By Amy Celep
Meet Sue. Her colleague, Joe, just did something with which she fundamentally disagrees. Sue marches over to another colleague, Tim, and complains about what Joe did, but never says anything directly to Joe. Or imagine that Sue silently fumes about the situation, never saying anything to anyone about it, or maybe she musters up the courage to say something to Joe but what comes out is a threat.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we’ve all probably been one of the actors—Sue, Joe, or Tim—in a similar situation. Take a minute to think about that situation. How did it play out? What was the result? My guess is that the result was not positive. Behaviors likely didn’t change, signs of mistrust or disrespect emerged, or relationships became increasingly strained, unhealthy and unproductive. Unfortunately, when this is the standard operating behavior inside an organization or collaborative, a culture of mistrust and disrespect evolves.
At Community Wealth Partners we work with a variety of collaborative efforts that involve stakeholders from across organizational boundaries. The very nature of these collaboratives seems to exacerbate the intensity and frequency of situations like the one between Sue and Joe. As organizations compete for funding and individuals seek job security, they tend to draw distinctions between their own organizations and others in order to create a feeling of personal safety. For example:
- “Your organization does direct service but we do advocacy.”
- “Your organization is a risk-taker but we’re the calm, strategic ones.”
- “We focus on the east side but you focus on the west side.”
Pursuing a collaborative effort, however, requires inviting uncertainty, embracing different perspectives and replacing “but” with “and.” A key tool for navigating the uncertainty and differences are crucial conversations—the type of conversations that can enhance relationships when there is a disagreement and stakes and emotions are high.
When I first read the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler—and the subsequent book Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments and Bad Behavior—it changed my life. It gave me a formula for how to have the most difficult conversations that needed to be had whether at home or at work. For many people, it doesn’t come naturally to have an open, honest conversation at the times that it is most needed.
In my recent posts, I’ve talked about the importance of intentionally building culture in a collaborative effort. To build a productive culture, people need to be effective at having crucial conversations—practicing this skill is critical. As is often said, “The time to train for a marathon is not after the race has begun.” As a collaborative effort is getting underway, it’s important to encourage and incentivize participants to learn how to have these conversations in order to overcome natural defensiveness and posturing, and the misinterpretation that often results.
The following tenets of “crucial conversations” are especially applicable to the collaborative context:
- Create safety: If people don’t feel safe, they are not going to listen. Watch for signs that safety is at risk. In Crucial Accountability, the authors share two reasons people don’t feel safe: 1) They believe you don’t respect them; 2) They believe you don’t care about their goals. One way to overcome the latter and restore a feeling of safety is to establish mutual purpose.
- Establish mutual purpose: As stated in Crucial Accountability: “Build common ground before you even mention a problem. Let others know that your intentions are pure—that your goal is to solve problems and make things better for both of you. Start with what’s important to you and them—not just you.” In a collaborative context, this might take the form of starting off a conversation with someone by reminding them that you both want to see the goal of the collaborative—whether it’s ending childhood hunger or ensuring all 3rd graders read proficiently—achieved.
- End with a question: When you start a conversation with someone, finish your opening paragraph with a question to invite their diagnosis of the situation. It has to be an honest inquiry; not a threat. By doing so, you’re showing genuine interest in understanding the other person’s perspective, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and inviting honest dialogue.
If you’re engaged in a collaborative effort or ready to engage in one, I urge you to think about training for participants on having crucial conversations. It can turn the collaborative environment from one characterized by mistrust and posturing to one where leaders build healthy, authentic relationships. Ultimately, it will enhance short-term progress and the long-term sustainability of the effort.