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Are you feeling frustrated by a secretary’s performance? Do you have a teacher that continuously undermines your decisions? Is there feedback you should be giving the parent of a defiant student, but you worry about her reaction?

While the scenarios in your building might vary, dicey situations like these call for crucial conversations. According to Patterson, et al. (2002), a crucial conversation involves a discussion between two or more people when three elements are present:

    1. Stakes are high.
    2. Opinions vary.
    3. Emotions run strong.

The inability to speak candidly about difficult issues can impede your effectiveness as a leader. Even worse, avoiding these conversations may breed poor health (yours and others’), erode organizational trust, and stifle progress. Experts note that the side effects from not engaging in a crucial conversation are far riskier than having the conversation and getting it wrong.

The best way to influence behavior is one conversation at a time. To move beyond the land of nice, you must speak your mind while minding how you speak. Consider five tips to communicate effectively at the times it matters most.

Tip 1: Start with the right motive. Before engaging in a difficult conversation, examine your personal contribution to the issue. High-risk discussions must start with the right motive. When a message comes from the heart rather than the head, it impacts the heart. In essence, check your ego at the door.

Tip 2: Give the conversation the time it deserves. One of the worst things you can do is schedule a time to meet with someone and then glance at your watch the entire time. Crucial conversations have to occur at the right time and place. Interruptions or distractions only accelerate and exacerbate bad feelings. If conditions aren’t right, postpone the conversation until you have time to be fully present—physically and mentally.

Tip 3: Let silence do the heavy lifting. A common mistake leaders make when initiating a crucial conversation is to do all the talking. But if you do all the talking, it takes the problem away from the other person. Even worse, you learn nothing about what’s driving their behavior. Silence is an invitation for the other person to speak. It gets you closer to underlying issues where more authentic dialogue can occur.

Tip 4: Invent a mutual purpose. Once you know what’s driving the behavior, hone in on compatible goals. If no compatible goals are discernible, invent a mutual purpose. For example, “It’s clear we both hold student learning in high regard.” Or, “We seem to both want Johnny to have the best classroom experience possible.” A mutual purpose moves the conversation past short-term compromises to longer-term commitments.

Tip 5: Don’t stoop to their level. You can’t let the bad behavior of others make you behave badly too. While it might be tempting to answer a nasty comment with a zinger of your own, stooping to the same level of nastiness serves no purpose. The nastier someone else acts, the nicer you should become.



Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw Hill.

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