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  • Writer's pictureJenny Mehner, Brigham Young University

How to Have Crucial Conversations in the Workplace

As our country seemingly becomes more divided, the need for civility in the workplace has never been stronger. Yet, incivility continues to cost companies an average of “14,000 per employee in lost production and work time,” according to a study done by Michigan State University.

As a young millennial about to enter the workforce, I have studied civility and tried to find ways to have better conversations both personally and professionally, especially when the stakes are high. In reading books such as Crucial Conversations, Where’s the Gift, and Radical Candor, I have come up with several key ways that you can be civil and have wonderful work relationships, even when you disagree.

First, it is important to recognize when a conversation can go from vanilla to pivotal and plan accordingly. In their book Crucial Conversations, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler describe a crucial conversation as having the following components: (1) opinions vary, (2) stakes are high, and (3) emotions run strong.

The workplace is chock-full of crucial conversations, whether it be confronting a colleague’s behavior, firing someone, giving your boss feedback, writing a performance review, and so much more. When we know we are about to enter a crucial conversation, we can approach it with a completely different mindset and bring our best conversation tools to the table. This extra preparation can completely change the tone and outcome of an exchange.

Second, we can use what Dr. John Gottman calls a “soft start-up”. When approaching a sensitive conversation, we can be direct and clear, while not becoming contemptuous or critical of the other person. We can talk about specific behavioral examples instead of overgeneralized character defects. We can use “I” statements more than “you” statements.

Third, invite others to share their feedback and perspective on the situation. Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor, says we should always “start by asking for criticism, not by giving it”.

When we’re in the middle of a highly emotional conversation, it may seem difficult to ask for or receive feedback. However, this step is so important in maintaining dialogue with the other person.

Fourth, find what you can agree on. Even though there may be varying opinions from multiple parties within a crucial conversation, you can still make the conversation safe for everyone. The authors of Crucial Conversations submit that most people don’t actually argue, they “violently agree”. For example, most colleagues likely agree on what the desired outcome of a project may be, but they disagree on the details or logistics. If you can find something to agree on, you establish safety within a conversation and create or maintain a mutual purpose.

Then, as you work through the details, you can build upon what the other person has said, instead of tearing them down for having a different opinion than you do.

Finally, as you wrap up the conversation it is important to turn crucial conversations into actions and results. Some questions you can ask yourself are: How will this decision be made? Who is going to follow up to make sure the decision is implemented? How will they follow up?

With all of these principles, I hope the guiding principle is to lead with love and civility. Building a positive relationship with others before and after these crucial conversations is so important in their success. I promise you that as you apply these tactics to your life, your personal and professional relationships will be deeply enriched. Now, go out and practice these with a colleague or employer today!


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