Crucial Conversations, What They Are and How They Impact Dialogue

Last month, I talked about the importance of Crucial Conversations[1].  This time, I want to start to dive a little deeper.

I am absolutely convinced that most education reforms – including those of Career-Connected Learning and Pathways – don’t survive because leaders who foster them don’t intentionally engage stakeholders in meaningful, honest dialogue (the free flow of information and ideas between people).  Dialogue doesn’t happen because Crucial Conversations go awry and kill the prospect for dialogue.

If we don’t have open dialogue about a reform effort, then many key stakeholders will invisibly fold their arms and roll their eyeballs and think “this too shall pass.”  Sure enough, when funding dries up or a new and shiny policy directive comes along, attention on career-connected learning wanes and most of the positive changes revert back to tradition-bound approaches.

So what are Crucial Conversations, the things that can nurture or kill dialogue?  According to authors of the book, Crucial Conversations come in many shapes and sizes.  But whatever the topic, Crucial Conversations have three characteristics: First, “opinions vary.”  People in the conversation don’t see eye to eye on this issue. Second, “the stakes are high.”  The outcome of the issue really matters in some way to the participants.  Third, “emotions run strong.“  Not surprisingly, when opinions differ and the matter is really important, emotions are going to be heightened.

One key step is just to start to recognize when a conversation has become “crucial.”  Usually, the most difficult conversations happen when we’re not expecting them, when a concern or irk has been lurking below the surface, or someone nonchalantly shares a new idea or initiative or requirement without preparing the other participants.

Why are productive Crucial Conversations so important?  Actually, differences of opinion among team members can be really helpful to making sure that issues are thought through carefully and good decisions result.  But the tricky part is to get past the strong emotions to having a real conversation about the ideas and content.

This is what is called “Dialogue.”  By definition, dialogue is the “exchange of ideas between two or more people.”  It’s a rare commodity.  The lack of dialogue skills hurts interpersonal relationships, and it is killing our political discourse.

According to the authors, “People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool – even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.”

In my professional career, I had two supervisors working over the same group of people.  The first supervisor was suspicious and openly attacked ideas and perspectives that (he/she) didn’t agree with.  This created a very closed, self-protective atmosphere among the team.  There was no true dialogue in the presence of the supervisor.  The next supervisor had a completely different approach – inviting team members to do a book study together and then develop a shared vision and mission for the team.  Some of most angry, defensive team members eventually opened up, and their smart observations and extensive experience were allowed to benefit the entire organization.

What was different between the two?  A sense of SAFETY.

For productive crucial conversations to happen, SAFETY is critical.  There are ways to spot when people aren’t feeling safe, and helpful tactics to restore a sense of safety.  I’ll touch on these in the next post.

Let me know when you have had Crucial Conversations that went well and created real dialogue, especially related to Career Connected Learning and Pathways.

[1] Patterson, Kerry. (Eds.) (2012) Crucial conversations:tools for talking when stakes are high, New York: McGraw-Hill

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (  NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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