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Mastering Crucial Conversations: Getting Good At Difficult Conversations Makes You The Most Valuable Coach (And Person) In The Room

By John Berardi, PhD

Reputation Development

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Being able to skillfully navigate difficult conversations will take your coaching, professional collaboration, and personal relationships to the next level. Instead of avoiding issues, or bringing them up in ways that create defensiveness, you’ll be able to masterfully navigate situations others can’t see their way out of. Here’s how.

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Difficult Conversations Are Important To Have

As I’ve written about previously, I’m a big believer in the feedback loop, both as a way to grow personally and professionally and as a way to communicate your maturity and professionalism to others.

Another type of communication that’s essential to building a strong reputation is what authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler call “crucial conversations” in their book by the same name.

A crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. Examples include:

  • Asking a friend to repay a long overdue loan.
  • Talking to a client about their alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Giving your boss feedback about their actions or behavior.
  • Critiquing a colleague’s work.
  • Asking clients to keep certain commitments.

If your heart beats faster just reading the list, that’s normal. Many respond this way because of past experiences with these kinds of dialogues.

Whether they’ve taken the initiative and kicked off crucial conversations themselves, or simply have been in the middle of one, many of their crucial conversations have ended in silence (deny, repress, ignore, pretend), collapse (shame, embarrassment, withdrawal) or hostility (combativeness, aggression, threat).

Combine these experiences with no obvious path to skill development and it’s no wonder some people avoid crucial conversations at all costs.

At the same time, being able to skillfully navigate crucial conversations will take your coaching game, your professional collaboration, and your personal relationships to the next level.

Instead of avoiding key issues or bringing them up in a way that creates defensiveness (and, therefore, no real resolution), you’ll be able to masterfully navigate situations that others can’t see their way out of.

You’ll become the most valuable communicator in the room, in any room.

When “Telling It Like It Is” Equals Abrasive and Unkind

I wasn’t always good at this.

In fact, I’ve devoted a decade to it because I was bad.

Early in my life I fancied myself a “tell it like it is” kinda guy. I said what was on my mind and thought that made me an authentic, no-BS person of high integrity. Turns out I was really just selfish, abrasive, and unkind.

I remember working in a research lab during graduate school. One of my coworkers and I never really saw eye-to-eye, yet we had to collaborate daily. As I was still in my “telling it like it is” phase, I ended up receiving multiple visits from our human resources director.

Realizing that acting this way wasn’t working for me, I tried to act “nicer.” But since I hadn’t done any internal work yet I was just delivering the same kind of message as before. The “niceness” was a mask that felt disingenuous and manipulative.

After a few months of this, another coworker called me aside and leveled with me.

“I can tell you’ve been working hard to try to get along with Linda. But, I have to be honest, it feels phoney. Everyone knows you don’t like each other. But now, in addition to having obvious resentment for her, ‘nicer JB’ is just acting inauthentic and contrived.”

She went on to recommend Crucial Conversations, which completely changed my outlook.

Enter Crucial Conversations

As I progressed through the book I realized that I was spending far too much time blaming others, and far too little time searching for the role I might be playing in our difficulties.

For example, previously, leading up to difficult conversations, I’d obsess over what the other person was doing, what they were like, what they might say in response to my words, and how I would “counter” their arguments.

In doing this, I was trying to force things to go my way.

This was the exact opposite of the advice in the book, which taught how to lead with curiosity, be open to real conversation, and seek a free-flow of information and meaning.

As I began to put into practice these techniques, I learned to stop obsessing over “what to say” and, instead, spend my energy preparing my mind and my heart to listen.

The Shared Pool Of Meaning

Why is listening so important here?

Because, in crucial conversations, you need everyone’s ideas, theories, feelings, thoughts, and opinions to build what I call “the shared pool of meaning”.

(Crucial Conversations authors call it “the shared pool of information”).

The more information (and understanding) we can share, the higher our chances of making the right decisions, and the right compromises, to get everyone most of what they want and need.

To ensure I’m doing enough listening, I now enter all crucial conversations by asking questions. In giving others the chance to talk first, it shows that I care about their perspective, which makes them more likely to care about mine. And the combination of both leads to a deeper and wider shared pool of meaning.

4 Strategies To Master Difficult Conversations

Yes, this kind of dialogue takes patience, ego-detachment, and lots of extra time. But the alternative takes much longer because it simply doesn’t work.

While I never did figure out how to have a great working relationship with Linda, our conflict did light a fire in me to learn how to lead crucial conversations, to respond positively to them when others initiate them, and to mediate crucial conversations between other people.

It’s taken me a long time to improve in this area but I’ve noticed that this kind of communication has helped me grow my personal and professional reputation more than any other.

In situations that could otherwise become heated, I’ve come to be seen as clear thinking, insightful, and wise. Even more, it’s led to some of the most rewarding moments of my adult life.

Thorny issues that might have otherwise threatened my relationships have led to beautiful moments of deeper clarity and connection with the people I care about most.

To evolve your own crucial conversation game, here are four strategies, adapted from the book.

Change Your Own Motives

Helpers love to fix other people. However, the only person you have any control over, and the first person you need to work on, is yourself.

When difficult situations arise, first examine your own personal role in the problems and challenges you encounter. Ask:

“In what ways, no matter how small, am I responsible?” 

Knowing how you contributed makes you less likely to project blame, or shame, onto the other person.

Also, as you enter into crucial conversations, make sure you’re clear on your real goal. As tensions arise it’s easy to get sucked into wanting to look good, or defend against looking bad, or win.

But, most often, the goal you want is to find a mutually beneficial solution that strengthens your relationship with the other person. Ask:

“Am I contributing to the shared pool of meaning now or have I lost sight of that goal?”

While it’s true that sometimes we’re caught in a genuine dilemma with only two bad options, most of the time we have healthy alternatives. So consider replacing “either/or” thinking (“Well, I guess it’s either this or that”) with “both/and” thinking (“How can we both get this and that”).

By looking for “and” solutions our brains move to higher-level, more complex, integrative thinking. Ask:

“Now that I understand exactly what the other person wants, how can I help them get it AND work toward getting what I want myself?” 

In other words, see if you can play the game so everyone wins.

Create A Safe Space

When things go wrong in crucial conversations, most people assume the content of their message is the problem. So they try to explain it differently, or try to water it down, or just stop talking altogether.

However, difficult conversations usually go off track because people don’t feel safe and supported. They feel like their position, or their pride, or their livelihood is at risk.

However, when your intent is clear, you’re giving off supportive vibes, and you make things safe, you can talk to almost anyone about anything.

To create a safe environment, people need to know that you care about their best interests and goals and that you share some of the same interests. This is called mutual purpose. They also need to know that you care about them as individuals. This is called mutual respect.

You can let them know both implicitly (with your body language and facial expressions, by listening first, by not interrupting, by showing that you’re clearly interested in their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives) and explicitly (by telling them “I want you to know that I care about your interests and goals here. I’ve thought about them a lot and think I have a sense for what they might be. But I’d love to hear them from your perspective first so I’m sure to get it right.”)

Keep in mind that no amount of posturing replaces real care.

That’s why, leading into crucial conversations, your time is better spent thinking about why the people involved, and your relationships with them, are valuable vs. what you’re going to say next. By actually caring, and by demonstrating you care, people can relax and can absorb what you’re saying. They feel safe.

However, the instant they don’t believe you care (and it can happen instantaneously—even with those we have long and loving relationships with), safety breaks down and silence, collapse, or hostility follows.

Add Your Perspective

When it’s your turn to talk, use the STATE method.

First, Share your facts instead of your story. For example, say someone is often late. Instead of sharing your interpretation of the fact (that they “don’t respect your time”) simply begin with the fact that you noticed they’re often late.

Then, once the fact is out, you can Tell your story about the fact. This is when you can share your interpretation, making it clear this is just your interpretation, not necessarily fact.

Finally, you can Ask for their path, remembering that the goal here isn’t to prove you’re right but to understand their perspective and resolve the situation.

To incorporate all three strategies you could say something like:

I’ve noticed you’re often late. Now, I’m not sure why that’s happening. But it gives me, and others, the impression that you’re unreliable or don’t care about how your lateness affects them. Am I missing something about what’s going on? I’d love to hear things from your perspective.

When sharing your story, again, remember it’s an assumption, not a fact. So Talk tentatively and show that you’re open to being wrong. Saying things like: “it makes me wonder” and “I get the impression” works better than “it’s obvious to me” or “it’s clear that.”

Finally, Encourage testing by asking them to share their viewpoint, even if it’s completely opposite to yours. This helps add to the shared pool of meaning while also demonstrating you want to hear what they have to say. If they’re non-communicative, you can prompt with:

Let’s say I’m wrong here. Can you help me see things from your point of view?” or “You seem frustrated and I’d like to understand why. Can you help me see your perspective?

In summary:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Ask for their path
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

Find The Path To Action

The ultimate goal of dialogue isn’t just to create a healthy climate or even a clear understanding between parties. While both are helpful, they fall short of the real purpose: To get unstuck and take appropriate action.

Without action, all the healthy talk in the world is for nothing and will eventually lead to disappointment and hard feelings.

To take action, always mutually agree on when and how follow-ups will take place. It could be a simple email confirming action by a certain date. It could be a full report in a team meeting. Or it could be a follow-up conversation.

Regardless of how or how often you do it, you need follow-up to create ongoing productive action. By collaborating on this (rather than you dictating how it’ll happen) the chances of follow-through are much greater.

Also, document your work. Effective teams and healthy relationships are supported by records of the important decisions made and the assignments agreed upon. These documents are revisited to follow up on both the decisions and the commitments. When someone fails to keep a commitment, candidly and directly discuss the issue with them.

From Stressed Out To Excited

Early in my life, despite my early “tell it like it is” attitude, and my later “be nicer” approach, I stressed out about having crucial conversations. Going into them I felt incompetent, intimidated, frustrated, and angry. Coming out of them I felt defeated and exhausted.

I still vividly remember the first time I had to “fire” someone at Precision Nutrition, one of the ultimate crucial conversations. There were days of agony leading up to it. What will I say? If I say this, how might they respond? Then what will I say to that. And on and on. Compared to the dread I felt, the conversation actually went okay. There was anger, and tears, from the person I was talking with. And I was less communicative, compassionate, or understanding than I’ve learned to be.

What I remember most clearly, though, was the aftermath. Immediately I went to bed and slept for 12 hours. It took nearly a week until I felt fully recovered.

If you can believe it, after years more practice, I’m now thrilled each time a crucial conversation comes up (although I never relish the idea of letting someone go). That’s because crucial conversations have become so rare that it’s hard to get practice. And reps are needed to develop an ever-growing mastery at solving problems, improving relationships, growing reputation, and earning the respect of others.

What To Do Next

Change your own motives.

Get clear on both the role you’ve played in the problems you encounter and the real goal you’re looking to reach.

Create a safe space.

Let people know, both implicitly and explicitly, that you care about their best interests and goals. Plus that you care about them as individuals.

Add your perspective.

Use the STATE method as a means to share your point of view while leaving room for alternative perspectives to be shared and clarified.

Find the path to action.

Mutually agree on when and how follow-ups will take place to create ongoing productive action to maximize buy-in. Document the process so that decisions and commitments can be discussed candidly and directly if disagreements happen in future.

Want To Learn More? Dive Deeper?

Then download this FREE sample of my latest book, Change Maker.

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Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.

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