Nonprofit Network Blog

Make the Space for Crucial Conversations (Part 2)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 11:46 AM | Tom Williams (Administrator)

Tom Williams

Capacity Builder

This is the second installment of a two-part series.  Read Part 1 here.

I ended last week's blog post with the suggestion that if the meeting room is “safe” enough, the conversation can be about almost any topic.  As you may recall, we had been addressing our human reaction to go silent on the key conversations that can advance our organizations.  In these crucial conversations, you'll often find that stakes are high, emotions are strong, and opinions conflict.  Examples include staff performance issues, board member interactions and even charting a course for the organization to follow.

To enjoy the benefits of a safe space, one must be aware of two conditions that must be maintained throughout the conversation: Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect.  A safe room or meeting is one in which it is clearly confirmed that those in the room have a mutual purpose and that we all seek to maintain a mutual respect during the conversation.  

In the event that one of these conditions is put at risk, a technique the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (Patterson et al) shares is to step out of the current discussion content and directly address the condition that is at risk.  Instead of forging ahead on the conversation (despite high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions) the authors suggest transitioning back to the change that took place in either Mutual Purpose or Mutual Respect. Bringing the conversation back to our Mutual Purpose or reminding participants that we want to maintain a Mutual Respect during this conversation is key to a successful conversation.  

Once that condition is clarified, it is possible to step back into the crucial conversation.  

As you and your group’s skills in this area improve, your ability to read the room for an infringement on these two conditions will also improve.  Identifying the risk sooner rather than later is preferred.  An inappropriate comment or even a misunderstanding of the intent of a comment can significantly reduce the perceived safety of a conversation.  Catching a conversation before it becomes unsafe can assist you in maintaining the environment where productive discussions take place.

Take note: Mutual Purpose is not a technique. You truly need to find that purpose and persuade the others it is important to you.

Mutual Respect is a condition of continued conversation.  When one of the group perceives disrespect, step out of the crucial conversation and address it.  The entire area of respect is one of which you should be keenly aware.  While the content of the conversation may be the culprit that caused disrespect, more likely it was the perceived intent of the comment that caused disrespect.  Keep your radar at attention for misunderstood intent.  Once a person feels disrespected, it is common for them to respond in-kind.  Then the entire conversation can reduce to all parties fighting for respect.  As a leader, you must break the cycle of fighting for respect and re-establish true Mutual Respect in the room in order for that crucial conversation to take place.

Undoubtedly, learning to create safe meetings for really important conversations takes a significant amount of effort.  However, the results of those conversations are what "unstick" organizations, allowing them to reach their full potential.  

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