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Cheat Sheet

Critical Conversations For Dummies

From Critical Conversations For Dummies by Christina Tangora Schlachter

Are you looking to change behaviors in employees and create productive and dynamic team players? Critical conversations are a way to do just that! Staying ahead of possible conflicts and intervening when issues do arise are what critical conversations are all about. They are the best way to keep employees motivated and ensure productive teamwork.

Five Ways to Build Rapport during a Critical Conversation

Building and maintaining rapport with the person you are having a critical conversation with makes any discussion more likely to have a positive result. Building rapport means creating a relationship based on trust and affinity. You will be much more likely to have a positive conversation with mutual respect if you keep the following tips in mind when building rapport:

  • Be sincere. It is important to establish common goals or shared interests, but don’t just say what you think the other person wants to hear. Share your genuine thoughts, feelings, and interests and be open and respectful to what others have to say.

  • Be present in the conversation. Listen to what the other person is saying rather than think solely about what you are going to say next or cast judgment. Look at the other person when they are talking, put aside distractions (shut off the computer, turn off your phone, shut the door).

  • Be confident, but not arrogant. When you are confident, it can put the other person at ease. Even if you are a bag of nerves, confidence can come from smiling, holding your head up, and talking with a clear voice.

  • Be empathic. Everyone comes to the conversation with a different history or perspective, and having empathy for these different views is the best way to build a relationship. Recognize and respect how others are feeling, even if you do not agree with their point of view.

  • Be honest. Say what you mean, do what you say, and follow through with what you commit to doing. Relationships are built on trust. If you say one thing and do another, that trust will quickly evaporate.

Ten Minutes to a Critical Conversation

Critical conversations take practice, perspective, and preparation. Unfortunately, sometimes there is never enough time to get ready because the conversation needs to happen now. For these situations, 10 minutes of preparation before a critical conversation will get you on the path to a successful discussion:

  • Minute 1: Make sure you have sufficient time to see the conversation through to the end. It is unfair to the other person to drop horrible news or difficult feedback on them and then have to speed off to another conversation. If you don’t have at least 30 minutes to have the conversation, it may be better to postpone it.

  • Minute 2: Be realistic about what you can and cannot achieve with a last minute conversation. Keep the topic limited to one example. Even if there are more issues you would like to discuss in the future, use this last-minute critical conversation as a way to create an open and effective work environment.

  • Minutes 3-6: Make sure the conversation is focused on facts and why the facts are important, not just opinion. Nothing is worse than tossing out old grudges or highly subjective opinions, even if you have all the time in the world to prepare. Write down the actual behavior or event that happened, the consequence of that behavior or event, and why you feel it is important. This brief preparation will help focus the conversation. For example: Fact: a colleague refused to share important information during a meeting; Consequence: you need the information before the end of the day to give to the customer; Feelings: you feel you can’t do the best job possible for the organization without this information.

  • Minutes 6-7: Practice your key sentence. While you may not have a tremendous amount of time to practice, take one minute to practice the key information you are going to deliver. In the previous example you may say, “I know everyone is busy and we did not have time to talk about this during the meeting, but I need to deliver our team report to our customer this afternoon. I feel under pressure and anxious since I cannot do my best job if I do not have the information. Can we sit down and find out how to get this information as efficiently as possible?”

  • Minutes 8-9: Understand you have a good chance to resolve an issue rather quickly with a conversation. However, even if you cannot resolve the issue, use the conversation as an opening and building block to future dialogue by demonstrating empathy, and by being willing and open to listen to the perspective of the other person. Be prepared to ask for the other person’s views and ideas, not just your own.

  • Minute 10: Take a deep breath. Be open and honest, and know that even if the conversation does not go as planned, sincerity goes a long way.

Solutions to Critical Conversation Problems at a Glance

Critical conversations are not just about what you should do during the discussion. Unfortunately, poor attitudes and stressed relationships show up again and again during conversations. Even the best critical conversation can include its share of problems. This table shows a few solutions to some of the more common pitfalls.

Problem Solution Examples
One-sided conversation Acknowledge the behavior and then redirect the conversation. “Thanks for that information Kathy. I know many things can get in the way of getting work done, so let’s come up with a plan for how to remove the three main barriers you talked about [acknowledge what was said]. More could come up, but I recommend we start with these three. What do you see as some potential solutions [redirect the conversation to the next step]?”
Distracted audience Ask questions about what is happening.

Be respectful.

Help people think.
“Ted, you look confused. Is there a part of the goal would be helpful for me to go over in more depth?”

“Sue, I see you are spending lots of time on your phone during meetings. I know everyone is busy. Is there anything I can do to help you be part of the conversation?”

“Dan, I would love to hear your opinion. What are your ideas on how to solve the problem?”
A lack of trust Trust builder #1: Give meaningful feedback.

Trust builder #2: Be authentic

Trust builder #3: Speak now.

Trust builder #4: Keep commitments.
“I plan on researching more about the issue, and will give you an update in next Monday.”

“I honestly don’t know the answer, but I am happy to try to find the solution.”

“Are you open to feedback about the meeting this morning?”
Not heading in the same direction Be clear on goals.

Identify motivations.
“It seems like we may not be in agreement on the expectations of the job. Would you be willing to talk about what you feel is most important to the job and your performance?”
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