The day before Bobby was to ship off to Iraq in 2004, he got into a skirmish with his father. Like the war he was packing up to rejoin, this fight dragged on interminably. The two of them alternated between sulking and screaming for over two hours-fashioning every decades-old grievance into a formidable weapon and hurling it at the vulnerabilities of their beloved enemy. When they interrupted their hostilities to allow Bobby to ship out, the conversation transitioned to a multi-year cold war. By early 2011, Bobby's father had two grandchildren he had never met.
Some moments matter more than others. And some of the moments that matter most are those where we're working our way through a crucial conversation. Most of us have a handful of them every week. But once in a while, we have one that is especially momentous. Most people can remember at least one conversation that was profoundly life-changing-for good or bad.
Twenty-five years ago, my colleagues and I discovered that some of the most influential moments of our lives are times when we must discuss high-stakes topics with those who vehemently disagree with our views. We found that the reasons these conversations are so consequential is not just that the issue itself is of such great import, but that when it matters most, you and I tend to do our very worst. And as Bobby demonstrated, the consequences speak for themselves.
But not for everyone.
We recently studied singular conversations that had life-long effects for 525 people. These folks identified high-stakes interactions that went either surprisingly well or terribly badly-and that changed the course of their lives to some degree. For example, on the positive side, one woman shared her conversation with an out-of-control airplane passenger that helped avert an emergency landing. Another respondent spoke up effectively to doctors and nurses to ensure a loved one received vital medical treatment. And another saved his job by threading his way through dicey issues with his boss.
But more often than not, subjects related to Bobby. They reported on conversations that left lingering pain and damage such as being disowned by family, getting a divorce, dissolving a precious relationship, and terminating long-standing business partnerships. Overall, two-thirds said the few minutes of this conversation led to permanent damage in a relationship. One in seven reported it crippled their career, and more than a third said that even many years later, they are still feeling effects from this crucial moment.
In Search of Hope
Our central question in studying these 525 conversations was the same one that led us into a study of communication 25 years ago. Ironically, my colleagues and I had no interest in communication because we considered it soft and over-studied. But what we did want to know was whether there were moments of disproportionate influence that profoundly affect people's ability to achieve results.
We researched top performers to identify how they maintained stellar performance in an organization characterized by chronic mediocrity. We discovered that the moments when these high performers deviated from the norm were moments when a vendor, another team, or a senior manager failed to perform. The majority of employees either blew it off or blew up. In contrast, these gifted few handled these performance conversations differently. They candidly expressed their concerns in such a remarkably respectful way that the conversation actually strengthened the relationship rather than tear it down. The way these employees consistently dealt with these frequent interactions separated them so dramatically from their peers that we were left wondering exactly what they did that set them apart.
Twenty-five years later, we continue to refine our study of crucial conversations. And yet, regardless of the industry, the power or position of the individuals in question, or the topic by which two parties may be at odds, we find that top performers demonstrate a consistent set of skills the rest of us lack.
Failure is Optional
The top three reasons conversations failed, according to our respondents, were:
- Inability to control emotions. Many said they "lost it" and let their emotions get the best of them. In retrospect, they say there is much they could have done to moderate their emotions and keep things on a healthier plane.
- Lack of safety. The second most common mistake was inattentiveness to the psychological safety of the other person. Respondents reported that they could have done more to ensure the other person understood their real motives in the conversation.
- Silence and violence. Finally, subjects said they tended to lose focus on their real goals and get sidetracked into defensiveness, revenge, or fearful withdrawal from the conversation.
At the same time, those whose tricky conversations led to positive outcomes could point out specific skills that helped. Our research over the past 25 years shows that those who are competent at handling these crucial conversations realize results far different from those who aren't. For example:
- Parents who are able to have crucial conversations with their children are more than twice as likely to describe their relationship as very good or extremely good
- Leaders who effectively handle crucial conversations are 50 to 70% more likely to fully achieve project objectives
- Companies whose employees effectively step up to crucial conversations are two-thirds more likely to avoid injury and death due to unsafe conditions
The skillful communicators more consistently did three things:
- Safety. They repeatedly reaffirmed their real motives in the conversation and their respect for the other person.
- Goals. They kept the real goals they had for the conversation top of mind-inoculating them from getting off track.
- Focus. They sorted through the myriad distractions the conversation offered and zeroed in on the central issue of concern.
Of course, a simple conversation doesn't solve everything-but just imagine how Bobby's last night with his father might have gone had he added a few more skills to those crucial moments. Or better yet, listen to his description of the more recent redo he attempted.
Right before my second tour in Iraq, I called my father to let him know he had two grandkids he had never met. I asked him if we could get together to talk before I left for duty. For three tense hours, we sat on his balcony talking about the pain and resentment of five years of silence. But this time, things were different. I had thought deeply about what I did wrong in the previous conversation and worked hard to stay focused on what I really wanted in this one. I wanted a relationship with my parents.
I've learned since the meltdown in 2004 that I couldn't discuss issues like this without making sure my dad felt safe. Time and again, I reassured him of my real motives and of my love for him. We didn't gloss over the tough stuff, but we got through it by maintaining a sense of safety in the conversation. When it was over, we met my mother for dinner-something she only agreed to do because my father convinced her I was sincere. I know for a fact that if I hadn't found a way through that conversation that night on the balcony, my relationship with my parents-and my children's relationship with their grandparents-would have died from my anger and indifference.
The most hopeful thing we've learned in the past 25 years is that perfection is not the goal. Progress is. We've discovered that small progress in skillfully approaching these crucial moments leads to disproportionate improvement in the strength of our relationships, the health of our organizations, and our collective capacity to achieve what we really want.