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Crucial Conversations

August 19, 2018

What is the difference between the conversation you have with your neighbor at the mailbox and the passionate kind you have with your spouse or coworkers when you are debating changes or where to go next? The first type is "small talk", where your neighbor asks how you are doing and you say everything is fine, even if it isn't. The second type is a "crucial conversation" - when the stakes are high, opinions differ and emotions run deep. 


These conversations are always hard. They are hard with your family member, but they feel harder when you are at work. I think about some of the crucial conversations I have had with my past partner teachers, but those were with colleagues that were on the "same level" as me. I have never thought about how a leader feels when they are having a crucial conversation with someone on their team - like a principal and a teacher. Reading Patterson, Granny, McMillan, & Switzler (2012) "Crucial Conversations" has given me some insight on how a few of my principals have always remained calm and collected during those conversations, no matter how upset or frantic the teacher was. 


Reading this book has also calmed my own anxiety I felt when I thought about implementing my own disruptive innovation plan of spreading the maker movement to all the campuses in my district. All those principals, all those teachers... what if some of them are against makerspaces? How can I stand tall and influence their opinion when they approach me with their own beliefs and ideas?


The process of a crucial conversation helps leaders make change, and it is a process I will be putting into action when having those tough conversations inside my own organization.

The Crucial Conversations Process


The Crucial Conversation process starts with you identifying the conversations that are stopping you from meeting your goal. Reflect and determine where you need to have a crucial conversation. For me this will begin with my fellow Innovative Learning Specialists, they need to be completely on board with the maker movement... they are the ones who will be implementing it and their buy-in will determine its success. These are the crucial conversations I will be having first that are both respectful and candid. 

Then you need to ask yourself what you want and what your motives are, start with your heart. When having crucial conversations, we all have gotten caught up in the heat of the moment and allowed our own personal opinions side-track us from our goal. As the person driving organizational change, you must be the one to keep the conversation focused on what you want to achieve, keeping your end goal in mind. For me it will be critical I don't fall for the "they are just playing" or "this is taking away from me teaching my standards" pitfalls and stay on track with what makerspaces can provide for our students. 

It is easy to miss the early warning signs when a conversation begins to turn crucial. The sooner we notice we are losing focus on the goal, the sooner we can get the conversation back on track. While you are in the conversation, you can look for the conditions of conversation, pay attention to these early warning signs. Learn to look for when a conversation becomes crucial, for signs of silence or anger, and for your own triggers. This involves you watching out for your own emotions and actions, as well as the other persons. Paying attention to both the content of the discussion and how people are acting and feeling is no easy task, but it is a critical component. For me, in education, emotions always run high. We are always talking about children and what is best for children. People have strong opinions and it will be critical I pay attention to their body language and learn to look for those warning signs. 

When people seem to not understand what we are saying or miss the point, we assume how we are explaining it is the problem and we begin to simplify it. The truth is as long as your purpose is pure and you learn how to make it safe for others, you can talk to almost anyone about almost anything, if they feel safe. To make them feel safe, there are two things you must keep in mind, mutual purpose and mutual respect. Mutual purpose is when they know that you care about their goals. Mutual respect is when they need to know that you care about them. When people know they are cared about and will be heard, they can put lower their guard and really take in what you are saying. For me, I will need to make sure that they constantly know I have their best interests in mind because even though I am talking to old friends, the moment I lose sight of their cares, because the moment they think I am just looking out for myself, they will no longer believe my message. 

In the heat of crucial conversations, when we become upset our most common reaction is to defend ourselves and blame someone else. How we feel lies in the stories we tell, these stories consist of our guess as to why people do what they do. As we become more passionate and emotional, our story seems to be to turn into how can we take this the most hurtful way. This can cause us to do the worst when it matters the most. To break away from this, it requires us to tell the rest of the story. New and more complete stories create new feelings. For me, I have already been living the maker movement for two years. I need to embrace the success stories and condense them to have the most meaningful impact. I need to have them lined up and ready, what our own kids have learned and gained through this movement.

To speak your mind completely you have to know how to speak without offending others and how to be persuasive without being abrasive. The five skills that help us share our tough messages can be easily remembered with the acronym STATE. It stands for: Share your facts. Tell your story. Ask for others’ paths. Talk tentatively. Encourage testing. For me, doing this will let me confidently state my opinions and humbly and sincerely invite others to do the same. 

When others begin to clam up or explode, knowing how to listen to them is of upmost importance.That is the time you should actively explore their path. Exploring helps others move away from harsh feelings and toward the root causes of those reactions. It also helps curb our own defensive response and lead us to curiosity. For me, I think the trick to keeping my own defenses down will be to ask myself why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person think or feel this way? I will be having crucial conversations with not only coworkers, but friends and it will be easy for me to get "butt hurt" when they share different opinions. That question will be one I have ready to ask myself when their emotions are running high and I believe it will allow me to be curious and explore their path.

The ultimate goal of crucial conversations is not just to create a healthy climate or even a clear understanding between everyone involved. While both are helpful outcomes, the real purpose is to get unstuck by taking the appropriate action. If you don’t take action, all the healthy talk in the world is for nothing. For me, I think it will be important that we always agree on when and how follow-up will occur. I know that if I followup with a simple e-mail confirming action by a certain date or send out a Google calendar invite we will be more likely to continue the conversation, in a safe way. 



Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2012). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.


















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