In this series of posts I’m sharing Six Shifts in mindset and behavior that leaders can make in order to be more effective in having high-stakes conversations.

For most of us, when we think about having an uncomfortable conversation we worry a lot about what could go wrong, including defensiveness (theirs and ours), conflict escalation, hurt feelings, and alienation. We focus on the down side of expressing a truth we know deep in our hearts we must communicate. Faced with these worries we find “good” reasons to put off the conversation for yet another day, and then another, until the moment arrives when the real cost of our avoidance shows up – think NASA Challenger disaster, Enron, and the 2008 mortgage crisis. Think blow-ups between friends and torpedoed marriages. In every case people in these situations later confess, “I knew I needed to speak up but chose not to have the difficult conversation because I was worried about the consequences.”

Moral of the story: You can have the hard conversation now on your terms or you can have it later in crisis mode. How do you avoid letting negative predictions and avoidance get the best of you? Here are three important practices for going into potentially high-heat conversations with purpose.

First, put your worries in perspective. In addition to calculating 1) the possible risks of having the conversation (e.g., all the stuff that can go wrong), also identify 2) the possible risks of not having the conversation (e.g. the issue is sure to escalate), 3) the potential benefits of continuing to avoid the conversation (e.g. keeping the “peace” for a bit longer), and 4) the potential benefits of having the conversation — successfully (e.g. increased trust on your team). Doing a full risk-benefit assessment gives you a more balanced perspective and prevents you from being hijacked by your fears.

Second, get clear about your purpose. If based on the risk assessment you decide to have the high-stakes conversation, get clear about your purpose in having the conversation. Consider the following questions. Write down and refine your answers.

What do I want this conversation to achieve for me?
What do I want this conversation to achieve for the other person?
What do I want this conversation to achieve for our relationship?
What do I need this conversation to achieve for my team and organization?

Third, avoid either-or thinking. When it comes to your goals, don’t get caught in what Crucial Conversations authors call the “Sucker’s Choice” — when we mistakenly think we have to choose between achieving our desired outcomes and avoiding the outcomes we fear (e.g., I really want to be honest about what’s bugging me but I don’t want her to get angry). The way out of this mental trap is to realize that seemingly competing goals can both be achieved. It’s a mindset shift! Write down what you don’t want to happen in the conversation. Then combine what you don’t and do want to happen in a “X and Y” statement that sounds like this: “I want to have an honest conversation with her about job performance and minimize anger and defensiveness in the process”. Or even better, you can state the negative as a positive (e.g., … build trust and enrich the working relationship in the process). After you have combined the two seemingly incompatible goals ask yourself: How would I act during the conversation if I really wanted to achieve both of these things?

When we get clear about the purpose of the high-stakes conversations we need to have we gain three important capacities:

1. Calm: We feel more comfortable having put the possible risks and benefits in perspective.
2. Focus: We know what we want to achieve and are less susceptible to getting side-tracked.
3. Courage: We are clear about what is at stake – making the conversation matter enough to speak up and listen deeply.

How might taking the time to gain greater clarity about your purpose help you stay more grounded and less anxious leading up to and during a high-heat conversation?

Image credit: Umit Bulut on Unsplash

Share This