The Attributes and Skills of a Critical Conversation

Improvement No Comments

On my shelves I have a number of books with similar sounding titles;
Difficult conversations
Fierce conversations
Changing conversations

You hear, and can easily find references to, Vital Conversations, Tough Conversations, Crucial conversations.

My take on all?

There are two key – and difficult – skills that are important in any enterprise, be it business, home, hobby, voluntary…

These are the two key attributes in a ‘critical’ conversation, see this.

Firstly, are you able to identify – and agree to discuss – the critical issues. Here structured thinking methods help identify the important topics: analytical tools that can be worked through individually or interactively – question fanning, logic modelling, issue mapping, iceberg deep think etc.

In the first take on ‘critical conversations’ it is essential to get the focus right: Critical, as in focusing on what is the most important topic or issue. Discussion themes that are the IMPORTANT ones to get right. This is about NOT avoiding the tough, challenging issues. NOT getting sidetracked by the minutiae: as in the example of a senior team being diverted by endless discussions of seating plans in a new office location, and not achieving the fundamental purpose of significant change. About NOT ignoring the ‘elephant in the corner’.

Secondly, are you able to engage in a critical debate – where you and others are able to disagree, but in a way where you differ well as you explore differing perspectives (with a stronger relationship at the end, and not – as often happens – a weaker one). Methods here that can help include: the six thinking hats, balancing inquiry with advocacy, starting with appreciation, getting to know each other to develop trust, developing skills in the 3 levels of feedback, working on perspective management. Personal qualities are important too – have you some insight into personal hot (or blind) spots? How do you increase that awareness and develop the ability to delay your hard wired response?

In this sense ‘critical’ involves putting a different (and you probably believe better) perspective forward: this leads to discussions that are HARD or CHALLENGING to get right and that might come over as pretty hard hitting too. Here we need to know how best to explore different opinions: mining conflict (managing diverse views in a way that is productive), disagreeing well (so trust is preserved, or even increased). Being able to challenge others – and being open to it ourselves.

I am going to risk a mechanical metaphor to illustrate this! I believe that the engine of innovation in any institution is curiosity, and the ‘oil’ for the behaviours that turns good ideas into action is how we talk with others. The two skills in ‘crucial conversations’ are at the heart of the motor of improvement.

Critical Conversations are discussions that are both hard to focus and challenging to get right. They ‘cut to the chase’.

In a way they focus on the top right grid in a 2×2 matrix made with the dimensions of importance and challenge – they are important and hard to get right. A difficult place to get to and stay. It is the zone of productive conflict.

However, it is easy to be avoiding by choosing to be focused on the irrelevant and un-stretching topics. However, eventually, I believe this maxim is often a truism (in terms of conversations, if not flight safety!): “what seems safe is risky, and what is risky is safe”.

Important and non challenging topics achieve a chorus of agreement. Get those under your belt and move on. It is easy to dwell here.

The worst place to be is arguing over minutiae – a common ‘defence against the anxiety’ when facing the spectre of the critical conversation.

Finally, remember…

The Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music, when asked to admonish two quarrelling nuns:
“No, they are helping me to think by expressing two points of view”.

And an ancient encouragement from a (translated) latin motto: “The will to succeed – and the grace to compromise”.


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