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ATD Blog

5 Tips for Mastering Crucial Conversations

Friday, May 21, 2021

Not all conversations are equal. Some are crucial. VitalSmarts has spent the last 30 years studying the factors that make conversations turn crucial and the vital behaviors for handling them well. First, I will define what crucial conversations are and why they are important, and then I’ll share five things you must do in a crucial conversation to secure results and improve relationships.

A crucial conversation is characterized by three conditions: high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions. If you’re stuck in some aspect of your life, there is a crucial conversation you are not having (or not having well). When most people face such a conversation, their natural tendency is to clam up and eventually blow up as things worsen. Holding a crucial conversation is a healthy and helpful alternative to silence and violence.

Given the importance of crucial conversations, here are five things you must do to make them effective:

1. Notice when a conversation turns crucial.

When stakes are high, opinions differ, or emotions grow heated, most of us either shut down or swing the other way and start an adrenaline-fueled debate.

What do the masters do? Masterful communicators are aware of the early warning signs of a crucial conversation. They notice the messages their body sends them that indicate they are about to lose their cool, like a racing pulse or raised voice. With a little self-reflection, you can notice your own warning signs and prepare yourself to engage your best skills.


2. Use your best skills.

Unfortunately, when it matters most, we often do our worst. We sulk, show offense, debate, or interrupt, to name just a few bad behaviors.

While they may not come as quickly or naturally, we do have other skills better suited to dialogue. We can ask, listen, rephrase, take turns, and diagnose. As soon as you notice that the conversation has turned crucial, make a conscious choice to activate your best skills.

3. Call timeout and re-engage with an agreement.

When a conversation becomes emotional, the adrenal gland often fires, sending blood to the large muscles in preparation for fight or flight. When you feel that fight or flight response, call a timeout. Ask, “Could we take a 10-minute break? I need a little personal time. And could we agree that when we return, we will both use our best skills?”

4. Lead with observations and questions, not conclusions and emotions.

Too often, people begin their conversations with conclusions, accusations, and emotions, launching them into a debate about who’s right and who’s wrong.


So what do you do? When you need to talk about a tough topic, ask yourself this humanizing question: Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this? Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. If you seek understanding behind their actions, you will find you can be a bit more patient and sympathetic.

For example, begin with an observation and a question such as, “John, you agreed that the accounting report would be on my desk at 2 p.m. Thursday. It was delivered Friday at 11 a.m. What happened?” Your tone of voice should demonstrate that you are sharing the facts and asking with the purpose of understanding. You should not have the slightest touch of sarcasm or accusation.

When you use these skills, you start the conversation off from a place of safety. As a result, what follows is more likely to lead to solutions than hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

5. End the conversation well.

How you end a conversation is as important as how you begin. You need to remember and apply the acronym WWWF: who does what, by when, and follow up. If you don’t determine WWWF, you can’t hold people accountable for the agreed solutions. If you do, you can.

These are five steps to help you when you find yourself in high-stakes, emotional, and politically risky conversations.

About the Author

Al Switzler is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For 30 years, Al has delivered engaging keynotes for an impressive list of clientele including AT&T, Xerox, IBM, and Sprint. Al’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

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