What makes one of your conversations crucial as opposed to plain vanilla? First, opinions vary. For example, you’re talking with your boss about a possible promotion. She/he thinks you’re not ready; you think you are. Second, stakes are high. You’re in a meeting with four coworkers and you’re trying to pick a new marketing strategy. You’ve got to do something different or your company isn’t going to hit its annual goals. Third, emotions run strong. You’re in the middle of a casual discussion with your spouse and he or she brings up an “ugly incident” that took place at yesterday’s neighborhood block party. Apparently not only did you flirt with someone at the party, but according to your spouse, “You were practically making out.” You don’t remember flirting. You simply remember being polite and friendly. Your spouse walks of in a huff.
Crucial Conversation – a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.
When it matters most, we do our worst
When conversations matter the most – that is, when conversations move from casual to crucial – we’re generally on our worst behavior. Why is that? We’re designed wrong. When conversations turn from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble. That’s because emotions don’t exactly prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.
Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidneys pump adrenaline into your bloodstream. You don’t choose to do this. Your adrenal glands do it, and then you have to live with it.
And that’s not all. Your brain then diverts blood from activities it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting and running. Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less. As a result, you end up facing challenging conversations with the same intellectual equipment available to a rhesus monkey. Your body is preparing to deal with an attacking saber-toothed tiger, not your boss, neighbor, or loved ones.
What do you have to work with? The issue at hand, the other person, and a brain that’s drunk on adrenaline and almost incapable of rational thought.
We act in self-defeating ways. In our doped-up, dumbed-down state, the strategies we choose for dealing with our crucial conversations are perfectly designed to keep us from what we actually want. We’re our own worst enemies – and we don’t even realize it. Here’s how this works.
Let’s say that your significant other has been paying less and less attention to you. You realize he or she has a busy job, but you still would like more time together. You drop a few hints about the issue, but your loved one doesn’t handle it well. You decide not to put on added pressure, so you clam up. Of course, since you’re not all that happy with the arrangement, your displeasure now comes out through an occasional sarcastic remark.
“Another late night, huh? I’ve got Facebook friends I see more often.”
Unfortunately (and here’s where the problem becomes self-defeating), the more you snip and snap, the less your loved one wants to be around you. So your significant other spends even less time with you, you become even more upset, and the spiral continues. Your behavior is now actually creating the very thing you didn’t want in the first place. You’re caught in an unhealthy, self-defeating loop.
Most leaders think that organizational productivity and performance are simply about policies, processes, structures, or systems. So when their software product doesn’t ship on time, they benchmark others’ development processes. Or when productivity flags, they tweak their performance management system. When teams aren’t cooperating, they restructure.
Research shows that these types of nonhuman changes fail more often than they succeed. That’s because the real problem never was in the process, system, or structure – it was in employee behavior. The key to real change lies not in implementing a new process, but in getting people to hold one another accountable to the process. And that requires Crucial Conversations skills.