The Power Behind Mastering Critical Conversations

Published: Oct 26, 2017
Modified: Jun 01, 2020

By Luanne Stevenson

Are there times when you postpone having a critical conversation with a peer, boss, customer, or direct report? Have you ever simply avoided such talks altogether?

It’s normal to feel anxious about having difficult conversations. However, you also understand they can be of vital importance to your success and the success of others. Avoiding these tough conversations when they’re necessary can mean ongoing problems for you and your organization.

Being an effective communicator is an important competency in business, and providing constructive feedback to others is a critical skill for success. The good news is that by learning the best methods for conducting critical conversations, you will increase your competence and confidence when initiating them yourself. You’ll also improve your ability to stay focused when others initiate them.

What is a critical conversation?

A critical conversation is any difficult conversation that can have a significant impact on you or someone else. Consider the key elements of critical conversations:

There is uncertainty. Not knowing how the other person will respond means you need to be strategic about the content of your communications and how you approach them.

Strong emotions can be triggered. When we are confronted with a perceived threat, our body’s natural fight-or-flight response often takes over. Similar feelings can are reproduced in critical conversations. This reaction shuts down our ability to engage in productive conversations. We tend to react emotionally instead of logically when our defenses are engaged, making it difficult to resolve the issues or problems.

The stakes are high. The issue or problem needs to be corrected and is of importance to the success of the person, project, department, or organization. Depending on the outcome of the conversation, careers can be impacted positively or negatively.

A model for having critical conversations

The following model for mastering the art of critical conversations will help you improve how you analyze the situation, prepare your approach, conduct the conversation, and achieve the results you intend.

  • State the specific issue, concern, or problem. This helps ensure that both parties are crystal clear about the issue and can hold an appropriate discussion.
  • Describe the impact (on you, the other person, your team, the organization, a customer). Knowing the impact the issue is having on others elevates its importance and the need to resolve it.
  • Propose your solution and desired outcome. Be prepared with a solution and keep other ideas in your back pocket for use in the discussion.
  • Listen to the other person’s feedback and discuss it further if needed. Make sure you understand the other’s experience of the issue and hold a dialogue to co-create the final solution.
  • Make agreements and thank the other person. Summarize and agree on a final solution and express appreciation for his or her willingness to discuss and improve the situation.

How can you benefit from this model?

When you put this model to use, you’ll be able to do the following:

  • Better identify situations that require critical conversations and plan for them accordingly.
  • Increase your confidence in conducting a critical conversation using an effective model that will help ensure intended results.
  • Notice your “hot buttons” and take steps to manage your emotions during a critical conversation.
  • Identify both difficult and simple opportunities for giving and receiving constructive feedback without causing resentment.
  • Better receive feedback without reacting negatively.

When you begin having critical conversations with increased awareness of the constructive impact they can have, you are more likely to initiate them, participate when someone else initiates them, and achieve the results you desire.

About The Author

Luanne Stevenson is president of Human Side Consulting. She has extensive experience in leadership, management, and employee development as a facilitator and coach. Stevenson’s mission is to provide customized solutions to individuals and organizations for improved organizational effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 and other public-sector companies. She also is a faculty member at American Management Association.