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Having the scary conversations

3 min read


Today’s guest post is by Joseph Grenny, author of the New York Times-bestseller “Crucial Conversations” and co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. Read more at

My co-authors and I have long observed people’s fear of holding crucial conversations. The reality is that when it comes to talking about high-stakes, emotional or uncomfortable issues, most people run the other way because experience tells them the conversation will end badly.

Our latest poll confirms that when it comes to speaking up at work, most people will do whatever it takes to avoid scary conversations with their boss, co-workers, and direct reports.

According to the study, 70 percent of employees are currently facing a scary conversation at work and yet, 34 percent put off holding that conversation for at least a month by avoiding their colleagues. For example, one respondent hurried into the women’s bathroom to avoid the person with whom she needed to hold a scary conversation — to her surprise, he followed her in there! Worse still, nearly one in four people have put off holding a scary conversation for more than a year.

Unfortunately, for the timid, the skills to speak up to anyone about anything aren’t just nice to have, they’re necessary to be successful. That’s because our research shows the select few who know how to speak up candidly and respectfully — no matter the topic — are viewed as top performers in their organization.

Here are 6 tips to help you stop avoiding and start holding crucial conversations about bad behavior.

  • Talk face-to-face and in private. Don’t chicken out by reverting to e-mail or phone. While the distance may help you pony up to the conversation, it will complicate the message for the other person, who cannot read your body language, facial expressions or emotional queues.
  • Assume the best of others. Perhaps he or she is unaware of what they’re doing. This positive attitude helps you enter the conversation as a curious friend who would like to solve a problem rather than an angry co-worker who wants to fix the other person (leading to defensiveness and negative feedback).
  • Use tentative language. Avoid your tendency to tear into the other person or dance around the subject. Begin by tentatively describing the problem with phrases such as, “I’m not sure you’re intending this . . .” or “I’m not even sure you’re aware. . .”
  • Share facts not conclusions. Never, ever start with your nasty conclusions: “You’re out to make me look bad!”, “You’re insensitive and uncaring!” Not only are your conclusions unscientific and possibly wrong, but they’re almost guaranteed to create defensiveness. So say something like, “In the last two meetings you laughed at my suggestion. I expect people to disagree, but laughing?”
  • Ask for their view. Next, ask if he or she sees the problem differently. You’re now poised to have a healthy conversation about bad behavior.
  • Use equal treatment. These skills apply to bosses and co-workers alike. Bosses don’t deserve special treatment. Everyone needs to be treated like a reasonable, rational person who deserves your respect.

Image credit, killerb10, via iStock