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ARTICLE: 4 Things to Do Before a Tough Conversation

Updated: May 1, 2020


New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance Joseph Grenny and his colleagues have spent 30 years studying best practices for dealing with dreaded but crucial conversations. How they are dealt with predicts the magnitude of our influence, health of our teams, consistency of innovation, and strength of customer (and other) relationships. Unfortunately, the recurring observation is that when it matters most, we do our worst—cowering, coercing, obfuscating, exaggerating, contending and defending.

Research shows the primary predictor of success in a crucial conversation has to do with what you do before you open your mouth. Here are four things you must do to prepare. If you do them well, the odds your conversation will go well improve dramatically.

  1. Get your motives right. Under conditions of stress and threat, our motives become short-term and selfish—we want others to like us, we want to be right, win, avoid conflict. But short-term motives preserve the present by mortgaging the future. You can radically change your motives by thoughtfully answering these simple questions: What do I really want for me? For the other person? For the relationship? For other stakeholders?

  2. Get your emotions right. Unhelpful emotions are another second barrier to a productive conversation—we come in angry, scared, hurt, or defensive. And these emotions come from the story we tell ourselves about what they are doing. Prior to dismissing someone, managers will often tell themselves victim and villain stories, which help us justify any negative action we take toward the other by attributing evil or malicious motives—making the other person out to be deserving of suffering. Recognize and challenge the stories you tell yourself. Ask yourself, “What am I pretending not to know about my role in this?” and “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what he’s doing?”

  3. Gather the facts. By definition, we enter a crucial conversation with opposing views, and often, the conversation degenerates into contesting conclusions rather than shared information. Don’t start a crucial conversation by sharing your conclusion, but rather share the facts, data, premises, and logic that led you to your conclusion. Gathering the facts is required homework for a healthy conversation.

  4. Get curious. The most important attitude to bring to a crucial conversation is a blend of confidence and curiosity. We need to have thought through our position enough to have confidence that it has merit, and muster enough humility to be interested in any facts or logic that might improve our conclusion. When we listen deeply and sincerely, others feel less of a need to resist us in order to be heard.

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