How to Avoid a Crucial Conversation

Think of someone you don’t like.

You’ve drawn a negative conclusion about them and the relationship is doomed.

Or is it?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that we have concerns and problems with other people. The challenge is how we handle them.

Anytime we find ourselves stuck with a chronic problem in a relationship, team, or organisation, there are always crucial conversations we’re either not holding… or not holding well.

How Conversations Move From Casual to Crucial

In order to have effective crucial conversations, we need to recognize when we’re in the middle of one.

We need to be able to identify when the conversation moves from casual to crucial… which doesn’t take long. In fact, it can take as little as four seconds — I timed it.

I’ve written collaboratively with my partners at VitalSmarts for more than 25 years — and during that time we’ve had our share of crucial conversations.

When Kerry Patterson and I work together, we have a process we use. One of us writes the first draft of a chapter and sends it to the other person for rewrites. Then, we set up a time to talk and share feedback.

During one of these times, Kerry wrote the first draft, I did some very aggressive rewrites, and we were ready to talk.

So, I called him to talk through the changes. Notice how quickly this conversation escalates from casual to crucial.

“Hey, Kerry. Is this a good time to talk?”

“Yes, sure!”

“Did you get the chapter back?”

“I did.”

“What’d you think?”

“You ruined it.”

“I didn’t ruin it. I fixed it.”

“You didn’t fix it, now it’s disjointed. It goes from A to C to B and it doesn’t work anymore!”

It took only four seconds for the conversation to move from casual to crucial. The stakes were high, our opinions differed, and those opinions provoked an emotional response.

Before we knew it, we’d entered into a crucial conversation… while writing Crucial Conversations!

Goals: The Culprits of Crucial Conversations

Why do we have to deal with these conversations? Why can’t we avoid them altogether?

Imagine this is you.

If you’re moving towards a super awesome goal, this is where your problems begin.

Many of us wish we could have fewer crucial conversations. Wouldn’t you like that?

The best way to avoid crucial conversations is to have a meaningless life.

When you give up on your goals, you have fewer difficult conversations. But as soon as you start caring about something, the need for these conversations arises.

2 Ways To Deal With Crucial Issues

Here’s the hard reality: When it matters most, you and I tend to do our worst.

When we need to have a really meaningful conversation about a tough issue, we often become our worst selves… but we don’t have to.

Think about a particular person you don’t really like. How are your concerns about that person affecting your behaviour? Are you behaving differently because of your negative conclusion?

Is the way you’re behaving helping?

Probably not.

If it’s not possible to have fewer crucial conversations (without just having a meaningless life), we need to be ready to confront the issues in a helpful, healthy way.

On our journey towards super awesome goals, crucial conversations will occur — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Crucial conversations serve a purpose — they don’t mean something is wrong. But once you come to them, you only have two options.

1. Talk it out.

You can find a way to honestly and respectfully share your concerns. This is your best option. But for the most part, we don’t talk it out. And if we don’t, we will naturally choose option two.

2. Act it out.

If you don’t talk it out, you will act it out. The issue will show up in your behaviour and provoke behaviours in response. The problems always get worse.

These are the only two options available.

You don’t have to have a crucial conversation. You can avoid it. But then you’ll inevitably act out on it, and the problem will only get worse.

Discuss the Undiscussables

What crucial conversations need to happen in your workplace? Are you willing to talk about them or will you just act on them?

You can measure the health of a relationship, team, or organisation by measuring the number of undiscussables — the things we think we just can’t talk about. The more undiscussables, the more unhealthy the relationship.

We all have concerns and frustrations with each other. It’s not wrong — it’s natural. But we have to deal with the issues. If we don’t, we’ll keep facing the same problems that prevent us from moving forward.

Crucial conversations don’t have to be bad — they don’t even have to take that long — but they do have to happen if you want to reach your potential.

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