Five Key Phrases to Employ in Critical Conversations

To make critical conversations go more perfectly, you can draw on five key phases to get the critical conversation going in the right direction and to redirect the discussion if it gets off track.

Using these five key phrases when they’re appropriate lets the other parties know you want to help make the situation better. Although all these phrases need to come from a genuine desire to help, using them signals to the other parties that you want to create a critical dialogue to solve the issue instead of giving a one-way lecture on what needs to change.

Why don’t we work together to solve . . .?

In the heat of a debate or emotional discussion, having at least one common goal helps the conversation move forward. “Why don’t we work together on . . .” gives the other individual an opportunity to have some control in the discussion. She can control whether or not she’s there, and she can have a voice in the conversation.

This phrase is also helpful to go back to as common ground if the conversation gets off track. For example, you may say, “It seems like we may have gotten off track. In the beginning of the conversation we agreed to work together to solve the problem. Can we keep doing that?”

It’s difficult to . . .

When providing critical information during a conversation that may not be well received, you’ll probably feel stressed. Opening up can help set a genuine tone that you’re there to help. This openness can neutralize confrontational individuals so you can move toward talking about the real issues.

As the initiator of the conversation, you may begin with, “It’s difficult to deliver bad news to a great employee, and this situation is no different.”

Don’t use this phrase if you don’t genuinely feel the situation is hard. For example, if your job is to fire people, saying “It’s hard to fire you” could be seen as insincere.

If it’s true, you can say, “I’m in a position to deliver tough news more often than others, but that doesn’t make the situation any easier. I can understand how you may be feeling.”

The receiver of the information may also use this tactic. “It’s hard to hear this information. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with the information you provided. Do you mind if we walk through that example again?”

Were you aware . . .?

Asking another individual whether she was aware of behavior, rules, or policies is one of the most underutilized tools during a critical conversation — and in communication in general.

At times, information may just go unnoticed. A person may really not be aware of the impact a behavior has on the team. A customer may not be aware of a policy. “Awareness” is a safe word that helps the other party to save face, and it provides a great opportunity to give critical information or education.

A critical conversation should open the doors of communication and create an honest environment for discussion. If one individual feels that she lost the discussion and the other person won, or if any party feels embarrassed, the safe environment of conversation can quickly deteriorate.

Don’t phrase this statement as “Did you know . . .” Meeting space tends to be ego space, and asking “Did you know . . .” can be interpreted as the other individual not having the intelligence or ability.

That is different from . . .

Saying “That is different from the way other situations have been solved” is a great and positive alternative to saying that something will never happen or isn’t possible. Using the phrase “that is different” doesn’t accuse or blame; it simply states a fact.

Suppose a customer is complaining on the phone and demanding more than a customer has received in the past. Rather than saying that what the customer wants is impossible, simply say, “That is different from the way we usually work through problems.” The information the customer gave has been acknowledged, and the customer service representative has refocused the conversation on the solution.

How might [problems] be solved?

Keeping the conversation focused on the future keeps the discussion positive. This phrase is especially useful when a conversation is focusing on excuses or things that have happened in the past that can’t be changed.

Although looking at facts is important for making critical conversations successful, the goal of a critical conversation is to change behavior — not just to present information.

This phrase also takes the burden off the initiator of the conversation. One person doesn’t need to have all the solutions to every problem, so asking for other alternatives is a good way to get buy-in and agreement on what will happen after the conversation ends.

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