I am the ombudsman for a network of schools and took the Crucial Conversations course three years ago. About the same time, a company executive publicly praised the ombuds office while privately trying to undermine it—and me.
The executive told me several department heads had said I “needlessly encroached on their time and was not effective in my position.” I requested some details, and the executive promised to get back to me in “two weeks.”
About a month later, I was approached by the president of the company regarding the accusations. The executive had gone to the president without getting back to me as promised. Now I would have to talk with the executive, and this would be a crucial conversation: the stakes were high, there were conflicting points of view, and emotions were raw—mine anyway.
I was to attend the Crucial Conversations course within a couple weeks and decided to put off the conversation. The course emphasized some points whose importance had not registered when I read Crucial Conversations. Specifically, I was reminded of the importance of maintaining the goal of the conversation clearly in mind. This proved to be vital because I was upset and could have easily veered from solving the problem to punishing my interlocutor.
Another simple protocol, but just as important, was the formula for starting a crucial conversation: 1) state the facts, then 2) explain how the facts could lead to certain conclusions, and 3) request that the other party share how they see it. These were precisely the tools I would need for the conversation ahead.
When I finally sat down with the executive, I mentioned the president of the company had come to me about the accusations. I explained I was surprised, since I was expecting the executive to get back to me as agreed. After reviewing and agreeing on the basic facts of the case, I commented that since s/he had always been so positive regarding the ombuds office, I wondered if it were possible to translate those positive sentiments into a more positive collaboration. After all, going to the president to report unsubstantiated accusations didn’t help me improve—if that’s what was needed—or resolve the alleged problem.
This marked a noticeable turn in the conversation. The executive’s tension subsided, the atmosphere changed, and, without prompting, the executive offered me the information I had requested in our first meeting. In the end, the complaints had been exaggerated and were easily cleared up. More importantly, the relationship with the executive was fine from that day forward.
Because I have training in conflict management, I probably have more experience than most in handling difficult conversations. But conflict management courses tend to be theoretical and difficult to apply, especially when emotions run high. In contrast, Crucial Conversations provides a “conversation etiquette” that is immediately applicable, especially in difficult situations. The methodology has had a profound effect on the efficacy of my work and has helped me turn volatile situations around. ◼
The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the storyteller and do not reflect the view of VitalSmarts.
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