Critical Conversations For Dummies
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Critical conversations lead to better relationships and productivity. The EDGE model for critical conversations calls for you to decide on options for moving forward, after examining data and acknowledging perspectives. So, after identifying during a critical conversation what's wrong, you're ready to talk about the desired actions or change, so all parties can work on finding possible solutions and alternatives.

Throughout the process, mutual agreements continue to be a priority and everyone should be ready to put action items on paper to mark a clear pathway to the desired outcome.

Identify desired behaviors during a critical conversation

After examining the critical issue, all parties should be ready to identify what should be happening to reach the desired end result. The transition from focusing on the past to focusing on the future can be as easy as saying, “Are you willing to walk through other ways to get the project moving faster?” or, “Are you ready to start looking at ways to move forward?”

The initiator can continue to be supportive but direct when identifying behaviors. If the critical conversation is about the performance of an employee, link these behaviors to what’s acceptable in the company or what’s expected for someone in his job or role.

As you share the list of desired behaviors, keep in mind that the behaviors should focus on something the receiver can do something about.

Discuss possible alternatives during a critical conversation

Follow these steps to find the best alternatives to the solution:

  1. List the different alternatives and discuss the pros and cons of each.

    Aim to list three or four possible alternatives (anything more can be overwhelming.

  2. Ask all the parties to state their preferences.

  3. State your own preference.

If preferences to the possible alternatives are still different, identify what everyone can and can’t support. Although all parties may not get their ideal solution to the problem, you have a strong opportunity to let all parties decide on the most favorable options that everyone can support.

Gain commitment by building agreements early in a critical conversation

Experts in critical conversations know that an agreement to move forward with a solution isn’t a single moment at the end of the discussion. By using critical communication skills, you build agreements throughout the dialogue.

By developing agreements along the way, no matter how small, you have a much higher chance of reaching the desired goals.

In the beginning of the conversation, the agreements may be focused on consensus about working toward a solution or even sitting in a room together to discuss what’s happening. At the end of the discussion, the agreements may focus on how to move forward and what behaviors will be expected in the future.

Keep a mental note of each agreement you make. If the conversation gets stuck or if emotions get high, back up the process by reinforcing the last agreement the group made, and proceed from there.

You may have instances when all the parties reach an impasse and can’t come to a conclusive agreement. In these cases, agree on how you’ll escalate the process through other channels.

For example, if the conversation is at a standstill, the recipient or the initiator may ask, “Do you think it makes sense to ask someone to help with the discussion? Maybe we can ask human resources or a facilitator to work with us.”

Make SMART agreements during a critical conversation

When you’re developing agreements on what to do next, it’s time to get SMART — that is, to set a goal that’s specific, measurable, agreed-on and action-oriented, realistic, and time bound.

SMART agreements help move a critical conversation from just talk to action. SMART goals (and agreements) are easy to understand, clear for all parties involved, and are able to be evaluated objectively. When an action plan is being created, take a minute to consider how SMART the agreement is:

  • Specific: Are the goals well defined to each party and clear to anyone who may read them?

  • Measurable: Will you know when your goal is achieved?

  • Action-oriented and Agreed-on: This A gets double duty. The goal of a critical conversation is to see a change in behavior or performance, and all parties need to agree on what will happen next. If all the parties don’t agree to next steps, you’re no better off than when the conversation started.

  • Realistic (and Risk): Is the goal realistic? If an employee is late to work, asking him to come in to work on time is realistic. If an employee isn’t creating a positive team environment, expecting him to be seen as a superstar in 30 days isn’t realistic, but asking him to use professional language in all his conversations is realistic.

    The R also stands for Risk, since the goal or change could be a challenge if the individual has to work outside of their comfort zone.

  • Time bound: When will the actions be accomplished? Have a clear deadline to make sure actions happen. A good rule of thumb when having a critical conversation is to have a 30-day timeline for the goal to be accomplished.

Here are examples of a not-so-smart and a SMART goal:

  • Not-so-smart agreement: A manager will make all of his employees happy.

  • SMART agreement: The manager will ask human resources to complete a feedback survey (specific and action-oriented) to gather information on how the manager can specifically improve by September 30th (time bound and realistic). And this agreement is measurable, because the manager will do it or not.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

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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