Coaching for Success: 5 key skills for approaching crucial conversations

Whether you're a coach, a supervisor, or a co-worker, you've most likely felt the queasy stomach and uncertainty that come from facing the need to initiate a crucial conversation. Whatever the nature of the exchange, crucial conversations are typically characterized as intense, challenging, even frightening, but always necessary.

There are several ways to approach such pivotal talks, but the more prepared you are going into the conversation, the more successful the outcome will be. Whether you need to point out an issue involving quality of care, patient satisfaction, or living up to organizational standards, these conversations have the potential to make a lasting impact on the people involved.

Those who learn how to approach crucial conversations calmly and constructively will have the most success. There are five key skills that you can use to coach yourself and your team in the art of conducting a healthy crucial conversation.

1. Clarify the Objective

Before diving into a crucial conversation where emotions may get the best of the participants, take a step back to clarify what you want out of the exchange. Visualize what you think would be the most positive outcome and clarify what you really want.

The very nature of a crucial conversation has the potential to evoke that fight or flight response in its participants. In order to facilitate a successful conversation, be careful to not just "spring" it on the other person. The other party will be much more willing to engage if you have taken the time to set an appointment for the conversation and have clarified what you see as the objective for the conversation. You both have this opportunity to agree on this objective.

As part of the clarification exercise, it's also helpful to identify what you do NOT want to take place. As you're preparing for the conversation, you can anticipate possible responses from the other party that could take the conversation off track. Take the time beforehand to prepare for how you would handle these situations. By taking that time to clarify what you do and do not want to come out of the conversation, you will be more focused and attentive during the actual conversation.

2. Observations are Important

Emotions can run high during crucial conversations. It is important to back up your goal with factual observations of the other person's performance. You want to keep steering the conversation with these facts as opposed to letting it get derailed by emotions and personal agendas.

For example, when coaching someone on the concept of taking ownership, reinforce your conversation with concrete examples of this sometimes vague concept: "Last Monday, I observed you walk past a visitor who was clearly lost and in need of direction; twice this past month, I've heard you use the phrase, 'That's not my job.'"

Keeping the conversation based in factual observations makes it harder for the other person to bring his emotions into play. It's hard to argue or excuse away the facts.

However, while you are presenting these factual observations, it's also important to conduct the conversation with an attitude of mutual respect. If both parties in the conversation feel that the other is ever disrespectful, emotions have the potential to impede the success of the conversation.

Listen respectfully to the other person's point of view. It will be vital to factor this in with your own observations as you work out an action plan.

3. Action Planning

The "meat" of a crucial conversation is identifying the action that needs to take place. You may have come into the conversation with some idea of how you want the objective met, but so did the other person.

Actively listen to the other person's views and restate them to demonstrate that you understand what was said. If there are any radically different points of view, work together to come to an agreement.

During the action planning part of the conversation, you'll need to collaborate to explore different options for reaching the objective. The action plan that you develop needs to be specific and measureable with clearly delegated responsibilities. Plot out specific actions that will need to happen in order to meet the objective and set a specific timeline for accomplishing each action. Clarify who will be held accountable for each step of the action plan. Then schedule a time to follow up on the conversation to ensure that commitments are being honored.

4. Communicate Clearly

Any conversation is a two-way street, and you especially want to remember this when you enter into a crucial conversation. Both participants will be bringing their ideas and emotions into the conversation. Practice good communication skills by taking the time to rephrase what the other person said to ensure that you both understand and are on the same page. Paraphrase with, "What I hear you saying, is...".

Crucial conversations are best handled in person. Make sure that the time and place are appropriate to have the conversation. For example, don't broach a conversation about an employee's bedside manner by leaving a cursory email that she may or may not check at the end of her shift. Instead, save the conversation for an occasion when both parties have the time and attention to devote to the conversation. That's why it's usually best to schedule a time for the talk.

5. Help Remove Barriers

Anyone in your organization should be equipped to participate in a crucial conversation at any time. The need can arise in the course of a workday when an employee sees a co-worker make a mistake or when a supervisor needs to correct an employee. It's important that everyone is aware of barriers that they may put in place to avoid the high stakes of a difficult conversation.

Some barriers to successful crucial conversations come from within. Make sure that you maintain an attitude of respect and openness to the other's point of view. Each of us has long-ingrained thought patterns or unconscious behaviors learned over time. Part of your conversation may be helping the other person to look at their behavior objectively and expose these hidden internal barriers.

Setting the right atmosphere for the conversation will go a long way in removing two of the biggest barriers to these kinds of talks: avoidance and defensiveness.

The biggest barrier to conducting an effective conversation is avoidance. Sometimes, it seems like the easiest route to take around the conversation, but, in the end, avoiding the topic will lead to resentment or to one of the parties unleashing at an inappropriate or unconstructive time.

When approaching the conversation as a coach, know that the other person will most likely be emotionally invested in your coaching, and that one of the first instinctive responses to a perceived criticism is to go on the defensive.

As the coach, avoiding a crucial conversation won't be productive, just as it won't be productive if the person being coached immediately goes on the defensive. Set the stage for these conversations by scheduling them at a mutually convenient time, acknowledging upfront that it may be difficult and establishing an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Conducting these crucial conversations is an important skill to have in your coaching toolbox. Be conscious of your approach to these conversations and occasionally even role-play an upcoming crucial conversation with a peer in order to hone your skills and have the most productive discussions with the people you coach.

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