I have enjoyed reading your guidance. Your advice and books tend to assume an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM / phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act.
In these conditions, a conversation is more likely to turn crucial. That has happened to me recently. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation. Please describe how to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.
Living in the Real World
Dear Real World,
What a great way to describe this—a constrained crucial conversation! Constrained by all the realities of life. Here is what I love about your question: you are putting the power of Crucial Conversations to the test. If crucial conversations skills only work under ideal circumstances, they aren’t really all that valuable. If, on the other hand, crucial conversations skills can stand up to the test of real life, then they are of immense value.
Consider a spectrum of conditions in which you face a crucial conversation. On one end of the spectrum, you have the ideal conditions; on the other, you have the suboptimal conditions you describe above. When faced with those suboptimal conditions, it can be easy to use the situation as a rationalization for our silence: “I can’t have a crucial conversation with this person because it won’t be private, quiet, in-person,” . . . fill in the blank. Or, we attempt the conversation, it doesn’t go well, and then we use those suboptimal conditions to justify our poor results: “Of course it didn’t go well! It was so noisy, distracting, stressful,” etc. Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions to appear or using less than ideal conditions as an excuse, I would suggest you ask yourself, “How can I move along the spectrum, even a step or two, toward improved conditions?”
Ideal conditions are those that make it easier to engage in the core principles of crucial conversations: creating safety, mastering our stories, and encouraging others to share their meaning. They allow us to be present and focused, attuned to the responses of ourselves and others in the conversation. Certainly, those things are easier to do under some conditions than others, but if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can creatively solve most conditional challenges.
Here are four quick tips you can consider for some common challenging conditions:
1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds. We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.
2. Walk and talk. One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.
3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter. Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:
“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”
Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.
4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals. We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.
These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others. What other tips have you found for holding constrained crucial conversations in your life? There are more than 350,000 very wise readers of this newsletter. I invite you to share your experiences and tips with us by adding a comment below.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
One note: Some crucial conversations demand complete privacy. For example, a conversation in a hospital about a patient should not be held in a place where someone else might overhear confidential and legally protected information. In cases like these, you must delay the conversation until an appropriate location can be secured.
5 thoughts on “Crucial Conversations in a Crowd and Other Less Than Ideal Circumstances”
Just an observation/thought/question regarding the discussion on visual cues – “We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message.”
I was/am curious of the statement regarding non-verbals are the largest part of receiving a message. Some comments say as large as 70-80%.
I met with a person from a school for the blind and ask the question, “How well does a person do who was born with sight and is now blind in having a conversation?”. The response was, “As good as before, maybe better, because they have no distractions and have become better listeners.”
Do you, or your colleagues, have any updated information/studies on the impact of non-verbals, or lack thereof? Or, any other techniques for active listening when on a phone call in addition to the ones you had in your article? Thanks.
hi, I’d like to share one of my main take-aways after doing the Crucial Conversations course, that has become invaluable to me: I simply say (more than every before in my life!) “I apologize”. I wasn’t raised with that phrase, then I was married for 40 years to an angry man who always wanted to be right (making me wrong), which got my back up so I didn’t ever want to apologize…. sadly. This sounds so simple but it’s made such a difference to me! It really seems to impact people, maybe soften their hearts to what I’m about to say next…. I did that recently on both sides of an issue where I’d misunderstood; it’s kind of a way of taking responsibility for what’s gone wrong, even if it wasn’t 100% my fault…. the more I say it, the more I like it! 🙂
A couple of other positives about the walking conversation: walking together re-enforces the idea of moving together towards a resolution; walking gets the blood and air supply moving a little faster, which can help counter the monkey brain we often experience in stressful situations.
Thanks for the suggestions when conducting phone conversations and visual cues and feedback aren’t available. I like the “more and fewer words” directions as well. This will help with some of our Talent Coaches who have to conduct meetings with employees about feedback information without being at the same site.
I have been in situations like an all day long meeting or team retreat where I needed to have a crucial conversation, but there was not time for a walk and nowhere to have a conversation without other colleagues noticing and overhearing. I would be interested in suggestions on how to have a crucial conversation during those circumstances.