True leaders create an environment and culture where people can speak, question, and contribute. They are the people who listen to peers, partners, and subordinates without judgement; even in difficult conversations including “bad news” or critical comments. Effective leaders want others to express their honest opinions and find solutions in dialogue that support larger goals.
Fear and embarrassment shut people down in work environments. Successful leaders avoid these roadblocks by making it safe for people to say anything. They resist temptations to end conversations by declaring winners and losers. In the bestselling book, Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, the authors stress the benefits of putting others at ease. The book suggests anyone can learn and foster the conversational skills employed by these natural leaders with training and practice.
As a consultant I must often deliver difficult news to company owners and principals. After assessing their operations, I may have to share negative observations, like “your capabilities need upgrading”, “your sales team is weak and needs training”, or “your workflow is insufficient”. I must deliver this news in a way that creates dialog. If people feel compelled to defend the current situation, they are less open to change and will not benefit from my advice about how to improve their organization.Effective communication skills are key attributes that distinguish great leaders. As management styles have evolved from hierarchical to self-motivated teams, organizations of all sizes recognize how communication skills relate to business success.
We must all face difficult conversations such as delivering unfavorable performance reviews or addressing coworkers about their errors. In our personal lives we may find it necessary to confront a loved one about addiction or deal with difficult teenage behavior. Situations like these provoke crucial conversations with lasting impacts on relationships. In their book, the authors define crucial conversations as interactions featuring three attributes:
- The stakes are high for the potential outcome
- Opinions vary dramatically
- Emotions run strong
Everyone has been on the losing end of crucial conversations where we were not heard, were fearful and became silent or suffered a verbal attack. And many of us enter difficult conversations prepared for battle. We are ready to dig in our heels because we feel our position is right, and we must win at any cost.
Evolution trained our brains to react to perceived threats by fighting or fleeing. As leaders, we must learn to resist the fight-or-flight response in difficult business conversations. We are dealing with complex social issues not the physical threats of our long-gone ancestors.
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- Are clear about their objectives for conversations
- Understand the value of relationships with other participants
- Recognize crucial conversations and change their tactics accordingly
- Spot points in conversations when others are uncomfortable, go silent, or become aggressive
In our professional relationships, we have all seen intentions go awry when someone steadfastly insists they are right. I coach leaders to be effective communicators by teaching them how to state their personal purpose in relationship to others. Often, they must declare their goals for a project, a team, or a larger objective multiple times so they can gain alignment and agree on a mutual purpose.
Techniques I teach in my Crucial Conversations Workshops show participants how to speak persuasively, not abrasively. By the end of the session, workshop attendees know how to share their facts, tell their stories, and ask others to contribute by sharing their own ideas and asking clarifying questions.
My workshop teaches leaders:
- How to spot the warning signs that indicate safety is at risk
- How to notice various forms of silence and violence
- When to apologize to restore safety in conversations
- How to stop arguing and recognize there may be a third choice that is not yours or mine
- What to do when you reach an apparent impasse
- The surprising benefits of brainstorming to achieve mutual goals
- How to invent “mutual purpose” to sustain conversations until reaching a satisfactory conclusion
Great leaders hone their communication skills. They enable better outcomes in difficult conversations by creating environments of collaboration and sharing. They make it safe for others to contribute. Effective communication skills separate great leaders from average managers.