When it comes to personal and professional relationships, the four words “We need to talk” can sound threatening and unsettling. And while no one has directed them to me lately, I recently had a few crucial conversations with people in both my personal and professional lives.None of these conversations were comfortable, but all of them were necessary. These crucial conversations took vulnerability, patience, a willingness for us to share our feelings and thoughts openly and honestly while listening to the other person’s perspective. I know that the thought of having a crucial conversation might sound daunting or like something reserved for big and important situations- but they aren’t. We have crucial conversations every day on just about everything. So, what makes a conversation crucial?
In the book Crucial Conversations, a crucial conversation is defined as one where there is discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. Based on this definition, a crucial conversation could be about the decision to take the COVID-19 vaccine (or not) or talking with a sibling about caregiving for a family member with a serious health diagnosis. Other examples of crucial conversations we might have include ending a relationship; talking to a coworker who behaved offensively; asking a friend to repay a debt; giving your supervisor feedback they may not like; dealing with a rebellious teenager and confronting a loved one with a substance abuse problem. Regardless of what your issue(s) might be, we can all agree that having crucial conversations can be tough.
According to the authors of the book, when we feel the need to have these crucial conversations, we can do one of three things: we can avoid them, we can face them and handle them poorly, or we can face them and handle them well. But how does the average person usually respond? Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. We often hold things inside by going silent until we can take it no longer—and then we drop a bomb. From my own experience and that of others around me, people usually get upset and lose sight of the issue(s), emotions take over, angry words are spoken, and the situation escalates far beyond what the initial issue(s) might have been.
Therefore, according to the authors, we move between silence and violence where we either don’t handle the conversation, or don’t handle it well. And while we may not become physically violent, we attack others’ ideas and feelings. When we fail to have crucial conversation, every aspect of our lives can be affected (positively or negatively)—from our careers to our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health.
The Cost of Silence
Let’s face it, crucial conversations can be challenging, especially when you want to communicate your needs, share bad news, challenge how work is being done, ask uncomfortable questions, or openly discuss matters which everyone knows but no one want to talk about. Despite the importance of crucial conversations, we often back away from them because we fear we’ll make matters worse. For example, how many times have you left a voicemail instead of waiting to talk to the person? Or texted a decision rather than have a face-to-face conversation? How many times have you seen coworkers send emails to each other when they should walk down corridors to talk to each other? Crucial conversations are necessary for both people and organizations to grow and thrive.
When and where this does not happen – silence kills. This is perhaps best summed up by the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that says “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Afterall, how often have you observed team members slacking off and no one said anything. Or seen couples in conflict withdraw into from each other due to differences in approaches to parenting or finances? In both situations, it’s not the disagreement in approach or the lack of productivity that will cause the biggest problem and damage. The most far-reaching damage to the relationship and organizational productivity is typically caused by silence -when no one does or says anything.
Is there a way to avoid the silence or violence approach? Absolutely. Rather than suffering in silence or lashing out and hurting ourselves and others, the authors of Crucial Conversations recommend that we engage in dialogue to get all the relevant information into the open. While having dialogue can be difficult and risky, it creates a space for people to express their opinions, feelings, and thoughts openly and honestly even when there is disagreement. Because when we do this, we create what is called “a pool of shared meaning.” This pool of shared meaning gives us the ability to talk, listen and act together rather than making assumptions (See last post) and some of the unhealthy communication patterns that some of our crucial conversations fall into.
So, can we learn the skills to improve our ability to have dialogue and crucial conversations?
Yessssss! All of us have the ability to learn the skills that will enable us to have crucial conversations, stop toxic and unhelpful communication practices and habits and engage in more healthy interactions. To learn more about these strategies, check out next week’s article – How to Resist Silence and Violence with Crucial Conversation- Part 2.
Until next time, Remember, ItsaLearningLife!