Crucial Conversation Skills: Manage Your Emotions When Stakes Are High

By Jessica Wishart

dateThu, Jan 23, 2020 @ 09:30 AM

Our team recently participated in a day and half of training on Crucial Conversations in which we learned and practiced communication skills to use when stakes are high, emotions are involved, and those in the conversation disagree.  Patrick is always saying that fire-prevention is better than fire-fighting, so he wanted our team to be armed with these skills to be able to continue working together successfully and live our core value of “No Thinly Disguised Contempt.”  

I was first introduced to Crucial Conversations when Ron McMillan presented a keynote on the topic at the 2012 Growth Summit in Phoenix.  While I was intrigued by his presentation, I wondered how practical some of the skills would be in the heat of the moment.  After taking some time to read the book and learn more in depth and actually practice these communication skills during the training, I have gained confidence in this method for navigating difficult dialogue both at home and at work.  

I wanted to share some of the key takeaways I had from this very interesting and engaging training.  

Master our stories:  

A portion of the training was dedicated to helping us understand how we get from what we see and hear to the emotional reaction that causes us to act in a certain way.  Have you ever had someone cut you off in traffic and you went ballistic?  Have you also had the exact same thing happen to you and yet you brushed it off instead?  What is different here when the facts of what happened are the same (you were cut off in traffic)?  Our emotional reaction and how we act are not based on the facts; they are based on the story we tell ourselves about what happened.    

So, if you tell yourself that person is the most inconsiderate jerk in the universe for cutting you off like that, your emotions will be quite different from your emotions if you tell the story that the person is probably late to pick up their kids or that you've been guilty of the same poor driving in the past.  Our reactions to people and situations are based largely on the story we tell ourselves.  If we can manage to tell ourselves a more helpful story that will lead to calmer emotions and a willingness to listen to the other person's side of things, we will be in a much better position to have a crucial conversation than if we don't make the effort to master our stories.  Even if you can't come up with a good reason why a rational, reasonable person would do what the other person has done, you'll be better off approaching that person with a story that leads to curiosity rather than one that leads to frustration.  

What to do when you violently agree:  

Have you ever been in a room with two people who are arguing, and to you, it sounds like they are both arguing the same point?  Sometimes, we don't take the time to really listen to the other person or understand what they are saying so we end up arguing our side, which might be the same side the other person is on if we'd just bother to listen!  "The sales goal is half a million!" "NO, the sales goal is $500,000!!"  Wow, our emotions can really cloud our ability to behave reasonably.

Other times, it does sound like we disagree, but really we only disagree about the means to get to the same end.  At these times, we need to step back to understand the purpose behind the person's strategy.  Often, when we disagree with someone, it turns out that we only disagree on HOW we are going to accomplish the same or a compatible ultimate goal.  You might have more common ground with the person than you think if you are caught up in an argument.  If you seem to be at an impasse with someone, take a step back to ask why they want to do that or what they are hoping to get out of it.  Once you understand the goal behind the person's proposed strategy, you can open the door to dialogue about other ways you might be able to accomplish that person's goals without sacrificing your own goals.  If you take the time to identify a mutual purpose, you are already on your way to a win-win.  

These were just a couple of the helpful tools we learned over the two days.  If you find yourself either shying away from a conversation that you know you should be having because you're not sure how to handle it, or if you find yourself seeing red every time a sensitive topic comes up at home or at work, I encourage you to pick up the book Crucial Conversations and start practicing the skills the authors teach to have these difficult conversations in a more effective way.


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Want to learn more about Employee Engagement and Crucial Skills? Check out these additional resources:

White Paper: The Unbeatable Return on Payroll of Engaged Employees

3 Employee Engagement Stats that Will Make You Take Action

The Shadow Side of Employee Engagement

The 10 Best Employee Engagement KPIs [Video]

5 Minute Rhythm: Improving Employee Engagement [Video]

How to Fuel Employee Engagement with a Recognition Culture

Are Employee Motivation and Engagement the Same? [Infographic]

10 Ways to Improve Employee Engagement in Your Manufacturing Company [Video]


Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images