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How To Have Your Crucial Conversation

Many people in leadership positions struggle to have difficult conversations, not just those new to the roles, people who have been in a management/leadership position for years can still struggle to have the conversations that are needed within the organisation to help everyone improve. There are shelves lined with books by experts on the topic in libraries just waiting to be picked up or on Amazon or Audible just waiting to be downloaded and maybe you have tried them or maybe you feel a full book isn't for you. Irrespective of the reason, having that difficult/ hard/ challenging/constructive/crucial conversation still seems to be a challenge for you. 

Perhaps you fear that you just don't have the confidence, you believe you don't know enough to have the conversation, you are younger and don't feel you can have that discussion with an older more experienced staff member, you don't want to be uncomfortable, you don't want to make the other person feel bad, you don't want to be "that guy" who lays down the law or maybe you had a boss previously who would chew someone out in front of everyone else to make their point and you are determined that's not you. 

Irrespective of the reason you avoid having the crucial conversation there are steps you can take that will help with having the conversation which in the end benefits you, the individual you need to have that crucial conversation with, those around you and the organisation. 


Preparing for anything is a good idea but preparing for crucial conversation with someone is a great idea. here are some steps you should consider

Re-Frame the conversation

People who are nervous about having the crucial conversation tend to build it up in their mind to be a massive conflict. This means your body says Ok conflict.. great so we need a bunch of that adrenaline, better increased the old heart rate to get the oxygen flowing to the muscles so I can run or stay & fight so while we're at it better breath quite a bit. The next thing you know you are either having a full-on panic attack, sweating badly and now so conscious of your own body you decide not to have the conversation.

You need to Stop, just have a think for a minute, why does the conversation have to be a big thing, why does it have to be negative? you are basically providing feedback to someone so they can improve what they are doing, that's a positive. This is just a normal conversation that you are having so frame it in your mind that way, there is no need for combat here.

Plan.. just enough

It's good to plan who you would like the conversation to go, but don't spend too much time in your own head with it, that's the worst place in the world to play out a conversation! Don't try and script out the entirety of discussion instead note down the main bullet points of the crucial conversation you intend to have. Get a close colleague or friend to role play it with you (no need to dress up!) have they through curve balls at you since you can never plan for everything that the other person will do or say it's good to just practice some reactions and how to create a calm reaction with your best poker face. Just remember that you can only plan for so long before you have to just have the crucial conversation. Oh and remember to breath!

Arranging the Conversation

Again there are many many ways this can go, so here are some suggestions to go with depending on how serious and how instantaneous the conversation needs to be.

Never ever make a public show of arranging a meeting with someone to have a crucial conversation, it's grandstanding and you will put them first on the defensive then they will realise the best defence is attack and you are now in a no-win situation so just don't do it.

That said there are times when the conversation needs to be had there and then, it may just be a small conversation about "hey we don't operate or treat each other like that" in which case just talk the person to the side and explain the situation but again no grandstanding.

It is better to brief conversation to say hey look we need to talk about what I've just seen or about X or Y and I'd like to do that in a better environment than here so how about we catch up at X and talk about it.

Having The Conversation

You have prepared for this, you have your bullet points to act as your prompts and you are in a suitable area to have a normal discussion so you are good to go here are some tips to help you have the actual conversation well. 

  1. Clearly outline the reason for the need to have the crucial conversation so everyone is clear about the discussion.
  2. Approach the conversation as an Inquiry, by that I mean ask open questions to help you understand the other person's viewpoint, don't assume you know everything about the situation because you don't. Ask them to help you understand what has lead to getting to the discussion. Really listen to what they are saying, not so you can answer but so you can truly understand and hear what they say and what they don't say. Don't rush them, give them the time and space to talk it out, sometimes they are thinking about it as much as you as they go so this can lead to a slower pace, let them have it.
  3. Acknowledge that you have heard what they say and almost parrot back to them what they have said, phrases like " my understand of what you are telling me is.." "Am I correct in saying you believe this" allow the other person to either confirm or correct your understanding and lets them know that you are actually listening to them, they feel valued.
  4. When you are talking use I statements, "When I hear you say X" , "When I observe you doing Y", "I Feel / Think" this avoids put-downs or judgement and it is hard to disagree with what YOU believe or feel 
  5. Remember that nothing in the entire crucial conversation is about you so do not take anything personal during the conversation, anything the other person says is their opinion and as much about their beliefs.
  6. The conversation is entirely about behaviours so it is a factual conversation about what it and isn't acceptable, it's a matter of fact, most of the time you will be able to refer to a policy or a standard of decency.
  7. Explain the impacts of the behaviour, on the team, on the organisation, you, the individual. The person you are talking with may not see this and your job is to help them with that clarity. 

Closing out the Conversation

How you leave the conversation is as important as how you start it. I am not a proponent of the old band news sandwich where you squeeze the bad news in between two bits of good news or praise, why would you want to confuse the message so do not close out with the old "That said you are a valued employee" type statements, they are false and actually detract for the seriousness of the conversation. Instead, take these steps

  1. Summarize the discussion, from both viewpoints starting again with the reason for having the conversation then restate their points followed by yours.
  2. Outline your requirements of the person, what behaviours need to change and by when, the when is really important it make sit clear there is a deadline and that you are monitoring the situation.
  3. Outline what support you will provide to help the person meet the expectations - as a leader, this is your role, do not shy away from it be there to help
  4. Set a time for a follow-up discussion either as a coaching session for them or as a progress discussion.

Don't forget

It doesn't matter if your crucial conversation has been a 5-minute talk to the side or a full-blown session in a meeting room with the required witnesses, both discussions need to get noted down, dated and placed on file. The date is important, when having follow up discussions on the topics it's great to be able to produce a calendar of the events, being able to show the timeline just helps to re-enforce the conversation trail.

Put the follow-up reminder into your calendar system so that you get reminded about it, set the reminder for at least 2 days before the follow up so you can remind the other person about the follow up as well that way neither of you is caught off guard and unprepared.

In Summary

Having a crucial conversation with someone can be challenging but it is something as a leader you need to do. Not having it impacts the individual who is not performing since they may not know, your team and their moral, the organisation and how people view you in the organisation, continuously avoiding them diminishes your standing and ultimately any respect people may have for you so avoiding them isn't an option.

Getting yourself prepared is important but not too much, getting someone to act as a sounding board is really good and will help you normalise the discussion. Always make sure you outline why you are having the conversation and then listen to the person before having your say. Remember the crucial conversation you are having is to benefit everyone. Break it into sections, - Planning, Having the conversation, Checking it's understood and then following up (oh look a Plan Do Check Act loop!)

Have the crucial conversation and don't rob the other person of the benefit of your feedback and support. 

Get In Touch

If you need any support in process for havign a Crucial Conversaton we'd love to hear from you and understand how we can help you have those important discussions, just click here to make an appointment and find out how we can help you Make Things, Better

You can also call John on 0211649739 to set up a meeting 


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Saturday, 04 April 2020

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