How to handle difficult business conversations

Picture this scenario: You’re a manufacturer who designs and sells customized products. A customer’s order was shipped last week and was supposed to arrive yesterday, however the shipment was not delivered. Your client calls you and starts panicking because the product they ordered was required to fulfill a promise for one of their clients.

This is an important conversation that can go one of two ways:

  1. The client becomes upset with you and your business, damaging the relationship’s integrity and potentially losing future business opportunities; or
  2. The client trusts that you and your company are competent in resolving the problem in a timely manner, restoring confidence in the relationship.

The way that you communicate during conversations determines which outcome unfolds. So, how should you respond to the customer’s panic?

The 3 Most Important Steps to Take in Crucial Conversations

As Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Swizler discuss in ‘Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High’ most people either clam up and become uncertain about responding, or they get defensive and argumentative with the client.

The authors stress the importance of leadership and being prepared in order to communicate effectively. This happens by skilfully addressing ‘emotionally and politically risky issues’ otherwise known as ‘crucial conversations’. In order to derive positive results from a conversation, the authors deem that the most important steps are to:

  1. Be cognizant of the emotional level of the situation;
  2. Create a safe atmosphere for sharing; and
  3. Encourage forward-moving dialogue.

How you communicate is always more important than what you are communicating. Crucial Conversations highlights the fact that high stakes communications are an art that require special attention to emotions and behaviour in a moment of stress.

So how do we make crucial conversations a cake walk? By preparing to have productive conversations, we can invite positivity, curtail undesirable behaviours and outcomes, and arrive at a win-win situation. Piece of cake, right?

The Point Where Crucial Conversations Fail

It’s so easy to fail at having crucial conversations because we justify our actions with our feelings in the moment:

  • We sometimes let our desires and impulses take over and they cloud our judgement.
  • We believe it’s okay to get defensive with the client, for example, because they have accused our company of being disorganized.

Retaliating and feeding off emotions only serves to derail a conversation. With the one-sided goal of being right, rather than coming to an unbiased solution, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to come to a beneficial outcome.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”
– George Bernard Shaw

This quote taken from Crucial Conversations further illustrates that we miss the opportunity for a productive conversation with others because we focus too much on our own emotional fulfilment. We believe that successful conversations end with us being right.

How Emotions and Mental States Affect Crucial Conversations

Canadian government funding provisions in Canadian federal budget 2016There are two important mental states that impair one’s vision during a conversation:

  1. Silence; and
  2. Violence.

If you think back to my example of a client who’s called and begun to panic, we could say that he is in a state of violence because he is reacting adversely towards the company. The opposite of this, a state of silence, would involve the client masking his annoyance or withdrawing from the conversation all-together. Both reactions, of course, are dangerous for business.

Your goal during a crucial conversation should be to focus on how your objective aligns with the other party’s objective. Your goal should not emphasize your desire to win, to be right, to avoid embarrassment, or get back at someone for their actions. Rather, searching for common ground in the dialogue will lead to actions that benefit all parties involved.

Filling the ‘Pool of Shared Meaning’

Crucial conversations are all about finding common ground, and helping the other person understand where you’re formulating your ideas from will help lead towards a positive outcome.

Each person brings their own opinions, feelings, and experiences to each situation we face. This can be thought of as our own personal ‘Pool of Meaning’. When we enter a crucial conversation, however, there is a ‘Pool of Shared Meaning’ that draws on the opinions, feelings, and experiences of two or more people. Handling these conversations successfully requires all parties to work together to fill this pool without becoming violent or silent.

Filling the Pool Requires Taking Action

‘Filling the Pool of Shared Meaning’ is most easily done when all parties are able to contribute to the pool. Think about how long it would take to fill up a swimming pool if only one hose was feeding it water. This is what happens when parties of crucial conversations become silent or violent.

When a member of the conversation becomes silent, there are several people that have come to fill up the pool, yet only one or a couple of hoses are working. It would take a long time to get enough water to deem the project a success! Parties need to work together to turn on the other hoses and fill the pool more quickly.

Likewise, when a member of the conversation becomes violent, it makes other members less effective. In the example of ‘Filling the Pool’, it’s like the violent member has a significantly larger hose than the rest of the members filling the pool. The person is so concerned about their own inputs that they fail to realize the way it affects others. This reduces the ability of others to contribute towards a solution, and ultimately the crucial conversation fails.

Collaborating During Crucial Conversations

Reducing Scope Creep in your Canadian Small BusinessMentor Works’ team of Government Funding Planners were recently visited by The Making Box – Improv for Business gurus from the Guelph, Ontario region. The workshop honed in on the essential concept of collaboration and group effort by creating the same sort of ‘Shared Pool of Meaning’ in our office.

All of the improv workshop’s activities focused on how using the power of affirmation, especially phrases that begin with the word “yes,” resulted in the accumulation of several new ideas. One activity specifically demonstrated that responding to an idea using “yes, and” increased productive conversation; while phrases beginning with “yes, but” halted the production of new ideas and did not invite new thought.

Continuing Crucial Conversations by Building Ideas

Here was the activity: in one large circle, a team member introduced a simple idea, such as “we should all go out for lunch”. From here, the team member beside them had to first negate the idea by using “yes, but” responses, (for example, “yes, but I’m a vegetarian”). Next, the group supported the idea by using “yes, and” (for example, “yes, and we can also get dessert”).

The exercise demonstrated that phrases beginning with “yes, and” assure a foundation of trust and safety, and explicitly, the addition of the word “and” encourages new thought and inspires productivity. “Yes, but” is a dangerous phrase that leads to a ‘Fool’s Choice’, the bad decision that we can avoid by inviting others to help fill the ‘Pool of Meaning’.

In essence, crucial conversations come down to how well we can collaborate with others. All parties have to be active in the conversation in order for ideas to flow and results to transpire.

Keep Your Dialogue Moving Forward at All Times

Crucial conversations help us to examine our own thoughts, experiences, and emotions and compare those to confirming or conflicting positions. Being able to listen effectively and react in a calm, non-violent way will ensure that a positive resolution can be found.

Business leaders should keep these points in mind and apply them to their organizations. Do you have particularly tough clients, employees, or other stakeholders that occasionally need a crucial conversation? Listen intently, don’t let your mental state derail the conversation, and keep the conversation moving forward by building on ideas.

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Cailey holds a Bachelor’s of Education degree from Nipissing University as well as an Honours French degree and Adult Education diploma from the University of Waterloo. Her link to education has equipped her with extensive training and communication knowledge and she relishes in leading professional development discussions.

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