When Nicole O’Brien got certified to teach Crucial Conversations in June 2011, she planned to teach the course to General Services Administration (GSA) employees throughout the Midwest. But after a reorganization transferred her team to the central office in Washington, D.C., O’Brien and her now-retired teammate Nancy Smith lobbied to make the course available to all of GSA’s 12,000 employees throughout the United States and its territories.
Thanks to their vision, the dialogue skills taught in Crucial Conversations have been incorporated within many organizations across GSA, the agency responsible for supporting the U.S. federal government’s real estate, technology, and acquisition.
“As public servants, our job is to serve the American taxpayer and work as effectively and efficiently as possible,” O’Brien said. “These tools allow us to work together more successfully, resolve conflicts when they arise, and achieve higher quality results.”
What that learning looks like, however, has evolved with changing needs. Whether teaching virtually or in person, whether to a general audience or specific teams or executives, O’Brien and her colleagues have adapted their facilitation format to consistently deliver Crucial Learning content. That means sometimes delivering the sessions over multiple weeks, adjusting to the needs of the learners that could not have attended the more traditional delivery.
During Fiscal Year 2023, O’Brien and GSA’s other five certified trainers delivered a combined total of 14 Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue sessions to 240 learners, including project managers, architects and engineers, contracting officers, and IT professionals, among others.
“When your job is to maintain federal buildings, teaching yourself communication skills can be the last thing on the list,” O’Brien said. “It was the success of the content, and the amazing feedback we received from students (e.g., this should be mandatory training for everyone!) that allowed me to advocate for adding certified trainers and expanding the delivery. It’s still a work in progress of course, but it is something I am so proud to be at the forefront of across the agency.”
One of the earliest innovations O’Brien made was to offer virtual courses, which she did before it became the norm following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Working for a government agency, we have to be very cognizant of the money we spend,” she said.
Offering virtual courses removed costly airfare, hotel rooms, and per-diems. These courses brought together GSA employees from all over, too. In one session, O’Brien had learners from California, Hawaii, Guam, and New York, for instance.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, O’Brien was ahead of the curve. GSA went to mandatory work-from-home conditions overnight—“You couldn’t go into the office even if you wanted to,” she said—but she was able to continue delivering Crucial Conversations in a time when those skills mattered most.
“Not only could I deliver the class, it was also about all of the things that everyone was actually experiencing in the moment: not feeling safe, not being able to speak up, not being able to figure out how to talk to their family members about play dates and masking and all of that stuff,” she said. “So I really think it was the content that showed our agency that we can do hard things and do them really well because we have this foundation. The teams we had already taught this to were more able to transition and pivot to a virtual world. The people we’d trained in this content time and time again came back and said, ‘I’m not perfect, but I’m better.’”
As she’s looked for ways to extend learning beyond the classroom, O’Brien said she’s explored a microtraining approach that’s worked well for a pilot group in the Pacific Northwest. During their leadership meetings, this group of around 45 managers builds upon their learning by splitting into trios and practicing Crucial Conversations skills using deliberate practice scenarios O’Brien and her colleagues create.
“It has become a culture shift for these leaders, and it is not uncommon for me to hear them using the language—such as ‘The story I’m telling myself is,’ ‘that sounds like a villain story,’ ‘let me share my intent with you,’ ‘silence versus verbal violence,’ etc.—during their leadership meetings,” she said. “It’s absolutely beautiful!”
While measurement can be challenging, O’Brien said she looks at evaluation responses to see whether learners plan to use the skills and if they now feel more comfortable holding their starter conversation.
“When we see a problem or a Crucial Conversation, how quickly do we not only identify it but also handle it right?” she said. “How quickly do our people step up to those difficult conversations and not let them languish? It’s not just about identifying, oh, that’s a Crucial Conversation. It’s about having the skills and feeling comfortable and confident enough to speak up.”
That’s the goal for O’Brien and the team. Tailoring the training for her organization and people is helping them achieve it.