Our founder, known around the office as simply ‘B’, is a voracious reader of books about all things business and leadership. In this column she each week shares the key points from one of her latest reads.

As a leader your days often include a number of challenging conversations, whether it is a talk with a direct report who isn’t keeping commitments, a meeting to understand and address a project road block or providing honest feedback on a plan proposed by a peer. To do so successfully requires an ability to foster and engage in an open and honest dialogue about such emotionally and politically risky issues.

That is easier said than done though. Many people back away from tough conversations. They for example send an email instead of meeting face to face to address a sensitive issue or they change the subject when a conversation gets too heated.

A great book on how to better handle difficult conversations is “Crucial Conversations” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, who define a crucial conversation as ,“A discussion between two of more people where 1) stakes are high, 2) opinions vary, and 3) emotions run strong.”

Here are my notes on some of the key takeaways from this insightful book:

Three key conditions for enabling successful crucial conversations:

At the core of every successful crucial conversation lies the free flow of relevant information: When we enter a conversation we each have our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. Only if every person shares their information and ideas, can the group as a whole make a better choice than each of the individuals could have on the basis of just their own information and ideas.

However, if for some reason not every party shares their ideas and information, then individually smart people can collectively decide stupid things. So, to foster dialogue you need to first and foremost enable all parties to freely share their information and ideas. This means that you have to make it safe for everyone involved to share their points of views, even if some of those are controversial, wrong or at odds with your own views.

Ensure all parties involved in the crucial conversation know that they are pursuing a mutual purpose: Crucial conversations often go awry not because others dislike or disagree with what you say, but because they distrust your motives for saying it. To overcome this, all parties need to know that they are working towards a mutual purpose and that you care about their goals, interests and values. And vice versa.

A shared goal provides a healthy climate for talking. For example, if your direct report believes your purpose for raising a delicate topic about his performance during your weekly 1:1, is to put him in his place, then the conversation is doomed from the outset. If he believes you really care about helping him become a better manager, then you may have a chance at a successful crucial conversation.

So, before you start a crucial conversation you need to examine your motives and the motives of the other parties and look for mutuality. However, just knowing that you have a mutual purpose isn’t enough. You need to make it explicit, so everyone is truly on the same page

Practice deep mutual respect: Without mutual respect there can be no crucial conversation, because the instant people feel disrespected, the conversation for them becomes about defending their dignity, rather than mutually resolving an issue.

That is easier said than done though, because people who passionately believe in their own points of view, usually struggle to respect those with differing views. However, the key to being respectful of people with differing views is to practice empathy and truly seek to understand the reasoning for their point of view – even though you may still disagree with it.

Counter your own and other’s dialogue undermining tendencies:

When faced with pressure and strong opinions during crucial conversations, we often fall foul to one of the following three most common “dialogue killers”.

  • The need to win the argument. Overtaken by our competitive nature we start to quibble over details and to point out flaws in the other person’s argument

  • A desire to punish another party because we feel wronged or insulted by their position. As a result, we break the “rule of safety” by lashing out at them in an attempt to make them suffer.

  • A preference to keep the peace in order to avoid the possibility of an uncomfortable conversation. Instead of sharing our information and ideas, we shut up to avoid problems (e.g. causing upset, being disliked, being seen as difficult, etc.).

To stop yourself from going down these rabbit holes, it is helpful to ascertain your “typical” style when under pressure during a crucial conversation. Do you go silent or do you become more aggressive? The authors identify 3 typical ways in which people silence themselves to avoid potential problems:

  • Masking: Understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sugarcoating, sarcasm and coaching are some of the typical forms of this tactic.

  • Avoiding: Steering completely away from sensitive subjects.

  • Withdrawing: Pulling out of the conversation altogether by refusing to speak about a topic and/or physically leaving the conversation.

They also describe three typical ways in which others may try and force their views on to others.

  • Controlling: Coercing others to your way of thinking by overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, cutting others off and using directive questions to control the conversation.

  • Labelling: Putting a label on people or ideas so they can dismiss them under a general stereotype of category

  • Attacking: Making another party to the conversation suffer by belittling and threatening them.

Once you know your style under pressure, the trick is to catch yourself before you enact those behaviors. So, you need to pay attention to your reactions to what others are saying and take them as a signal to step back and slow down and refocus on the need to enable the free flow of information and ideas. You thus need to tune into your own early warning signals? Are they physical – e.g. does your stomach get tight? Are they behavioral – e.g. do you raise your voice or roll your eyes? Whatever they are, when they occur, make yourself slow down and stop yourself from hijacking the free flow of information & ideas.

Moreover, as a leader you also need to spot when others are falling foul of these dialogue pitfalls and proactively address their behavior in order to restore the free flow of information & ideas.

How to say what needs to be said without alienating people: STATE

Sharing your honest opinion may be a pre-requisite for true dialogue, but in reality, it can be quite difficult when your ideas contain delicate, unpopular or controversial points of view. However, the authors outline 5 skills for how to say what needs to be said without alienating people.

  • Share your facts: Always start by stating the facts as those are the least controversial and thus provide a safe beginning

  • Tell your story (i.e. how you interpret those facts): Explain how the facts led you to a certain conclusion

  • Ask for different possible explanations: Once you have shared your facts and how this led you to a certain conclusion, invite others to express their facts and stories.

  • Talk tentatively: Be careful to describe your facts and story (your interpretation of the facts) in a tentative, non-dogmatic way. Because the more convinced and forceful you act, the more resistant others become. Speaking in absolute and overstated terms does not increase your influence, it decreases it.

  • Encourage others to test the validity of your opinion. Invite others to disprove it. If others aren’t forthcoming to do so, try playing devil’s advocate yourself to encourage others to actively explore the validity of your facts & opinion.

These 5 steps can be easily remembered with the acronym STATE. The first three describe what to do and the last two describe how to do it.