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Let’s say that either you avoid tough issues or when you do bring

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them up, you’re on your worst behavior. What’s the big deal? How high are the stakes anyway? Do the consequences of a fouled-up conversation extend beyond the conversation itself?

Should you worry?




Actually, the effects of conversations gone bad can be both devastating and far reaching. Our research has shown that strong

relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw from the same source of power-the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics.

So here’s the audacious claim. Master your crucial conversa­ tions and you’ll kick-start your career, strengthen your relation­ ships, and improve your health. As you and others master high­ stakes discussions, you’ll also vitalize your organization and your community.

Kick-Start Your Career

Could the ability to master crucial conversations help your career? Absolutely. Twenty-five years of research with twenty thousand people and hundreds of organizations has taught us that individu­ als who are the most influential-who can get things done, and at

the same time build on relationships-are those who master their

crucial conversations. For instance, high performers know how to stand up to the

boss without committing career suicide. We’ve all seen people

hurt their careers over tough issues. You may have done it your­ self. Fed up with a lengthy and unhealthy pattern of behavior, you finally speak out-but a bit too abruptly. Oops. Or maybe an

issue becomes so hot that as your peers twitch and fidget them­ selves into a quivering mass of potential stroke victims, you decide to say something. It’s not a pretty discussion-but some­ body has to have the guts to keep the boss from doing something stupid. (Gulp.)

As it turns out, you don’t have to choose between being hon­ est and being effective. You don’t have to choose between candor and your career. People who routinely hold crucial conversations

and hold them well are able to express controversial and even




risky opinions in a way that gets heard. Their bosses, peers, and direct reports listen without becoming defensive or angry.

What about your career? Are there crucial conversations that you’re not holding or not holding well? Is this undermining your influence? And more importantly, would your career take a step

forward if you could improve how you’re dealing with these conversations?

Improve Your Organization

Okay, so individual careers may sink or swim based on crucial conversations, but how about organizations? Surely a soft-and­ gushy factor such as how you talk to one another doesn’t have an impact on the not so soft-and-gushy bottom line.

For twenty-five years we (the authors) explored this very issue. We (and hundreds of others) searched for keys to organizational success. Most of us studying the elusive topic figured that some­ thing as large as a company’s overall success would depend on something as large as a company’s strategy, structure, or systems.

After all, organizations that maintain best-in-class productivity rely on elegant performance-management systems. Widespread productivity couldn’t result from anything less, could it? We weren’t alone in our thinking. Every organization that attempted

to bring about improvements-at least the companies we had

heard of-began by revamping their performance-management systems.

Then we actually studied those who had invested heavily in spiffy new performance-management systems. It turns out that

we were dead wrong. Changing structures and systems alone did little to improve performance. For example, one study of five hundred stunningly productive organizations revealed that peak performance had absolutely nothing to do with forms, pro­ cedures, and policies that drive performance management. In




fact, half of the highflyers had almost no formal performance­ management processes.!

What’s behind their success? It all comes down to how people handle crucial conversations. Within high-performing com­ panies, when employees fail to deliver on their promises, col­ leagues willingly and effectively step in to discuss the problem.

In the worst companies, poor performers are first ignored and then transferred. In good companies, bosses eventually deal with problems. In the best companies, everyone holds everyone else accountable-regardless of level or position. The path to high productivity passes not through a static system, but through face-to-face conversations at all levels.

Solve pressing problems. The best companies in almost any critical area are the ones that have developed the skills for deal­ ing effectively with conversations that relate to that specific topic. For example:

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