crucial conversation, ask yourself: what is your desired outcome, both short and long term? Consider your beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Understanding your perspective and motivations is your strongest tool. Be self-aware and mindful of the stories you tell yourself about the other person. Be open and don’t become negative. Prepare your “must say” points or comments. Practice mentally or with a colleague. Speaking through your talking points and/or writing it down might help clarify issues.

2. Make and keep it safe(r)—decrease defensiveness and emotional overreactions (yours and theirs).

Consider your timing, tone and turf. Select a time and location good for both parties. Respond with, “What I’m hearing you say…” Allow for silence, which allows you and the other participant a chance to gather thoughts. Be in “listener” mode and ask questions. If blindsided, ask for a break and return to the conversation later. Curnow also encouraged participants to “control your face.” Don’t assume others’ negative intent and have positive intent yourself. It may be most beneficial to strive to find a common, positive goal.

It’s also important to recognize your own hooks and triggers (such as displaying strong emotions). How do you de-escalate yourself? It can be productive to acknowledge your strong emotions and recognize them as a reflection of your passion for an important issue. Another extremely valuable tip to maintain and regain composure is to open your arms wide and take deep breaths to regain your voice.

3. Communicate clearly and completely.

Begin by stating your constructive intention or purpose clearly at the beginning. When things get tough, revisit your purpose, and return to it at the end of the conversation. Be calm and non-confrontational, curious and not anxious. A key tip is to drop your vocal tone and slow your pace instantly. Be open to hearing a counter-perspective. Don’t take strong emotions or attacks personally. Resist the temptation to defend yourself, the organization and/or a decision. Use a tool such as the Complete Communication Wheel to ensure that you’ve included all key components of the conversation.

Complete Communication Wheel
 

4. Ask questions and listen intentionally.

Share your feelings, judgments and ask them to share their perspective. Define your wants—what are you requesting of them? Remember that if the other party can’t say no, your request is actually a demand. If it really is a demand, speak to that clearly and calmly. Share what you are willing to do to get what you want. Examples might include training the other person or committing to having ongoing and future conversations. 

Ask powerful, empowering questions and listen to the responses intentionally. Powerful questions are short and clear, avoid a lot of qualifiers and explanations. These questions help everyone get to the heart of the situation. Examples of empowering questions include:

  • What options/possibilities are there?

  • How can I/we help?

  • What did you learn from the experience?

  • What do you want to change?

  • What is most important to you going forward?

  • What should we do differently in the future?

Plan ahead so you have at least one clearly stated, empowering question to ask in your crucial conversation. Use “what” questions versus “how” questions. “What” is often better to start, research. Use “how” when closer to developing a solution.

5. Clarify next steps: we remember best what we hear last.

At the end of a crucial conversation, be sure to repeat your original meeting purpose and review the next steps—yours, theirs, and specific actions. Include a timeline such as planning the next meeting or when you expect to move forward. Ask if the other person has any remaining questions or comments. Restate your support or care for the other person, even if in a termination conversation. Don’t forget that we remember best what we hear last, so leave a lasting impression.

Leadership Summit participants were able to walk away with an action plan to prepare for future crucial conversations, navigate them successfully, and achieve desired outcomes.
 

Elizabeth Krol
 

Elizabeth Krol is a National Client Director for EBI Consulting, and is both a Professional Geologist (PG) and an ASTM designated Environmental Professional (EP). She provides comprehensive, expedited transactional support services for real estate, legal and financial service companies nationwide. Krol is an active member of CREW Boston and immediate past delegate to CREW Network.

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