Creating Safety for Crucial Conversations

Broken promises, missed deadlines, and bad behaviors require skillful discussions.  Like a bull in a china shop you can charge in, kick butt, take names, and let the chips fall where they may.  That won’t get you very far and will only create more stress, poor morale and distrust.  Instead start by simply describing the gap between what was expected and what was observed.  “You said you would have the proposal to me by noon yesterday.  I have not received it.  What happened?”  No need to dance around the situation or start off by blasting them.

At the foundation of every successful conversation lies safety.  When others feel threatened or belittled, you can’t talk about anything.  If you create safety, you can talk about almost anything – even failed promises.  People feel unsafe when they believe you don’t respect them as a human being and/or you don’t care about their goals or success.  When others know that you value them as a person and care about their interests, they will give you an amazing amount of leeway.  If what you say or how you say it causes others to conclude you don’t respect them or that you have selfish motives, nothing you say will work.  Defenses go up and trust is withdrawn.

At the first sign of fear, you have to diagnose the situation.  Is the person you are speaking with feeling disrespected?  Do they feel you’re at cross purposes?  Then you have to find a way to let others know that you are not going to trample all over their ideas or wishes.  If you suspect the other person is going to feel offended or become defensive, prepare by explaining what you do or don’t mean.  Set the context for the conversation by stating your mutual purpose.  Consider the example of the late proposal. Starting with saying, “I know getting this client proposal out on time is as important to you as it is to me,” will set the right tone.  Let others know that your intentions are pure – that your goal is to solve problems and make things better for both of you.  Start with what’s important to you and them – not just you.

Instead of blurting out what’s on your mind, take the time to create a conversation that will enable mutual benefit.  The goal should be to help others to feel safe in the conversation, yet focus on the task at hand.


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