At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organisations, teams, and relationships are crucial conversations that we’re either not holding or not holding well. There are issues we haven’t stepped up and addressed.
We’ve spent over 10,000 hours watching people in crucial confrontations trying to figure out what they do that makes it either work or fail. Which confrontations go well and resolve problems, and which confrontations go poorly and end up causing the problems to worsen or persist?
What we’ve found is that there are a handful of skills you can use that predictably, repeatedly, and sustainably create positive and effective crucial confrontations.
If you can learn to do this, there’s almost nothing you can’t discuss.
As we watched crucial confrontations, we found that you could predict how it would end by looking at the first thirty seconds. We call this the “Hazardous Half-Minute”. Have you ever been paralysed with fear during those hazardous half minutes? Have you ever just sort of sat there with your mouth opening and closing, not sure what to say?
We put our microscope on those first thirty seconds when the crucial confrontation came out well. The first thing we found you have to do is create safety. If you do it well, there’s a 97% chance of a positive outcome.
Let’s say you’ve got a colleague who continually lets you down. You have a spouse or a loved one who’s behaving in ways that are creating problems in your family. How do you start that crucial confrontation?
Here’s how you don’t start: You may be tempted to start by diving into the issue. You may be tempted to start by telling them your complaint. That’s how we want to begin. We know from our research that if you do that the odds of the crucial confrontation going well drop precipitously. So what do you have to do?
What we found from those 10,000 hours of observation is something remarkable – something counterintuitive.
The riskiness of the issue does not predict your success or failure.
Most of us labour under the misconception that if something is just too hard to talk about – if something is just too difficult to discuss – that the conversation can’t go well. We think the size of the issue – the difficulty of the topic itself – predicts success or failure. We know from our research that this just isn’t true.
In your personal life with a loved one or spouse, have you found yourself arguing over the stupidest most trivial little issue? How the toilet paper hangs or which restaurant to go to? Even the most trivial things can amplify into a huge conflict. What predicts your success or failure is your capacity to create safety, not the size of the issue. How do you do that?
Establish Mutual Purpose
This isn’t a trick or a gimmick. This isn’t just a technique. Your first responsibility during that crucial confrontation is to help the other person know in their heart that you care about their problems. That’s your job.
If you do that well, you’ll be able to see them physically loosen up. When you start telling them the truth about your concerns they’ll be able to hear you.
They may not like what you’re saying. They may not agree with what you’re telling them, but they will be able to hear you.
Establish Mutual Respect
Your second responsibility is to help make sure, not just that they know that you care about their problems, but that you care about them as a person. When they know those two things, their defenses drop and they start to hear you.
When they don’t believe that, the defenses go up and it doesn’t matter what you have to say. They won’t hear it.
Now here’s my question to you. How safe would you have to feel to be able to publicly admit that you were wrong in a situation? How safe would you have to feel to be able to hear from somebody that you were incompetent in your job? How safe would you have to feel to be able to hear that some of your behaviour was inappropriate or ineffective? The predictor of your success or failure in a crucial confrontation is not how risky the issue is, it’s your capacity to create safety.