Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Tackling the Right Crucial Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

How do you respond to work colleagues who complain that management never asks our opinion? I agree it’s good to get insight from management on how and why things are the way they are. But my coworkers seem to forget there are some things administration just can’t get everyone’s viewpoint on—because a consensus would never be reached.

I feel our administration does keep us in the loop as much as they can, and these childish attitudes from my coworkers are more frustrating and demoralizing than what they’re complaining about.


Done with Complainers

Dear Done,

Charles Kettering is often credited with the saying, “A problem well stated is half solved.” When it comes to crucial conversations, knowing what conversation to have, and whom to have it with, is more than half the battle.

The situation you find yourself in plays out hundreds of thousands of times a day in offices across the world. A coworker has a problem with someone else—whether with management, other coworkers, or a direct report—and rather than addressing that concern with the person, they come to you. There are a lot of names for this: venting, complaining, whining, etc. At VitalSmarts, we call them “drive-bys.” Rather than getting to the heart of the difficult conversations they need to have—in this case, expressing their concerns with management about hearing employee input—they drop into your office, share all their concerns, and look for sympathy. Then they leave, feeling they have said what they needed to say. In reality, they have completely dodged the crucial conversation they are responsible for having.

The question then is: what do YOU want to do about it? You have a few options and which one you choose will completely depend on what you really want—for yourself, for the other person, for your relationship, and for the organization.

Option 1: Commiserate

This is the easy option. You nod your head, and say soothing things like “I know. That is so tough.” You listen, and listen, and listen . . . until the other person finishes speaking. Then, you sagely say “It is what it is,” and you both go back to work.

The obvious downside of taking this option is, nothing changes. Ever. The pattern will repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And worse, you sacrifice your integrity as you pretend to agree with something just for the sake of keeping the peace.

Option 2: Defend

This option can be almost as easy, and certainly more fun, than option number one. In this scenario, you get to become the standard bearer of an administration done wrong. When you next see your coworker headed toward your office with a couple of tall, skinny, caramel macchiatos and a need to vent, you can gather together all of your righteous indignation and explain to your coworker that they have it all wrong. Management is great. They are doing their best. We as workers need to grow up and accept our role in the grand economic schema.

The obvious downside of this option is that you may end up alienating your coworkers and probably won’t be getting any more caramel macchiatos. Worse, you have taken on a responsibility that isn’t yours—defending management. Your responsibility is to own your voice and share your views. You don’t need to play defense just because a coworker chooses to play offense.

Option 3: Coach

In this option, you recognize that the real conversation that needs to be had—the right conversation—is between your coworkers and leadership. You are not a player in this conversation. But you can be an invaluable coach.

As a coach, your job should be to share a different point of view (in this case, yours) and suggest that your coworkers would benefit from having a direct conversation with management about his or her concerns. Now, we all know what the response will be: “Management never listens to us so what is the point of talking to them about how they never listen to us?”

This is where a great coach makes the difference. Most of us would say: “You’re probably right.” But a crucial conversation coach would help them see that this “management never listens” line is a story he or she is telling themselves. Help your colleague consider what it is he or she really wants and how best to share it, while listening to the other side as well.

Too often we think only about using crucial conversations skills in our own crucial conversations. We fail to recognize the power we have to teach, coach, and support others in using these skills.

So, don’t get caught up in thinking this is your conversation. It is not. But, it is a conversation you can help someone have. Understanding what the right conversation is, and whom it is with, will often get you more than halfway to a successful resolution.

Good Luck,


Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

9 thoughts on “Tackling the Right Crucial Conversation”

  1. George Cabe

    I think you’ve hit on a topic that should be brought to the forefront in Crucial Conversations training – the role of the coach. Many of the exercises in the training (at least back when I took the training) used role play with the two participants in the conversation and a third observer or coach. The follow-up to the exercises debriefed on the participants, but not so much on what the third party coach saw/felt. I think we find ourselves in a position to coach others through a crucial conversation more often than we might actually find ourselves participating in a crucial conversation. Its a valuable skill, its already part of the training, and you should capitalize on it

  2. elaineinderry

    This was good but I need more information about what is meant by “a crucial conversation coach would help them see that this “management never listens” line is a story he or she is telling themselves.” Can you give an example or some guidance?

  3. Tracy

    The writer is expressing her opinion of the situation, in the same way that her colleagues are expressing their opinions. So again, it’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. Everyone has an opinion.

    So my opinion of the actual situation is:

    It’s not as much about the decision as it is about the discussion. Who knows, it might actually be helpful for both sides.

  4. Chris Casey

    Emily, GREAT article and I totally agree that whether people play the accomplice or coach role in a “drive-by” is one of the biggest indicators of how dialogue driven an organization is or can be. Listening along in the hallway is sort of the oxygen that a silence culture, in particular, needs. A wise master trainer once told me that the social element of an organization is usually the difference maker in true, organizational change!

  5. Linette Voller

    This was a *great* article, thank you! I’ve certainly found myself doing both #1 and #2! I’d love a follow up article on some techniques for doing #3 gracefully!

  6. Rebecca

    The article “Art of Managing Monkeys,”
    discusses similar options for managers and stresses the importance of clearly communicating who is expected to do what AFTER the conversation. I was put in charge of group who had been managed by a “shoot the messenger” boss. Consequently the supervisors who reported to me started doing a lot of “venting,” which I took to mean that they wanted me to do something about it. I learned that was wrong and a mentor shared what he called the “care and feeding of monkeys” concept with me. I bought a toy called barrel of monkey (tiny plastic monkeys that can be linked to form a chain). I kept the barrel on my desk and explained the process to my reporting supervisors so that at the end of the discussion we both would know WHO owned the monkey (problem) and what if anything was going to be done to care for it. Monkey transfer was reduced and the subordinates seemed to be happier that they could vent when that’s all they really wanted, just someone to hear them out. While this is not exactly the same situation with co-worker venting some of the thought process could be applicable. Before deciding the option to take it might be worth finding out if the initiating co-worker just wants a shoulder to cry on or a mentor to champion their cause.

  7. Stu Peterson

    Good advice, practical. relevant. Thank you.

  8. Ginny Hoverman

    Right on, Emily, with your comments about how often we miss opportunities to coach others to more productive crucial conversations. I have many times commiserated (and probably added fuel to the fire) rather than offering a different point of view (“How true is that?” or “What’s another way of looking at that?”) You have provided a wonderful reminder to be alert to coaching moments–thank you!

  9. Having The Right "Crucial Conversation" In The Workplace » Activ:8 Career Coaching

    […] when I saw this question in one of their recent newsletters, I was very […]

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox