Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Crucial Conversations Over the Phone

Dear Crucial Skills,

I can’t believe I’m asking this question, because it seems antithetical to everything you talk about in your books, but is it ever possible to have a crucial conversation over the phone? So many of us are working in “virtual” companies, where much of the day-to-day work is done in conference calls and over a long distance, and face-to-face time is hard to arrange—sometimes for months in a row. It seems like when things don’t go well with these telephone relationships, it is really hard to figure out what to do!

If it is possible to have a crucial conversation over the phone, are there any tips for how to make it work without the critical facial expression/body language components?

Hung Up

Dear Hung Up,

You’re right in asking the question. You do indeed need to think twice before handling a crucial conversation over the phone. Routine conversations are full of information—both verbal and nonverbal. High-stakes conversations are even more likely to contain both unspoken and spoken messages. In fact, when it comes to high-stakes discussions, sometimes you can gather as much from people’s tone, delivery, and body language as you can from their words. This ability to divine a full battery of information can be particularly important if the person you’re talking with is intimidated by your position or expertise. You may have to see them in action to catch their reluctance to disagree or their unwillingness to complete an assignment.

Unfortunately, as you’re suggesting, phones don’t give you the visual data that you so sorely need. So what’s a person to do?

First, talk face-to-face whenever possible. Don’t use the phone and never use e-mail to conduct a crucial conversation. Far too many people use the computer or phone to save them from getting up from their work station and having a tête-à-tête with a direct report, boss, or coworker. Either they don’t believe that it’s important to conduct high-stakes and emotional discussions in person or they choose convenience over effectiveness. Either way, according to a recent study we conducted, more than 87 percent of those surveyed admit that using high-tech means to resolve a workplace confrontation has not been effective in their experience. And 89 percent say e-mail, text messaging, and voice mail can get in the way of good workplace relationships.

But we’re still left with your question: What do you do when all you have is the phone?

First, be aware that you’re operating without one of your senses. Since you can’t see the other person, pay particular attention to what you can hear. Listen for pauses that indicate the other person isn’t feeling safe. Pay attention to tone, pacing, and vocal tension for signs that the person is feeling stressed. Listen for words that indicate hedging or whitewashing.

If it does seem as if the other person is nervous or isn’t speaking frankly, remember your safety skills. Apologize when necessary. Contrast to fix misunderstandings. Seek mutual purpose and maintain mutual respect. Ask, “Does that make sense or am I missing something here?” Invite differing views.

To ensure that you yourself are not too tense and thus confounding the climate, relax your grip on the phone. Sit back and take in what the other person is saying. Breathe deeply, place a smile on your face, and seek to understand the truth in what the other person has to offer. This helps you move from debate mode to conversation mode.

Second, go public with the problem. Explain that you’d rather hold the conversation face-to-face but you can’t, so you want to take special care to ensure that both parties are heard. Emphasize that you desire to work through the problem in a way that satisfies both of you.

Third, continually check for understanding. It can be easy to assume that the other person has comprehended your point of view when you can’t see his or her look of confusion and all you’re getting is silence. Ask if your explanation made sense. Own your responsibility by asking: “Did I explain that well or should I take another pass at it?”

Fourth, summarize every few minutes. It’s easy to forget some of the content when you’re listening carefully to both the content and the delivery. Stop and summarize key points along the way or they may get lost.

Finally, check and see how the phone conversation is working. You explained at the beginning that it wouldn’t be as easy to hold the crucial conversation over the phone, so stop at least once and ask if it’s going alright. If it’s not, check to see what isn’t working.

Once again, if your only way of talking to the other person is over the phone, then be on your best phone behavior. Otherwise, walk, bike, drive, or fly over to the other person’s work site and talk face-to-face. It’s always the best option.

Best of Luck,

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