Career With A Purpose 12.0: Handling Pivotal Conversations, Part I

Handling Pivotal Conversations, Part I

Career With A Purpose 12.0


A number of years ago, I was serving on the leadership team of a Trustee Board. One of the most surprising moments of my term was a crucial conversation our team had with the company’s CEO about the future direction of the organization. What could have been a somewhat tense, but ultimately successful goal setting (and relationship building) session turned into a meeting where the CEO blasted everyone at the table and walked out in an angry huff.

That experience led to some personal introspection and an intense interest in the art of handling important conversations. Over time, I began to see that life is fairly full of casual conversations that can unexpectedly turn into pivotal conversations, and the way we handle these interactions can impact the course of our lives (and sometimes the lives of others.)

For example, last year one Atlanta woman looked up from her reception desk at a large public elementary school to find a crazed gunman standing over her. His first words were, “we are all going to die today.” She remained calm and spoke to him with respect…and over the next 30 minutes she talked him into laying down his weapons, thereby saving the lives of over 800 students and administrators.

Of course, we have all seen the opposite outcome…where a poorly handled conversation left pain and damage. Damage that resulted in the crippling of a career, the severing of a precious relationship, or the angry violence of revenge.

And the surprising thing is…many times, it all boiled down to just a few crucial minutes of conversation. So how do we handle these make-it or break-it conversations? Especially when we rarely know to expect them.

Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson have written a book called Crucial Conversations, offering the reader tools for talking things out when words suddenly get confrontational, emotional, and the stakes are high.

Working with over 500 people in leadership, Patterson and Grenny studied singular conversations that had lasting impact and discovered that less successful managers usually fell into one of two patterns when things went wrong…they either blew off something that clearly needed to be addressed or they blew up and chewed everyone out. By contrast, leaders who had a more successful leadership track record had one thing in common.

When things went wrong, they went directly to the person responsible and expressed their concerns honestly, but in such a respectful way that the conversation strengthened the relationship instead of tearing it down. How did they do it? Look for some details in the second half of this article.