Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Avoid Sugarcoating

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

I have found that applying the concepts in Crucial Conversations works well, and that the ability to convey an important crucial message and maintain relationships is very helpful in the work setting; however, I sometimes struggle with the concern that I am “sugarcoating” an inherently tough message. How can I “make it safe” even when the results of the conversation will most likely be negative, such as talking about serious performance issues, letting an employee go, etc.?

Straight Talk

A  Dear Straight Talk,

What a great question! Your question shows you are right on track with trying to achieve the essence of dialogue—absolute candor coupled with absolute respect. Far too many times people go through Crucial Conversations Training and emerge with a dangerous misconception. They believe the point is to be “nice.” And for them, “nice” means understating their point.

We once gave managers a test of their crucial conversations skills. We asked them to imagine a friend handed them a brief passage from the friend’s forthcoming book. We gave them an actual passage to read, then asked them to write their thoughts about the writing, and of their friend’s intention to quit her job and become a full time author. The passage they read was so bad that they were merciless in describing their opinions of it. “Drier than dirt!” or “Pointless” were common characterizations. When asked about the friend’s prospect for improvement, they typically said, “You can’t get there from here. Whoever wrote this has no hope of improving enough to make a career of this!”

Then we asked them to practice giving their feedback to another person in as effective a way as they could. The results were shocking. After writing “Drier than dirt” they would say, “This could use some improvement.” After writing “No hope of a career!” they would say, “It could take a lot of work!” Can you see what’s going on here? They’re making the classic “sucker’s choice.” They fundamentally believe that, if they were completely candid, they would destroy the relationship—or irreparably harm the other person.

The most important challenge Crucial Conversations offers the world is the challenge to find a way to do both—to be both 100% honest and 100% respectful.

Now with that as your goal, there are two things to keep in mind as you measure your crucial conversations progress:

Volatility is not honesty. Some people think that if their affect doesn’t match their message, that they’ve sold out. It could be that you are doing a terrific job—and are not sugarcoating—but that in the past you were more vociferous, loud, and demonstrative. Now you worry that without the added volume, people might mistake your message. If that is the case, worry no more. The show of emotion many people use during their crucial conversations often undermines their message rather than enhances it. It can come across as an attempt to control or manipulate others and distracts from the power of the message itself. That’s not to say the ideal is to be emotionally flat. All I’m suggesting is that excessive emotion is not a measure of candor—it’s crossing a line into something else. You can say it respectfully and somewhat calmly, and have all the power with none of the defensiveness.

The measure of success is not that they like—or even agree with—the message. You ask, “How can I make it safe when the result of the conversation is going to be negative?” That very question demonstrates a misunderstanding of this key point. Dialogue does not mean everyone is happy at the end. It just means they are able to hear you and understand your point of view—and in the end, see how a “reasonable, rational, decent person” might think what you think—even if they disagree. There are times when your conversation might lead someone to revise their view of themselves, their world, etc. and that revision can be painful. They may want to deny the truth of what you share for a period of time in order to forestall the painful revision, but if the conditions for dialogue are present in the conversation, you’ll significantly increase the likelihood that they will eventually get there.

Years ago, I had a crucial conversation with an employee where my message was, “You’re fired.” I sat down with my employee and explained the facts of the situation. He had committed a crime. It was just before the Christmas holidays and I was sick at the thought of how his dismissal would affect his family. I was also in agony over the effect his criminal proceedings would have on him and his family. But the truth was the truth. I laid out the facts and asked him if there was any other reasonable way to interpret them. His shoulders slumped and he confessed to what he had done. I told him I was letting him go as a result of that offense. And then I added, somewhat choked with emotion, “I am sorry. I love your family and I know this will break their hearts. I will help in any way I appropriately can through this.” I then elaborated on some ways I thought I could help. He went to jail. His family suffered. And yet a year after he got out of jail, I was happy to receive a note from him thanking me for how I handled things and reporting on the better direction of his life.

He did not like my message. But he heard it. And because he felt safe with me—felt I cared about his interests and cared about him—he was more capable of contemplating what I was sharing with him. That’s the measure of whether we get it right.

Best wishes to you in your ongoing effort to do the same!

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