Dear Crucial Skills,
My supervisor says that she uses the skills taught in Crucial Conversations. However, she always starts a “Crucial Conversation” by being abrasive and making false accusations. She will say she is seeking the truth through dialogue, but then she sticks to her false accusations and disregards attempts to shed light on the matter. I now have a horrible impression of Crucial Conversations, but something tells me she must not be using the process correctly. What am I missing?
You’re not missing anything. You are spot on. It seems your manager is not using the skills correctly. It sounds as though she is mistaking holding a Crucial Conversation for holding an effective Crucial Conversation. Most people go about their days having Crucial Conversations all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re handling them well.
A Crucial Conversation is simply one in which stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. A Crucial Conversation held well is one in which each party feels safe to share their perspective and can do so respectfully despite the crucial conditions. Our experience and research show that handling Crucial Conversations well results in better decisions, better results, and improved relationships.
In your short question, there are some common mistakes in using Crucial Conversations skills that I want to address.
Don’t mistake abrasiveness for honesty. It’s common for people to avoid being “too honest” for fear it will hurt another’s feelings. We call this the fool’s choice—the belief that we must choose between being honest or respectful, but that we can’t be both. This error is based on a misunderstanding about what it means to be honest. Being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean, or “letting off steam,” and showing those emotions has nothing to do with honesty. Being honest is about expressing what you think. Honesty is about being specific and direct, not angry. Being mad doesn’t make someone more authentic. So, you don’t have to raise your voice to be honest. But if you want to communicate honestly when emotions run strong, you do need skills to state the observable facts of the situation as facts and to share your perspective as perspective.
Avoid accusations, but don’t hold back from sharing your stories. You mentioned your boss’s tendency to accuse. Many accusations stem from people’s perceptions about why someone is doing what they are doing, which are grounded in stories about a person’s motives. This can result in accusations like “You’re always late,” or “You never care,” or “Your department is a joke when it comes to on-time delivery.” Instead, we teach you should share your concerns as YOUR concerns, not as irrefutable facts. The beliefs about a person’s motives are your story. So, share your story as a story, not as a fact. Try saying things like, “The last three meetings you’ve been late and I’m wondering about how important this is to you,” or “When you don’t speak up in the meetings, it seems like the topic isn’t interesting to you.”
Focus on psychological safety, not comfort. I’m guessing the way your boss talks makes you feel uncomfortable. But does it also make you feel unsafe? The term psychological safety is used a lot today, and it’s important. But I think many people mischaracterize what it means. Promoting psychological safety doesn’t mean to make people feel comfortable. It means helping them trust your intent—and having good intent—as you engage in a Crucial Conversation. Hearing someone’s honest perspective isn’t always comfortable, but it shouldn’t be demoralizing. There is a difference between feeling comfortable and feeling safe. If a person can’t handle feeling uncomfortable in conversations, they will be limited in life. We all face uncomfortable conversations where safety remains intact. Psychological safety is threatened when people or their viewpoints are disrespected or disregarded.
It takes time to get good at holding Crucial Conversations effectively. I think most people would agree it’s one of those things you work on your entire life. Maybe your supervisor recently attended a course or read the book and has newfound confidence to speak her mind but still has a lot of work to do in developing the skills, which is different than knowing what the skills are. The best way to know would be to learn, study, and practice the skills yourself. I think this would not only improve your impression of Crucial Conversations, but also your relationship with your supervisor and your ability to communicate with her.