Understanding crucial conversations

By - July 6, 2016

Crucial conversations are defined as, “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong,” and the outcomes greatly impacts their lives.”

Another much more difficult lesson for leaders is when and how to have crucial conversations. They need to understand when to allow their team to deal with issues on their own and when to simply ignore the “issue,” that isn’t a “real issue.” After many years of performing and reviewing corporate culture surveys and interviewing employees for various companies,  I’m positive it is impossible to please everyone with your level of communication at the same time.

We can all relate to the definition of  crucial conversation, it probably evokes a different reaction in each of us. Personally it could be a big purchase, moving or any number of life events. From a career perspective, there are important interactions between individuals where a course correction or change in direction/focus may be necessary. Some examples may include a manager or career advisor addressing performance deficiencies or behavior issues with a subordinate. It could be an individual providing feedback to a peer level team member. It’s important to remember not all crucial conversations are negative, positive conversations can be nerve-racking as well if you are concerned how someone will react.

Why are these conversations difficult?

It can be uncomfortable to have crucial conversations for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’ve tried before and it went badly or you fear it will only make the situation worse. If you feel that there is something at stake, there is an emotional impact, time sensitivity, fear the consequences or not sure how the other person will understand the message.

So, why bother?

If everyone wants to avoid the conversation, why do it? A recent survey says U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict. Putting off a conversation that is impacting the ability for your team to perform, it’s not fair to anyone. Whether missing deadlines, engaging interpersonal conflicts or sharing praise from a recent engagement or thanks for a successful busy season, it is important to be timely and straight-forward.

Steps for success

  • Take time to prepare
  • Consider the right environment to hold this conversation
  • Gather your facts
  • Try not to make assumptions
  • Seek first to understand
  • Convey your request and/or expectations clearly
  • Agree on next steps
  • Solicit support, if needed

To learn more about how RSM can assist you with your other business needs, contact RSM’s management consulting professionals at 800.274.3978 or email us


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