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We all have lapses of sanity. That’s normal.
But the bad news is these lapses tend to come at the very moments when they can cause the most damage to both our results and our relationships. These are moments when you and I face a crucial conversation.
For example, in a recent poll, we asked readers of our book Crucial Conversations to identify the worst moments of public communication from the previous year. Top vote getters included Charlie Sheen’s comment about his bosses, “These guys are a couple of AA Nazis and just blatant hypocrites.” Charlie was fired afterward. And Anthony Weiner’s communication about sexting allegations. He said roughly, “No. No. No. No. No. Oh. Yes.” Weiner ultimately resigned.
Twenty-five years ago, my colleagues and I discovered that some of the most influential moments of our lives come when we must discuss high stakes topics with those who vehemently disagree with our views. But we also found that not everyone performed at his or her very worst when it mattered most.
We recently studied singular conversations that had life-long effects for 525 people. Participants identified high-stakes interactions that went either surprisingly well or terribly badly—and that changed the course of their lives to some degree. For example, on the positive side, one woman shared her conversation with an out-of-control airplane passenger that helped avert an emergency landing. Another respondent spoke up effectively to doctors and nurses to ensure a loved one received vital medical treatment. And another saved his job by threading his way through dicey issues with his boss.
But more often than not, subjects reported on conversations that left lingering pain and damage—one was disowned by her family, many ended up divorcing or otherwise dissolving a precious relationship, and others triggered the termination of long-standing business partnerships. Overall, two-thirds said the few minutes of these conversations led to permanent damage in a relationship. One in seven reported it crippled his or her career. And more than a third said that even many years later, they are still feeling effects from these crucial moments.
Our central question in studying these 525 conversations was the same one that led us kicking and screaming into a study of communication 25 years ago. Ironically, my colleagues and I had no interest in communication because we considered it soft and overstudied. But we wanted to know whether or not there were moments of disproportionate influence that profoundly affect people’s ability to achieve results.
In one early experience, we looked at manufacturing productivity in a factory. We identified supervisors who maintained stellar performance in an organization characterized by chronic mediocrity. In a matter of days, it was clear that the moments when these high performers deviated from the norm were moments when a vendor, another team, or a senior manager failed to perform. The majority of supervisors either blew it off or blew up. In contrast, these gifted few handled these performance conversations by candidly expressing their concerns in such a remarkably respectful way that the conversation actually strengthened the relationship rather than tearing it down. The way these supervisors consistently dealt with these frequent interactions separated them so dramatically from their peers that we were left wondering exactly what they did that set them apart.
Twenty-five years later, we continue to refine those findings as part of our study of crucial conversations. And yet, regardless of the field of choice, power, or position of the individuals in question, or the topic by which two parties may be at odds, we find that top performers demonstrate a consistent set of skills the rest of us lack.
One of the most fascinating questions we asked the 525 people who reported life-changing conversations was whether fate or choice determined these outcomes. The loud and clear answer from our subjects was choice. Most people could identify specific things they did wrong or right that they believe shaped the course and outcome of those pivotal moments.
According to respondents, the top three reasons conversations failed were:
1. Inability to control emotions. Many said they “lost it” and let their emotions get the best of them. In retrospect, they say there is much they could have done to moderate their emotions and keep things on a healthier plane.
2. Lack of safety, or inattentiveness to the psychological safety of the other person. Respondents reported that they could have done more to ensure that the other person understood their real motives in the conversation.
3. Silence and violence. Subjects said they tended to lose focus on their real goals and get sidetracked into defensiveness, revenge, or fearful withdrawal from the conversation.
At the same time, those whose tricky conversations led to positive outcomes could point out specific skills that helped. When we looked at the magnitude of the issues they discussed, we found these conversations no easier or simpler than any of the failed ones. The history, volatility, and stakes were dead even. The only difference was the outcome. Since our experience in the factory 25 years ago, we’ve seen again and again that those competent at handling these crucial conversations realize far different results.
The skillful communicators more consistently acted upon three things:
1. Safety. They repeatedly reaffirmed their real motives in the conversation and their respect for the other person.
2. Goals. They kept the real goals they had for the conversation top of mind—inoculating them from getting off track.
3. Focus. They sorted through the myriad distractions the conversation offered and zeroed in on the central issue of concern.
We’ve taught the skills we learned by watching those who consistently master crucial conversations to people around the world and have seen consistently improved performance—not just in their communication, but in their results. We’ve seen patients’ lives saved as hospitals taught nurses and doctors to surface crucial issues. We’ve seen manufacturing productivity increase as teams have learned to work more candidly and respectfully through disappointments and frustrations. We’ve seen customer retention soar at financial service firms as wealth managers began to address sensitive client issues more quickly and candidly.
Of course, a simple conversation doesn’t solve everything, but just imagine how 2011 might have been different for a handful of public figures. What if Anthony Weiner had been immediately forthcoming about his misbehavior? What if General Stanley McChrystal had shared criticisms directly with his commander in chief rather than with Rolling Stone magazine? What if Donald Trump—and a host of other political combatants—stuck to discussing facts and policies rather than calling people names, as Trump did in his tirade against Obama and other national leaders at a Republican Women’s Group in Las Vegas in April. Or what if Kanye West had bitten his tongue rather than ranted on stage at a music festival that he’s misunderstood and underappreciated, that “People look at me like I’m … Hitler.”
But the most hopeful thing we’ve learned in the past 25 years is that perfection is not the goal. Progress is. We’ve discovered that small progress in skillfully approaching these crucial moments leads to disproportionate improvement in the strength of our relationships, the health of our organizations, and our collective capacity to achieve what we really want.