Every institutional leader knows he or she must have significant, but potentially difficult, conversations for the health of the organization. They could be with employees or stakeholders, people of influence within or outside of the institution; they could be about performance issues, institutional vision, resource allocation or long-range planning. They are all “crucial conversations,” to borrow the title of the book from Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.
Yet, despite knowing that these conversations are vital for the institution, often leaders fail to have them. There are any number of good reasons why -- too little time, too much to do, anxiety about the conversation itself, fear that the conversation once started won’t be stopped easily. These reasons often become self-reinforcing, and the conversation that is so important simply never happens. (This is why books like “Crucial Conversations” and “Fierce Conversations” have been written in the first place.)
So what might we as institutional leaders do to help ourselves?
We can make a list of the crucial conversations that we need to have and set firm deadlines for having them. Every institutional leader should be able to identify three to five people a week who we need to talk to in order to move our institution forward. (Depending upon the scope and scale of our organization and our position, it may be more like three people a day.) Whatever your system for managing your time, it is good practice to note on your calendar who you are reaching out to this week for the sake of the institution.
We can plan our part of these conversations. Rather than trust that we will know what we want to say and how we want to say it in the moment, it’s a helpful practice to to prepare what we need to say. This practice enables us to think about how to articulate our ideas so they will be heard. Former North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole used to write out key phrases or sentences on index cards before meetings and phone appointments. This not only ensures the clarity of your message, but it also reduces your anxiety about the conversation itself.
We can remember the real goal of the conversation. It is easy to forget the actual aim of crucial conversations. Often, we act as if the purpose is to get the other person to agree with us; in the end, that isn’t the goal at all. Crucial conversations are not times for persuasive arguments or to browbeat the other into holding our opinions. The goal is to communicate as simply as possible what needs to be said and done for the sake of the institution and the vitality of a relationship.
So who do you need to talk to today?