The two riskiest times in crucial conversations tend to be at the beginning and at the end. The beginning is risky because you have to find a way to create safety or else things go awry. The end is dicey because if you aren’t careful about how you clarify the conclusion and decisions, you can run into violated expectations later on.
Decide how to decide
Before making a decision, the people involved decide how to decide. Don’t allow people to assume that dialogue is decision making. Dialogue is a process for getting all relevant meaning into a shared pool. That process, of course, involves everyone. However, simply because everyone is allowed to share their meaning – actually encouraged to share their meaning – doesn’t mean they are then guaranteed to take part in making all the decisions. To avoid violated expectations, separate dialogue from decision making. Make it clear how decisions will be made – who will be involved and why.
When the line of authority is clear
When you’re in a position of authority, you decide which method of decision making you’ll use. Managers and parents, for example, decide how to decide. It’s part of their responsibility as leaders. For instance, VPs don’t ask hourly employees to decide on pricing changes or product lines. That’s the leaders’ job. Parents don’t ask small children to pick their home security device or to set their own curfew. That’s the job of the parent. Of course, both leaders and parents turn more decisions over to their direct reports and children when they warrant to responsibility, but it’s still the authority figure who decides what method of decision making to employ. Deciding what decision to turn over and when to do it is part of their stewardship.
When line of authority isn’t clear
When decision-making authority is unclear, use your best dialogue skills to get meaning into the pool. Jointly decide how to decide.
The 4 methods of decision making
This happens in one of two ways. Either outside forces place demands on us, or we turn decisions over to others and then follow their lead. We don’t care enough to be involved – let someone else do the work.
In the case of external forces, customers set prices, agencies mandate safety standards, and other governing bodies simply hand us demands. As much as employees like to think their bosses are sitting around making choices, for the most part they’re simply passing on the demands of the circumstances. These are command decisions. With command decisions, it’s not our job to decide what to do. It’s our job to decide how to make it work.
Consulting is a process whereby decision makers invite others to influence them before they make their choice. You can consult with experts, a representative population, or even everyone who wants to offer an opinion. Consulting can be an efficient way of gaining ideas and support without bogging down the decision-making process. At least not too much. Wise leaders, parents, and even couples frequently make decisions in this way. They gather ideas, evaluate opinions, make a choice, and then inform then broader population.
Voting is best suited to situation where efficiency is the highest value – and you’re selecting from a number of good opinions. Member of the team realize they may not get their first choice, but frankly they don’t want to waste time talking the issue to death. They may discuss options for a while and then call for a vote. When facing several decent options, voting is a great time saver but should never be used when team members don’t agree to support whatever decision is made. In these cases, consensus is required.
This method can be both a great blessing and frustrating curse. Consensus mean you talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision. This method can produce tremendous unity and high-quality decisions. If misapplied, it can also be a horrible waste of time. It should only be used with (1) high-stakes and complex issues or (2) issues where everyone absolutely must support the final choice.
How to choose
Now that we know the 4 methods, let’s explore which method to use at which time – along with some hints:
- Who cares?
Determine who genuinely wants to be involved in the decision along with those who will be affected. These are your candidates for involvement. Don’t involve people who don’t care.
- Who knows?
Identify who has the expertise you need to make the best decision. Encourage these people to take part. Try not to involve people who contribute no new information.
- Who must agree?
Think of those whose cooperation you might need in the form of authority or influence in any decisions you might make. It’s better to involve these people than to surprise them and then suffer their open resistance.
- How many people is it worth involving?
Your goal should be to involve the fewest number of people while still considering the quality of the decision along with the support that people will give it.
Ask: “Do we have enough people to make a good choice? Will others have to be involved to gain their commitment?”
How will you follow up?
Always agree on how often and by what method you’ll follow up on the assignment. It could be a simple e-mail confirming the completing of a project. It might be a full report in a team or family meeting. More often than not, it comes down to progress checks along the way.
If you want people to feel accountable, you must give them an opportunity to account. Build and expectation for follow-up into every assignment.
As you review what was supposed to be completed, hold people accountable. When someone fails to deliver on a promise, it’s time for dialogue. Discuss the issue by using the STATE skills. By holding people accountable, not only do you increase their motivation and ability to deliver on promises, but you create a culture of integrity.
Advice for Tough Cases
“I don’t know what to do. I’m not sure I can trust this person. He missed an important deadline. Now I wonder if I should trust him again.”
The danger point
People often assume that trust is something you have or don’t have .Either you trust someone or you don’t. That puts too much pressure on trust. “What do you mean I can’t stay out past midnight? Don’t you trust me?” a teenage may inquire.
Trust doesn’t have to be universally offered. In truth, it’s usually offered in degree and is very topic specific. It also comes in two flavors – motive and ability.
Deal with trust around the issue, not around the person.
When it comes to regaining trust in others, don’t set the bar too high. Just try to trust them in the moment, not across all issues. You don’t have to trust them in everything. To make it safe for yourself in the moment, bring up your concerns. Tentatively STATE what you see happening. “I get the sense that you’re only sharing the good side of your plan. I need to hear the possible risks before I’m comfortable. Is that okay?” If they play games, call them out.
Shows a pattern
“It isn’t a single problem. It’s that I keep having to talk with people about the same problem. I feel like I have to choose between having a nag and putting up with the problem. Now what?”
Learn to look for patterns. Don’t focus exclusively on a single event. Watch for behavior over time. Then STATE Your Path by talking about the pattern. For example, if a person is late for meetings and agrees to do better, the next conversation should not be about tardiness. It should be about his or her failure to keep a commitment. This is a bigger issue. It’s now about trust and respect.
“My teenage son is a master of excuses. I talk to him about a problem, and he’s always got a new reason why it’s not his fault.”
With “imaginative” people, take a preemptive strike against all new excuses. Gain a commitment to solve the overall problem, not simply the stated cause. For instance, the first time the person is late, seek a commitment to fix the alarm – and anything else that might stand in the way. Repairing the alarm only deals with one potential cause. Ask the person to deal with the problem – being late.
“So you think that if you get a new alarm, you’ll be able to make it to school on time? That’s fine with me. Do whatever it takes to get there on time. Can I count on you being there tomorrow at eight o’clock sharp?”
Then remember, as the excuses accumulate, don’t talk about the most recent excuse; talk about the pattern.
“My children are constantly playing word games. If I try to tell them that they shouldn’t have done something, they say I never told them exactly that. They’re starting to get on my nerves.”
The danger point
Sometimes parents (and leaders) are tricked into accepting poor performance by silver-tongued individuals who are infinitely creative in coming up with new ways to explain why they didn’t know any better. Not only do these inventive people have the ability to conjure up creative excuses, but they also have the energy and will do so incessantly. Eventually they wear you down. As a result, they get a way with doing less or doing it poorly, while hard-working, energetic family members (or employees) end up carrying an unfair share of the load.
This in another case of pattern over instance. Tentatively STATE the pattern of splitting hairs and playing word games. Let them know they aren’t fooling anyone. In this case, don’t focus exclusively on actions, because creative people can always find new inappropriate actions, “You didn’t say I couldn’t call her ‘stupid’.” Talk about both behaviors and outcomes. “You’re hurting your sister’s feelings when you call her ‘stupid’. Please don’t do that, or anything else that might hurt her feelings.”
Use previous behavior as an example, and then hold them accountable to results. Don’t get pulled into discussing any one instance. Stick with the pattern.
Crucial Conversations are not about communication, they are about results.