Having a Crucial Conversation: Then What Happens?

Tonya had a difficult conversation with Alison late last week about the research she’d failed to do for their team marketing project. Tonya had been stressed out, but she felt ready. Employing various aspects of one of Arden Coaching’s favorite books, Crucial Conversations, things went well. A potentially explosive and emotional situation was defused and a truly productive, respectful conversation was held about work performance issues between Tonya and her direct report, Alison.

So now what?

Fortunately, Tonya had been working with her executive coach. She was fully prepared for the last, critical steps — making decisions and taking action. If no decision or no action plan comes from a crucial conversation, then nothing has really been achieved. You’ve talked, but it’s all been an exercise if there’s no “What’s next?”

What ARE the Next Steps?

Typically, moving to action involves deciding what to do, assigning tasks, documenting the work, and following through on agreed upon deliverables. Most people like this part of the process and look forward to it — we want to move to action. Often, however, this step is begun too soon, before all the parties involved in a crucial conversation are ready.

People need to navigate through all the steps of a crucial conversation — working their way through the full process, from recognition (“Am I Having a Crucial Conversation?”), starting with your heart (“Crucial Conversations — Focus on the Big Picture”), and creating a pool of shared meaning (“Having a Difficult Conversation? First, Fill the Pool of Shared Meaning”) to making it safe, and exploring others’ paths. 

If you move to action too quickly — or worse, if you decide what action you are going to take before the conversation even starts — you will probably not have all the information you need to make the best decision possible.

The Tricky Part… Deciding How to Decide!

Besides timing, the thorniest part of moving to action is deciding HOW to decide. Who picks and chooses what comes out of your pool of shared meaning, particularly when you honestly and genuinely disagree? Who defines the next steps?

Again, do not move to this step too quickly or too early in the process. When the time is right you will need to make it clear that the conversation is operating under one of three basic frameworks:

  • Command — I am communicating with you, however, I will decide what’s next.
  • Consult — I want us to mutually understand each other’s viewpoints, rationales, and opinions. Then I will make a decision, taking your input and perspective into account.
  • Consensus — We’ll talk this through until we can agree on our next steps.

Leaders often find themselves in a “consultive” mode with their direct reports. When there is disagreement, we have found it very effective to open things up, saying “OK, we disagree on this point. What do you think we should do from here?” Let the other person go first.

After Tonya and Alison moved through the parts of the conversation where they could readily build agreement, Tonya used the “What do you think we should do…” approach with the one or two remaining sticking points. Tonya made the final decisions on these points (and used some of Alison’s suggestions), but Alison felt involved, respected, heard, and — ultimately — on board and working on her performance issues.

Which form of “how to decide” are you using most frequently? Is there room for another style anywhere?

To learn more about leading difficult conversations and improving your leadership skills, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.