No one really likes to have difficult conversations, whether it’s with a partner in life or colleague at work. But it is essential leaders know how to effectively handle these crucial conversations. Unfortunately, it’s often easiest to just avoid them and keep quiet. Statistics show that’s what most people do, but there’s a steep cost to that silence. 

The Cost of Silence 

Research by VitalSmarts surveyed over a thousand managers and employees and asked them about a time when they had a concern at work, but failed to voice it. They collected hundreds of stories ranging from disrespectful colleagues to abusive bosses to general incompetence. The respondents admitting to engaging in one or more of the following behaviors instead of speaking up: 

  • Complaining to others: 78% 
  • Doing extra or unnecessary work: 66% 
  • Ruminating about the problem: 53% 
  • Getting angry: 50% 

The study showed the average person wasted seven days on the above behaviors. And a shocking 40% admitted to wasting two weeks or more. The average person estimated the cost of their silence to be $7,500, but 20% of those surveyed estimated the cost of avoiding a crucial conversation to be more than $50,000! That culture of silence is eating away at your business’ bottom line.  

Related: The Cost of Avoiding Crucial Conversations 

Break the Silence 

Co-founder of VitalSmarts, Joseph Grenny, has been studying this topic for decades. He’s also one of the co-authors of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High that revolutionized the way millions of people communicate. In our summary of this must-read book for leaders, we explain that expert communicators weren’t born with the skill to handle crucial conversations. Instead, they learned it, and so can you.  

Executives tend to dodge crucial conversations because they lack the skillset to handle these tricky talks, so I work with a lot of coaching clients on honing those skills. We talk about the six elements of making an effective request and developing self-awareness. However, it’s just as important to know when to not have a crucial conversation. I don’t mean avoiding it completely, but understanding the moments where it is not appropriate to approach the conversation at that particular time. 

Hold Off on that Talk… For Now 

Here is a list of scenarios when it is best to wait to have a crucial conversation. 

  1. When you are not prepared. These are important conversations because the stakes are high, opinions differ and emotions run strong. These are not conversations you want to have on the fly. You owe it to yourself and the employee to think through the situation and be prepared for questions and possibly emotional responses. If the conversation is not received well, it can jeopardize your working relationship with that person.    
  2. When you are emotionally triggered. If you are in an emotional state that is not conducive to bringing your best self to that conversation, hold off. If you are angry, resentful, impatient, entitled or coming from an “I’m right and you are wrong” mindset, chances are, you are not going to have an effective conversation.  
  3. When you are focused on the person rather than their behavior. When leaders approach crucial conversations with a personal lens rather than focusing on the behavior that needs correcting, things can touchy. People may think you are talking down to them and attacking them rather than offering professional development recommendations.  
  4. When you are in public. Crucial conversations should be thoughtful and strategic and that includes having a plan to meet in a private place. When you address an issue in public such as a group meeting or at someone’s desk in earshot of others, you face the possibility of humiliating them in front of their colleagues which can do more damage than good. It’s better to take it offline and schedule a one-on-one meeting behind closed doors.  
  5. When you don’t have an intention. This is something very few people think about before having a crucial conversation, but it’s important to consider the emotional state you want the person to leave the conversation with. You must define an intention to the conversation, or the takeaway you want the other person to have. If an employee is not performing at the level you expect, you can have a discussion around their behavior and still have them feel like you have their back and care about them rather than having them leave the room feeling humiliated. There’s really no reason for humiliation in the workplace unless someone has done something truly egregious. You’ll have much better results if you explain the gravitas of the situation and relay to them how unacceptable this behavior is rather than trying to humiliate them.   
  6. When the person you are addressing is a narcissist. If the person you are engaging in a conversation with is not emotionally mature or if their ego strength is such that they will not be able to handle that conversation, you will need to find the right time to approach them with your concerns. It’s even more difficult when that person is your supervisor. We all know there are narcissist leaders who are vindictive and possibly even gaslighters. Only when dealing with these type of individuals who suffer from a personality disorder, is it not only okay to avoid a crucial conversation completely, it is often recommended.  
  7. When you have not thoroughly investigated the issue. Before embarking on a crucial conversation, it is imperative you are confident in the data to support your claims. There’s nothing worse than going in with guns blazing only to find out you only have half of the story, so make sure you do your homework and verify the information with multiple sources if possible. Otherwise, you could end up with your foot in your mouth.  
  8. When you have not notified key stakeholders. If you believe there could be repercussions from the conversation, you should be thinking two steps ahead and notify anyone who could be affected in the organization. Think about the possible ramifications and how they can be mitigated on the front end before the conversation happens.  
When is the Right Time? 

People shy away from having these crucial conversations because they can be uncomfortable. After all, we are discussing sensitive topics like employee performance, professional development or career path. But instead of delaying and avoiding, it’s important to recognize when the right time is to have the talk. Those are the times when you have resolved all of the scenarios listed above: once you’ve prepared, once you are not emotionally triggered, once you are in a private setting, etc. Timing is just as important as the lens or perspective you employ during that conversation.  

It takes time, thoughtfulness and strategy to have an effective crucial conversation. These discussions may be hard, but they are necessary in order to create a higher level of operational excellence in the department or across the entire organization. 

If you feel as if you have gaps in your crucial conversation skills, executive coaching help you grow to proficiently handle these discussions. 

Learn more about Executive Coaching