Crucial conversations and confrontations

Every now and then a normal conversation turns into crucial conversation. We have all experienced this. We are rational human beings usually in charge of ourselves, but sometimes we loose it.  We get angry, we raise our voices, we glare. We say things we later regret. Or we withdraw and say nothing. We fester and sulk.

Sometimes we handle crucial conversations well, but mostly we don’t. When we need to handle a conversation that matters most we are often at our absolute worst.

Purely by chance, three very important publications came to my attention. While browsing through the shelves in my favourite bookshop a cover caught my eye: Influencer.  The back cover advertised two publications: Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. I purchased the one and ordered the other two – all by Kerry Patterson and three co-authors.

On reading them my first reaction was if only these publications had been available at the start of my career and of my married life. On many occasions, I have been woefully inadequate in handling crucial conversations and especially confrontations. My focus as a consultant falls on assisting MDs who have a serious wish to take their companies to a higher level, to do so.  The authors, who are consultants, confirmed what I encountered in practice: Installing systems and processes alone do not improve performance. A crucial element is an intangible factor namely internal communications within an organisation. Not  normal conversations, as we can all handle such conversations.

Success is often dependant on how people handle crucial conversations. During any process of stress or change a normal conversation easily becomes a crucial conversation, as people simply become unsettled or anxious about new demands. Change disrupts routines and is often seen as an additional burden. Emotions easily run high.

What to do? First, accept that with rare exceptions, we are all to a lesser or larger extent inadequately prepared to handle crucial conversations or confrontations. However, do not make this an excuse. Second, work with the fact that nature has not designed us to handle crucial conversations or confrontations. When emotions run high, we tend to fight or take flight and not to handle high emotions “with intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness”.  Again, we should not use this as excuse. It is possible to acquire new understanding and skills.

The culture of the company has a large influence on the speed with which a team is able to adopt new processes and systems. Very often a few additional factors complicate life. In my experience, most MDs and managers are not as democratic as they would wish to believe. In fact, most are fairly autocratic. And very few communicate their ideas fully. Many are not good listeners especially if what others say does not support their points of view. And employees often withdraw into silence instead of speaking up.

Worst, good and best companies: The authors point out that “Within high-performing companies, when employees fail to deliver on their promises, colleagues willingly and effectively step in to discuss the problem. In worst companies, poor performers are first ignored and then transferred. In good companies, bosses eventually deal with problems. In the best companies, everyone holds everyone else accountable – regardless of level or position. The path to high productivity passes not through a static system, but through face-to-face conversations at all levels.”  Productive, respectful conversations.

The best companies develop the skills for dealing effectively with conversations concerning, for instance, productivity, diversity, quality and every other topic.

The authors point out that “companies that make impressive improvements in key performance areas are generally no different from others in their efforts to improve. They differ in what happens when someone does something wrong. Rather than waiting for a policy to kick in, or a leader to take charge, people step up, speak up, and thrive. Equally, if it’s the leader who seems to be out of line, employees willingly speak up, the problem is solved, and the company moves on.” Take note, if such conversations are handled skilfully.

How to define a crucial conversation? “It’s a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong”.  It concerns disagreements.

What is a crucial confrontation? Confrontations are about disappointments. “They are made up of failed promises, missed expectations, and all other bad behaviour. Confrontations comprise the very foundation of accountability. They start with the question: “Why didn’t you do what you were supposed to do?” They only end when a solution is reached and both parties are motivated and able to comply.” Well handled, problems are resolved and relationships benefit.

If you are experiencing recurring problems with conversations or confrontations, act.  Buy the two “crucial” publications. In my opinion, they merit a “must read” status. Develop an understanding of their content, master and apply the principles.  Both books will enhance anyone’s work and private lives.

In my next two posts I will provide a glimpse of some of the principles concerned.


PS. Visit and and check out the authors’ resources for more information. VitalSmarts has an excellent newsletter. Subscribe and determine whether you agree.


5 Responses

  1. A very well written piece Albert!

    I couldn’t agree with you more!

    The books are definitely a must read.

    It has helped such a lot in our organisation!!

  2. Hi Jacques – I am glad that you find the topic so relevant. It does take an effort to learn and apply the principles, but it is worth it.

    Practice, practice and make the principles your own. It will enhance your life and will benefit all your relations.


  3. Hi Albert
    I am working through Crucial Conversations right now and finding it powerful stuff. I like your emphasis in this note in the shared responsibility of everyone in the organisation to speak-up on failure to deliver. That behaviour alone would make such a difference, especially if everyone was good at catching others doing things right too.

  4. Hi Stephen
    You zoomed in on a crucial success component namely everyone has to take responsibility to speak up. Many thanks!

    I agree that one should build credits and demonstrate good intentions by noticing and praising good work. One’s factual comments when someone does not perform to expectations will be better accepted if one has a track record of being fair and of as a rule seeing both the positive and the negative. (See In Praise of Praising – an earlier post.)

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