Courageous Conversations

Author: John Koloda, BComm, CLU, CFP, CHFC, RHU


Management wouldn’t be management if everything went smoothly every day. All managers’ lives are punctuated with those moments where crucial conversations need to be held between themselves and members of their staff, business partners, or clients.  Just thinking about these one on one’s can be totally nerve-racking. And let’s be honest, many among us will try just about everything to avoid them!


We won’t pretend to be experts on the subject and pop up magic tricks to make crucial conversations simple and perfectly efficient. If we may, we would suggest you take a look at the recent edition of the bestseller:


Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High

 by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler (2nd edition, 2012).


Their work, based on many studies and a vast array of testimonials, proposes concrete steps to efficient dialogue when emotions run high, whether in a personal or professional context.

  • What is a “crucial conversation”?


Patterson et al. define three basic ingredients for crucial conversations: opinions vary between the protagonists, stakes are high and emotions run strong. Examples of these would be when a leader and his business partner differ in opinion on an important matter that could change their business orientation or when an employee feels cheated by his boss because he didn’t get the raise he felt was more than warranted for his work. In these circumstances and others alike, a leader will recognize that silencing the situation is just not an option. Something needs to be done…and it is not necessarily going to be easy.

  • What are the signs that a crucial conversation needs to be held?


A well-advised leader is sensitive to the changes in his work environment, especially when it comes to the morale of his employees, of his staff and of his clients. Changes in employee motivation, in productivity, in attendance, open criticism, etc. are all signs that something is not running smoothly and needs to be addressed sooner than later.

  • What is the purpose of a crucial conversation?


If we go back to Patterson et al., we learn that the main purpose of holding crucial conversations is to establish dialogue. And dialogue is all about the free flow of meaningful information between two or more people. If two people (or more) start sharing information, ideas, thoughts, endeavours, etc. without fear and with trust, then they are better able to find creative and satisfying resolutions to the challenges they face. They avoid “fighting” over the issues or “flying away” into silence, two strategies that Patterson et al. describe as being devoid of success most of the time.

  • How should crucial conversations be conducted?


We did say that handling such conversations was not easy or innate. Patience, preparation and practice make perfect!


For a start, as Patterson et al. suggest, a leader needs to make the conscious effort of being very clear with what he really wants to accomplish during the conversation. And that purpose comes not only from the intellect but also from the heart. In almost all circumstances, the true endeavour will be to preserve the relationship and build on it. If that is your true intent, then the behaviours you will choose to adopt during the course of the conversation will be consequent with this aim. In other words, as manager, you will not give in to uncontrolled anger, or vengeful silence that would only serve to compromise the relationship.


The best leader will also seek to create a “safe” forum where both parties will be able to speak their minds openly. That may mean:



  • stepping out of the conversation when it becomes overheated in order to clarify mutual purpose and make sure the other understands that genuine care is given to their viewpoint and motives;


  • choosing the right “timing” to hold the conversation;


  • apologizing when respect has been violated;


  • explaining both: what you intend or mean AND what you don’t intend and mean. Patterson et al. call this technique: contrasting;


  • becoming watchful of the “stories” you tell yourself and others to defend or justify your standpoint. Some of these “stories” serve to put the blame on others or position oneself as a poor victim without any power or responsibility.


  • How should a courageous conversation unfold?


There is not one precise script that will fit all sizes of crucial conversations but some guidelines can be useful:


  • Non accusatory introductions that state purpose and genuine concern for the other person: “I’ve noticed lately that you come in late in the morning and leave early at the end of the day. That seems to be a new pattern in your work habits as you were always very punctual in the past. I’d like us to talk about this because this change preoccupies me as your leader. Now, please get me right here, I don’t want to pry in your life as you may have personal circumstances that explain this but as your leader I do need us to talk about what can be done to correct this. Your work here is important to the team and I’d like to help you with this.”


  • Asking for the other person’s viewpoint: “I’ve pretty much told you where I want to go with this situation but I’m certainly interested to hear your stand on this. Your input is always valuable.”


  • Talking in a tentative mode: “I was wondering if you had given thought to coming in earlier 3 days a week in order to compensate for leaving earlier in the afternoons?” “Perhaps you were unaware of our recent change in company policy…but I would appreciate if you would modify your approach in accordance with this change so that we are all on the same page.”


  • Presuming good faith: Let’s be honest: who really wants to do a poor job? What proportion of individuals are really ill-intended? Not a very large one indeed. So why not keep that in mind when the conversation overheats. A proposed mantra could be: “The other person is as well-intended as you are.”  


  • Setting an action plan at the end of the conversation. There can be advantages to setting a trial period for a consensus that is still “fragile” rather than casting it into stone. For example: “Let’s try this approach for the next 2 months and evaluate what it provides us in terms of return; then, we can adjust consequently”.


How you handle crucial conversations certainly influences how you are perceived by your followers, business partners and clients.


It is a key management tool that probably takes a lifetime to master but is well worth the efforts invested.