Critical Conversations For Dummies
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During critical conversations, the way in which people deliver their message comes down to style. You might have a passive communication style, or something else. Individual communication styles and behaviors can greatly impact the message, so most people realize that they may have to adapt their personal style during critical conversations.

The message you want to deliver during a critical conversation and the way in which you deliver it are equally important.

People who are passive communicators resemble introverts; they may speak more slowly and be more careful of how and what they say. Often, they don’t voice their own needs and opinions. Passive communicators often avoid expressing their ideas or feelings.

Passive communicators are almost the polar opposite of direct communicators, often using a calm and quiet voice, reserved body gestures, and listening more than talking. All these traits are wonderful in a genuine leader, but because critical conversations focus on mutual agreements that move behaviors and relationships forward, not speaking up for your own point of view can impede a critical conversation.

Although passive communicators may want to work on expressing their ideas, other styles can learn great qualities from this communication style. They’re often seen as polite, allowing others to speak and ask many questions. As an expert critical communicator, your goal is to make sure their voices and opinions are heard and not pushed to the side.

Here’s what a critical conversation may look like if one party is a passive communicator:

Messenger Marvin: “Hi, Paul. I wanted to talk with you about a potential problem with the project.”

Passive Paul: “Okay.”

Marvin: “Based on the numbers from last quarter, we’re going to have to cut the spending by 30 percent.”

Paul: “I understand. What can I do to help you?”

Marvin: “I think you’ll need to cut all your contractors out of the budget. Can you do that?”

Paul: “Of course. Anything to help.”

At face value, this conversation looks civilized and really not that critical. After all, no one’s emotions get out of hand, and Paul seems to be in complete agreement with Marvin.

Unfortunately, Paul never gives an alternative idea, even though he may have better ways to save the money. Passive communicators often feel that their needs aren’t as important as the needs of others. Although this approach may be great for avoiding conflict, it doesn’t work well for developing mutual agreements that make a difference.

If Paul steps out of his passive style and becomes more assertive, here’s how the conversation may go:

Messenger Marvin: “Hi, Paul. I wanted to talk with you about a potential problem with the project.”

Passive Paul: “I’m happy to discuss the problem. What’s your concern?”

Marvin: “Based on the numbers from last quarter, we’re going to have to cut the spending by 30 percent.”

Paul: “I understand. I have some ideas that may help cut the spending.”

Marvin: “I’m listening.”

Paul: “Based on our results, it looks like our project scope has gotten out of control. The team is putting in overtime because we’re trying to implement two solutions, when originally we were just doing one . . . .”

Paul still maintains his gentle approach, but with one sentence he speaks up for his ideas and concerns, instead of letting another individual drive the entire conversation.

If you’re a passive communicator, or if you’re working with a passive communicator, this table offers a few tips to make sure that everyone hears the passive voices.

Behaviors of a Passive Communicator
Behavior What You May Observe How to Adapt If You See This Behavior What to Do If You Behave This Way
Silence or little active participation Sitting quietly, not speaking up or chiming in with ideas. In a group setting, during a break ask for any questions or ideas one on one. In one-on-one situations, let the silence happen because passive communicators often like to process complete thoughts before talking. Come prepared. If you’re leading a conversation, have notes on what message you want to deliver. If you’re on the receiving end of a conversation, ask what information you can contribute to the conversation. Perhaps ask, “I’m not sure what to say. Can you let me know what information I can provide?”
Complete agreement, avoiding any conflict Sometimes passive communicators nod along in agreement instead of speaking up. Ask probing questions like, “This looks like a good solution. What’s missing?” or, “I think this is a great path to take. Can we think of an alternative to compare it to?” Asking for options can be intimidating to a conflict-adverse passive communicator, so try to use the terms other or alternative rather than best or better. Speak up. If you’re afraid to voice your opinion, ask others what can be done to strengthen agreements.

If you’re working with passive communicators, try to minimize the risk for them to participate. Passive communicators often feel that their needs and ideas aren’t as important as others. They may also feel that voicing their concerns will cause conflict.

Create a safe environment during the conversation by establishing that the information you discuss stays in the room. You may also want to encourage parties to participate in the conversation by holding a brainstorming session to get ideas rolling.

Watch out for passive-aggressive behavior. Although passive communicators tend to avoid conflict and often go with the good of the group, some passive communicators repress feelings of anger or resentment.

The passive-aggressive style may agree in the moment but sabotage the solution later. Gaining agreements throughout the conversation on next steps and clarifying that the message is understood can help prevent this sabotage.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Christina Tangora Schlachter, PhD, is a Certified Professional Coach. She has created and taught courses on communication skills, crucial conversations for new managers, communication for professionals, and dealing with difficult conversations. She is the coauthor of Leading Business Change For Dummies and is the Chief Leader of She Leads.

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