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Welcome to this issue of our free E-zine, People Skills for Skilled People! Today, we’ll tackle a special topic, an issue that comes up very often in our lives and carries enormous impact in the workplace and other places, too. It’s something we call “Pivotal Conversations.” 

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Navigating Through Pivotal Conversations
Vol.2, No. 2

We know what they are. They’re those critical, often tense, exchanges we have with a person we live or work with. The trouble is we almost always recognize them after they’ve occurred, and then are filled with ideas about what we could or should have said at the time.

We call these “Pivotal Conversations”—interpersonal encounters where there’s a lot at stake. A “Pivotal Conversation” is a candid and important discussion between two people on a sensitive subject that represents a turning point, favorable or unfavorable, in their relationship. Maybe you’re on a life-changing job interview, or in a conflict with a top-level executive peer, or on a high-powered project team where someone isn’t pulling his or her weight. Guaranteed, in situations like this, your ability to handle communication in a professional way can make all the difference for your organization—and you.

It’s probably in teams where we see the powerful role pivotal conversations play. And teams in trouble are the ones that 1) either haven’t had enough of these conversations (there are a lot of “undiscussables” around, or as one team member we know put it, “We’re ignoring the elephant sitting in the middle of the room.”) or 2) have experienced too many pivotal conversations going south. The biggest problem for members of teams like these is they often think that pivotal conversations are only about changing behavior and don’t recognize that pivotal conversations always change the relationships involved for better or worse. 

One type of pivotal conversation that gives leaders the most grief is giving criticism in the professional workplace. In fact, encounters like this are the best examples of pivotal conversations gone wrong since they usually result in a lowering of the quality of the relationship between the two parties. This doesn’t have to happen, of course; but people’s limited skill in handling touchy situations leads them down a path they can’t seem to control.

In this issue, let’s follow a typical sequence of events that occurs when someone has to give professional criticism to another team member. Say someone on the team isn’t getting reports in on time despite numerous warnings. Finally, you, as team leader, decide to confront the malingerer but are unsure of how to proceed. Here are some suggestions, both in format and words, of how to emerge successful from such an encounter, keeping the relationship intact or even advancing it.

1. Preparing for a Pivotal Conversation of Criticism

Rule #1: Never conduct this kind of pivotal conversation “on the fly” or in a state of emotional agitation. Cool heads think better. Rather postpone a tense encounter than enflame a situation and risk damaging a relationship.

Rule #2: Be conscious of the fact that all communication exists on two levels at once: task and relationship. In the context of giving criticism, getting the desired behavior is your task, but keeping the ongoing relationship on an even keel is also a priority.

Rule #3: Remember, criticism-giving is inherently emotional. Keep in mind the old proverb "People might forget what you said. They may even forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel." (see PSSP vol. 1, No.1). 

Rule #4: Remember that the “con” in conversation means “with” not “at.” In most criticism encounters, the criticizer usually talks at the criticizee. Keeping this rule in mind will help you move toward problem-solving once the initial emotional hurdles have been jumped.

2. Conducting the Pivotal Conversation of Criticism

Starting Out

As you begin confronting your team colleague, remember that in emotional or tense conversations, the first words out of your mouth count ten times more than anything you say afterward. Also remember that you’re the one who owns the problem, not the other person. You may not appreciate those reports coming in late, but your uncooperative team mate isn’t getting anywhere near the heartburn you are. Therefore, you’re best off when you start with an “I” statement rather than a “you” statement. Some samples include:

“I have a concern about something, and I’d like to talk with you about it.”
“Something’s on my mind, and I’d like to run it by you.”
“An issue came up, and I want to get your take on it.”

As you’re delivering lines like these, it’s critical to remember that as a leader, your attitude toward anything or anyone will tend to determine your colleagues’ attitudes toward those same things and people. Therefore, it’s highly advisable to maintain a neutral facial expression and an understated tone. This kind of introduction does a great deal to reduce the natural defensiveness of the person being criticized.

Moving to the Problem Behavior

Quite soon, you’ll move to describing the behavior you want changed. Be prepared for some mild defensiveness (mostly nonverbal with crossed arms, closed-off gestures, unpleasant or stressed facial expressions). At this point, you can “cushion” the blow by using or not using certain expressions.

1. Substitute “and” for “but.” “We’ve been able to get by so far with late reports, but and it’s really getting to a critical stage now.”

2. Use “challenge” or “issue” instead of “problem.” “The problem challenge these late reports are posing is that other groups aren’t getting the information they need on time.”

3. Avoid terms like “you need to” or “you have to.” Instead, say “the team needs.” “Our team needs to have the reports on time” versus “You need to get the reports in on time.”

Now here’s the point where most criticism conversations pivot the wrong way. As you start to describe the problem behavior in more detail, you’ll almost always encounter stiffer defensiveness. Now, in addition to nonverbal defensiveness, it will come across verbally as well. The other person is most likely to justify why the behavior has continued (“You know perfectly well that I’ve lost my assistant. No wonder I’ve missed a few deadlines!”).

You need to diffuse this next stage of defensiveness and get the conversation pivoting right. Here’s how to do it:

Affirm and Validate the Other Person.

This procedure is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean agreeing with the substance of the person’s response. It does mean affirming the person’s feeling or recognizing the other person’s viewpoint. One response could be “Anyone would be challenged by the loss of a key assistant.” A response like this opens the door to reducing the emotionalism of the criticism, moving to a fair-minded position on both sides, and enhancing the problem-solving process. And as the reciprocity rule states, if I’m fair-minded and calm, you’ll tend to be fair-minded and calm―our total desired state for a productive pivotal conversation.

Correcting the Problem Behavior Together

To really achieve change, you can take advantage of a major shift of rhetorical style: move from making statements to asking questions. Statements tend to result in the “blame game.” “All you have to do is organize yourself better.” (Your colleague will LOVE to hear that!) Instead, try this question, “How could we work together to help organize that report writing operation?” Question-asking has two major benefits: 1) it sends the message to the other person that you’re open to his or her ideas, and 2) it focuses the person’s attention directly on the behavior you’re seeking.

3. The Missing Step: Getting a Commitment for Change

This is the part of the criticism sequence that almost everyone forgets (maybe they’re just relieved to have gotten this far!). By omitting this one, we’re just asking for the behavior to resume. 

The key to making this step work is to discuss the consequences if the behavior continues. Here’s one way to put it. “So we’ve come to an agreement on the expectations we’ve been talking about, and if this doesn’t hold, I’ll have to look at a reorganization of the team.” Expressions like this show you mean business, but in a professional and respectful way.

If you structure those pivotal conversations in this manner, you ensure that they’ll “pivot” in the direction of permanent change and enhanced professional relationships.

Yours in communication excellence!

Jan and Neal Larsen Palmer
Communication Excellence Institute

And that's our tip on People Skills for Skilled People for today!

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