Better breakfast meeting
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6 critical behaviours to help you better manage crucial conversations

Communication Leadership

In my last post, I shared a personal account of failing to use crucial conversation skills, an incident that had serious repercussions for both me and the company I was heading.

Here are six tips, gleaned the hard way, for having more productive crucial conversations:

1. Speak up! Do not procrastinate by going silent.

The need for dialogue becomes ever more critical when the stakes are high. Stakes become high when the following three criteria coalesce to make a conversation crucial: emotions are running high, there is disagreement, and the relationship can be easily ruptured, with serious unwanted consequences if the conversation does not go well. In business, because we often don’t know how to express our negative emotions, we choose silence instead.

The coping mechanism I used in dealing with the rising tensions in my relationship with the board chair was to “go silent.” Instead of speaking up, I said nothing. I withdrew, avoiding the uncomfortable conversations that the situation called for and instead “sugar-coating” and masking my growing irritation with what I considered to be “micromanagement.” I was therefore partly responsible for creating the communication challenge. In our final meeting to troubleshoot and problem solve, I had switched into “attack mode” by suggesting that the “brainstorming” session run by the chair “did not help at all” when he asked me whether it had been helpful.

2. Ask yourself whether your communication challenge is a pinch or a punch—Deal with it at the pinch stage.

Communication issues normally start out being quite minor. We might call that a pinch. But as things escalate, a pinch becomes a punch. A punch usually happens when there is a pattern of behavior that we have not dealt with when the initial problem first manifests itself. We might do this because of pride or because we do not want to appear small minded, petty, or plain wrong, so we say nothing. As time passes, a pattern develops, landing us at the “punch stage.” Now we have more of a crucial conversation. Do not procrastinate! Cut the problem off at the pass when it is only a pinch. Doing so might shut the problem down early. And with dialogue, you might see that the initial communication issue was simply a minor misunderstanding.

3. Be prepared to apologize.

Even if you do not see yourself as the cause of the poor communication—but the other party believes that you are—consider simply apologizing. This provides you with an opportunity to explain what you really meant. Take ownership of the problem and be prepared to admit that your failure to communicate clearly is what led to the unwanted misunderstanding. Be prepared to offer a sincere apology. Remember, no apology is better than an insincere one!

4. Prepare: Give yourself the best chance of starting well, particularly when there is a “pattern” of communication issues.

Always remember that a successful crucial conversation is not about winning or losing an argument. It is about creating conditions of safety, mutual purpose, and mutual respect, so that you can find the truth and common ground and grow the pool of understanding between parties.

Failing to prepare for a crucial conversation means you are preparing to fail.

Look at any upcoming crucial conversation just like you would an important negotiation, where 90% of success is often due to good preparation.

The authors of Crucial Conversations use the acronym STATE as their guiding tool in preparing for a crucial conversation.

What to plan for:

S = Start. Start with the most pertinent facts, as opposed to your feelings.

T = Tell. Next, tell your “story,” meaning how you interpret the facts. “Based on x, y, and z facts, I feel that we are not on the same page about the critical importance of this project and the impact it has on your job and our company.”

A = In follow-up, ask a question: “Based on these things, I don’t think we are on the same page about our strategy. I could be wrong, but I’d be curious to see how you interpret things?”

This gives you a chance to learn how the other party sees things from their perspective.

How to deliver the message:

T = Be tentative, using words like “Maybe I could be misreading things or overstating things, but based on x, y, and z, I think that . . .”

E = Encourage testing: “There may be things I’ve overlooked or overstated, so I really would like to hear what you think.”

5. Try to stay emotionally detached and use all your best listening skills.

Do not interrupt the other person when they are speaking, and use all your best communication skills such as paraphrasing, testing understanding, and summarizing to help expand the pool of meaning, which I spoke about in the last post.

6. Encourage an understanding of any negative feedback.

Typically, when I am criticized, like a lot of people I become “defensively aggressive,” which is not helpful. The criticism might not be true, but it is not helpful to become defensive. Instead, be curious and learn why the other person thinks the way they do. They might only be 10% right, or it might just be that they have a false perception, based on their limited information and understanding. Knowing this allows you and the other party to engage without defensiveness and achieve mutual understanding.

Bryan Socransky

This is great advice Tim - "Even if you do not see yourself as the cause of the poor communicationbut the other party believes that you areconsider simply apologizing." Hard for most people to do though. We always like to be right and hate to admit when we are wrong. But apologizing has an amazing power to disarm people.

tim rooney Bryan Socransky

Agree Bryan - nothing like a sincere apology to smooth ruffled feathers - easy to talk about ,but our pride sometimes makes it hard to execute

James Good

It's been more than 10 years since I took your Crucial Conversations course, but I still regularly rely on these principles in both my personal and professional life.

Michael Beland


Your post reminded me of something I read that is credited to Warren Buffett. I cannot verify that it is him, but I think it fits with your last two posts.

You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with logic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.

Regardless of who sad it, whether it be a Warren or a Jimmy, it is so true.



I must say that it was a good refresher! But, in todays age of 150 character posts on social media, pinching seems like gardening.. requiring constant work.. pinch & keep pinching or one punch and ure out! Lol! Option 2 is quick, easier to remember, requires muuuch less energy and more exhilarating than the satisfaction of having a tty conversation! Isnt it? Simple PUNCH!! Just do it! No acronym required! ☺

Mark Canes

Points 1 and 3 can hard for many of us, but as you so insightfully point out, absolutely key. I think perhaps for some of us it gets a little easier as time goes by, and experience eventually teaches us that not every tough conversation has to have a winner (or loser).

Tim Rooney Mark Canes

Thanks for your input Mark.Ideally both sides need to be heard.If that has happended and no ideal solution can be found , you are still better off if you have had a chance to express your point of view.Its at least a start and better than silence.

Bill Hutton

Great tips on managing crucial conversations. As I head into another year as a minor hockey coach I am likely to get the chance to apply some of these strategies to my dealings with parents and players.

Brian Sullivan

Love this list, Dr. Rooney. Reading through it reminded me of a sales manager from my old Xerox days who often chided my mates and me for not communicating by telling and re-telling the Abilene Paradox tale.

tim rooney Brian Sullivan

Brian - I appreciate you responding so quickly ! I'm now going to find out more about the Abilene Paradox !

tim rooney tim rooney

Here is the weblink to th Abiline Paradox explained - the scenario sounds familar and I like the suggested solutions to avoid the negative consequences.Thanks again Brian,%E2%80%9Cfailure%20to%20manage%20agreement.%E2%80%9D

Steve Monk

I love this post Tim.
So well written and so much good insight and advice,
Ill refer back to this one,
Thanks for sharing!