Founder, Quality & Equality Ltd | Academic OD Practitioner
25 years of research shows that the most productive organisations are not due to having the best performance management systems , nor procedures or policies, but rather whether people have the skill to handle crucial conversations..
What is crucial conversation?
It is a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions often run strong. The tendency of many of us is to back away from such conversation as we fear we will hurt others, worst still, it's our fear that we will get hurt and our relationship with others, whom we aim to have such conversation, will deteriorate. Through time, by regularly “introjecting” (swallowing) our voices, we become masterful in avoiding these tough but crucial conversations.
In organisation, such ability to hold crucial conversation is especially important when it comes to areas like health and safety, performance and productivity, diversity, quality, and other key topics of change. The inability to name the issues, state the facts, share your view while asking others to share their view, and the lack of any willingness to take the lead to surface the differences between us and others, debate the merits of each differences, then test the various options to search for robust solutions can often compromise an organisations ability to stay in the top quartile performance. No wonder the ability to handle crucial conversation is found to be a key feature in the most productive organisations.
As for OD/HR practitioners, our ability to help client organisations to grow in this area is dependent on not what we say but what we do to demonstrate how these conversations can be done with grace and impact through the use of our voice. This ability is not a primary skill nor a competency, rather it is a matter of will, courage, and our decision on how best to serve the greater good of the organisation.
So, let me ask, how’s the state of your voice?
I would expect most of us would find it hard to say “I am very happy about my use of my voice.” This is because throughout our lives, especially when we are young, there are powerful factors that shape our ability to use our voices. For example, early messages we receive like….”don’t talk too much, you are too young to have an opinion, who said you can talk like that? If you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all, bite your tongue, speak only when you are spoken to…..etc.” On top of that, many of us who are psychoanalytical savvy are fearful to let out our “id” the subconscious and unspeakable stuff – those raw, wild, dark, and scary aspects of what we truly think. As a result, many of us begin to distrust our own voice.
But our voice is the main instrument through which our views are shared and made known. So for those of us who are paid to share discernment and possible views on what processes need to be set up to enable the organisation to participate in self-renewal journey, we then need to rethink about how to use our voice for effectiveness. We need to intentionally bracket those fears and give space to our voice to fulfil our commission.
What does speaking with our FULL voice mean? it means owning the fact that there are really powerful aspects of our voice which has many gifts to offer – especially when we have made moves towards integration of who we are. According to those authors who study human voices, we can deliberately access a variety of our vocal resources, we just need to discern what situation requires what type of voice from us, or a combination of voices to get people and the system through the tough terrain of crucial conversation.
- Earth Voice
- Fire Voice
- Water Voice
- Metal Voice
- Air Voice
In the past couple of years, I have been supporting and trouble-shooting a number of quality projects - especially when regulators come in and serve warnings to the organisation. In most of those situations, there are always a lot of people with post-perspective wisdom who said “see I told you so….we just knew this would happen.” By then the cost to the organisation – both in reputation and finance is too high. I wonder if these people had been willing to use their voice to carry out tough and crucial conversations, whether the result would be different. Similar things happen to us consultants (both internal and external) – do we often say “see what I mean, if they had chosen to go this way, the project may not have failed.” We should reflect on whether we have exhausted our voice to prevent that type of situation from happening.
So, it is important for us to do some diagnosis of the way we use (or not) our voice by asking:
1. What is the condition of our voice in the work place?
2. How wide is the range we have in terms of using our voice?
3. What is the dominant voice we use? How effective it is across a diverse set of conditions?
4. What type of situation led you and me to introject the whole?
5. What voices do the work place need from us?
6. What are the developmental steps we need to take to demonstrate to our clients how to hold crucial conversation?
Dag Hammerskjold once said “the more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you hear what is sounding outside.” So may I encourage us all to focus on things that matter more than our fear. Remember when we choose to step beyond our comfort zone it can be a powerful way to diminish our fear and boost our courage. Go and stretch your voice in service of the system we serve.
NOTE: some of the ideas were extracted from CRUCIAL Conversations: Tool for talking when stakes are high by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler McGraw Hill, 2002