Critical Conversations For Dummies book cover

Critical Conversations For Dummies

By: Christina Tangora Schlachter Published: 03-25-2013

The easy way to communicate best when it matters most

Most people are aware of the importance of handling critical conversations well. However, when it comes down to actually being in a difficult situation that calls for key communication skills, many do not know how to practically apply their own thoughts.

Critical Conversations For Dummies is a step-by-step reference for the variety of crucial conversations life presents in the workforce. It's packed with strategies for preparing for high-stakes situations; being persuasive (not abrasive); knowing the value of assertive communication; resolving failed promises and missed deadlines; maintaining morale when firing staff; getting new employees off on the right foot; managing staff relations and strengthening team relationships; understanding audience needs and motivations to get positive results; altering confrontational language to cooperative language during difficult conversations; and building relationships in the face of conflict.

  • Improve communication skills in crucial conversations
  • Avoid common pitfalls and emotional tendencies
  • Discover the benefits of success in crucial conversations

This book is especially relevant to the hundreds of thousands of leaders who are tasked with multiple duties, whether addressing complex problems from stakeholders or achieving exceptional results from staff.

Articles From Critical Conversations For Dummies

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54 results
Critical Conversations For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 03-22-2022

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.

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Solutions to Critical Conversation Problems at a Glance

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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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Ten Minutes to a Critical Conversation

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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.

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Five Ways to Build Rapport during a Critical Conversation

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

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.

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Quick Tips for Stopping Me-versus-You Language in Critical Conversations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Critical conversations filled with pronouns like me, I, or you may quickly turn divisive and non-inclusive. Me-versus-you language turns ordinary conversations into battles by focusing on the “us versus them” mentality. Although you may come to a critical conversation with a genuine desire to make things better, not everyone is going to be in the same camp, at least not at the beginning. Recognize that this may happen and be prepared for it. Using the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our” when you’re talking about decisions and agreements can help create an environment of support and inclusion. Me-versus-you language is often rooted in different opinions of how to solve a problem or what the problem is in the first place. For example, the individual may say, “You just don’t understand how hard it is for me to do my job,” or “You aren’t working with these people on a day-to-day basis.” In these situations, it’s often useful to agree that there are different opinions or ideas and to acknowledge that the other party may be right. You can acknowledge behaviors and words neutrally by saying, “You may be right. You may be facing a situation I’ve never been in before.” These statements address the problem without judgment. Next, restate the purpose of the conversation and find out whether the other person is willing to work with you. You may try using pronouns like “we” and “us” to show your commitment to working together to solve the problem. For example, say, “I want to help make the situation better. Are you willing to work together to solve the issue? I know that if we work together, we have a better chance of solving the situation we’ve faced in the past.”

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Tips for Stopping People Who Blame Others during Critical Conversations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

People who play the blame game during critical conversations love to avoid responsibility by throwing the blame around. If you want a critical conversation to be successful, you must learn to corral people who blame others and avoid taking any responsibility or ownership for anything. Someone who blames others is often doing one of two things (sometimes both): hiding his own insecurities or just trying to get away with doing nothing. If someone is insecure about his job, abilities, or skills, do your best to build rapport and let him know that you’re there to help — not to lay blame. But if someone is just trying to get away with doing nothing, you may also employ two other stealth tactics. First, you can simply say that you’re confused about why there’s so much blame when the goal of the conversation is to gain a clear understanding of what’s happening and to find potential solutions — not to harp on who did or didn’t do what. Ask the individual to take a break from pointing fingers and to focus on the process. And, of course, you can always play the humor card. If you play it without being sarcastic or blaming others, humor can help redirect the blame, For example, try saying, “It seems like there’s plenty of blame to go around — I’m wondering whether there are just as many ideas for solving the problem.” In some cases, especially in a group conversation when the blame game starts, you may need to take a break and talk off-line about the consequences of blaming others.

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The Role of a Timekeeper in Critical Conversations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Everyone plays a role in critical conversations, even the guy who keeps time. The timekeeper tracks time’s passing, and how long a critical conversation is taking. The watch-checker is the evil and a bit outdated twin of the phone-checking guy or texting gal. The timekeeper is the individual who not only checks his watch but also lets you know exactly what the watch says. Following a two-point strategy can help put the time keeper and you at ease: Appreciate and recognize the timekeeper’s value. Although some corporate cultures are notorious for always starting five minutes late, do your best to start conversations on time and to end on time. This may mean building in a few extra minutes for discussions and late arrivals. Thank the timekeeper for keeping the meeting on time, and offer to schedule a conclusion to a meeting when needed. As a facilitator or initiator of the discussion, use the last ten minutes (more if you have a bigger group) to review the agreements that were made during the meeting, and go over the next step after the conversation. Yes, this may mean breaking up a critical conversation, but that’s a better option than rushing through agreements, opinions, and decisions that come apart soon after the meeting anyway. However, if the timekeeper is preventing the meeting from moving forward, it may be best to deal directly with this as a challenging behavior.

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Tips for Handling Defensive People in Critical Conversations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

People naturally defend themselves and their opinion when they receive feedback during a critical conversation. But when someone’s on the defensive, how can you steer a critical conversation back on track? When someone goes on the defensive, don’t back down — doing so undercuts the conversation. Instead, recognize the individual’s opinion and ask him to focus on the purpose of the meeting before defending his position. For example, you may say, “I can see how you may have strong opinions about the feedback. I’m hoping we can work together to get clarity on the real reasons for the issue, and then we can look at the pros and cons of possible solutions.” By delaying the defensive reaction, you may find that the other individual starts to understand the rational facts, instead of just voicing his emotional reaction. State what’s happening and explain that conflict over problems, solutions, and ideas is natural. Then ask whether the other person is willing to focus on gaining a clear understanding of the problem before making judgment. If the defensive behavior is focused on everything that could go wrong or what went wrong in the past — talk about what could happen and what is possible. For example, you could say, “I see that there are many reasons why things didn’t work in the past. This conversation is about fixing these issues in the future. Are you willing to focus on the future and what can be done to make change happen?” This statement doesn’t discount the past, but it’s really hard to make excuses for things that are going to happen in the future. It may also be helpful to have a back-up plan for all the items on the action plan. If you have a clear plan for what to do when something unexpected happens, you can limit the number of excuses you may hear in the future.

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Tips for Tempering Others' Emotions during Critical Conversations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Emotions can take over a critical conversation, causing it to quickly lose its focus. How can you refocus a critical conversation that’s being overshadowed by strong emotions? When the other party or parties in the conversation are so upset or emotional that they can’t focus on tasks, the conversation may come to a screeching halt, or worse, turn into a complete wreck. First, don’t get caught up in the emotions — even if you completely agree or disagree with the agreement — or try to force decisions. Sometimes progress on finding solutions or even discovering the problem can’t happen until the emotion is resolved or at least dealt with. There is tremendous value in dealing with the emotions because it can lead to progress. Second, call a spade a spade. Name the feeling, emotion, or behavior you’re experiencing or sensing in the room. By simply saying, “I sense there is tension in the room,” you open the possibility of others wanting to resolve that tension or even recognizing its presence. After you voice the feeling, you or the facilitator can help the team agree on ways to address the emotional situation first and then get back to the purpose of the meeting. This step often looks like a critical conversation within a critical conversation. Recommend to the group that it examine and acknowledge the feelings and opinions of others, and then make a decision about whether the meeting or discussion can continue. Finally, if you’re in a large group conversation, ask that everyone support others who may be emotional. Some people are better at dealing with the emotions of highly charged situations, and some people need to cry it out. If you’re in a one-on-one conversation, simply state (and mean) that you understand or at least recognize what the other person may be feeling.

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Quick Tips for Handling Offensive People in Critical Conversations

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

During critical conversations, a person may become offensive, dominating the conversation. Even when discussing a problem one-on-one, a person who takes the offensive during a critical conversation is not open to the idea of solving the problem together. In both situations, offensive people can get in the way of making progress during critical conversations. There are various ways in which someone might go on offense during a conversation. Perhaps the individual is pushing buttons or being overly aggressive. If you’re in a group conversation, try to redirect the conversation by asking others to participate in the discussion. First, acknowledge their participation and then turn to others in the room and ask, “How about the rest of you? What are some of your views?” An offensive participant can become dominating quickly, so try to diffuse the situation by actively including others. If you’re having a one-on-one discussion and the individual starts going on the offensive, perhaps by telling you what you need to do (“You need to be a better manager,” “You need to give me more time,” or “You need to brush your teeth more”), acknowledge his statements, and then turn the discussion back to the purpose. For example, you may say, “I recognize that I can do things differently to support you. If you feel confident that we have a clear understanding of the problem, let’s look at what you, I, and we can do together to make things better.” Acknowledge that improvement isn’t a one-way street, but in the end the other individual needs to be willing to take responsibility for changing his behavior (with your support, of course).

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