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Conducting Effective Critical Conversations: 3 Best Practices for Leaders

Published Tue Oct 10 2023

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Many leaders struggle to address tough issues, especially when it comes to performance. We’ve all experienced difficult conversations that have left us feeling uneasy. But avoiding challenging conversations only perpetuates unresolved issues, leading to mounting tension and detrimental consequences for company culture and business performance.

Some leaders make the mistake of delivering messages that erode trust and motivation. Such delivery may stem from a lack of awareness or even laziness. How you deliver critical messages is just as crucial, if not more so, than the content itself.

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Employees want leaders who truly care about their development and help them succeed. For leaders, this means overcoming the discomfort of challenging conversation to help team members grow—and doing so in ways that elevate and empower. And that doesn’t happen by accident. At a time when engaging and motivating talent is so important—in 2022, 77 percent of employees either lacked engagement or were actively disengaged—it is every leader’s responsibility to level up their critical conversation skills.

3 Best Practices to Level Up Your Conversations at Work

Here are three best practices leaders can employ for productive and clarifying conversations:

1. Know yourself.

Are you focused on personal needs or practical needs?

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All parties bring their knowledge, personalities, experiences, preferences, and biases to critical conversations. These differences can influence outcomes and should influence your approach. Understanding yourself can improve your ability to navigate a conversation. Consider the differences between personal and practical needs. Personal needs refer to the desire of every individual to be valued, heard, and supported. Practical needs refer to our desire for clarity and concrete outcomes.

As a leader, you need to balance both types of needs during critical conversations. Most people find that they tune in more naturally to one area of need or the other.

If you feel more comfortable considering personal needs, you’re likely more inclined to ensure that people feel respected, listened to, involved, and supported. You might not, however, you may struggle address hard issues, make decisions, and establish clear outcomes and next steps.

If you feel more comfortable considering practical needs, you’re more likely to focus on outcomes. You might not, however, consistently involve others, listen to different perspectives, or consider the personal effects of decisions on those involved. While on the surface it might feel like you are moving forward, you may face resistance, confusion, or frustration that can slow the process.

Ask yourself, do you gravitate more toward meeting personal or practical needs? How can you meet both types of needs?

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2. Consider and adapt to the person you’re speaking to.

Now ask, how is the person I’m speaking to different from me?

Attuning to other people is like taking a step toward them. You’re much more likely to reach a positive outcome.

Is the person you’re speaking to tuned into practical needs or personal needs? How can you adapt your natural style to meet their needs?

3. Choose the right time and place and be fully present.

Give yourself time to prepare and plan your approach. Schedule a one-on-one meeting and set expectations about what you’ll discuss ahead of time. People are more likely to become defensive when they’re caught off guard.

Learn more conversation best practices on DDI’s blog.

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