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Leading with the truth: how to handle crucial conversations

"A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment." – Coach John Wooden

Have you ever experienced saying something and, literally as the words were leaving your lips, you knew you would regret it? Ouch. Unfortunately, this tends to occur at precisely the wrong time, as we are discussing a particularly important or emotional topic, under stress or pressed for time, and with people important to us.

After character development, effective communications is one of the most important skill sets a leader needs to develop. In fact, I believe that empathy, which is key to character development, is also the foundation of all effective communication. While learning how to communicate as a leader regularly is important, knowing how to communicate during a crucial conversation is what really matters. People may overlook a faux pas when the stakes are low, but will find it unforgivable when stakes are high, egos are in overdrive, and emotions in the danger zone. Great leaders tread carefully and thoughtfully during these times.

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While crucial or critical conversation represents a very small percentage of our conversational time, they can largely define our relationship with others. These are the crucial conversations that can make or break a leader, and either establish reputations that soar to great heights or flounder in mediocrity. These conversation are usually defined by a heightened degree of importance, risk and vulnerability to both parties. For example: a conversation with an employee over poor performance, demotion, or denial of an opportunity; a conversation with a spouse concerning a significant parenting issues; a conversation with a business partner or workmate about a work relationship problem.

Becoming skilled in handling critical conversations will help you build cooperative and rewarding relationships, trust and confidence with people you care for most, while building your leadership muscle. Try the following:

Lead with the truth. It is always easier be empathetic and genuine when you speak plainly and truthfully. While people may not like to hear it, they will certainly appreciate your candor and respect you for it.

Be authentic. Don't try to be anyone but yourself. Speak from the heart, in your own words and in your own way, demonstrating both courage and sincerity.

Collect your thoughts. Take a moment to reflect upon what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it.

Pace yourself. If emotions are running high, literally take a deep breath and slow down. While it may seem like an eternity to you, the pause in the conversation will be normal and helpful. Never lose control.

Get perspective. View the conversation from the other person's perspective. On high alert we develop tunnel vision, determined to get through our script. Try to look at the situation from the other person's perspective, and understand their emotional state.

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Avoid full stop words. At all costs, avoid any emotionally laden words or phrases that can explode the conversation quickly and bring it to a quick stop. Avoid phrases like "you should", "you always", or particularly descriptive negative words. Speak the way you would like to be spoken too.

Be brief. Get right to the point early in the conversation and avoid a big build up. You should have made your main point within the first minute, if not 30 seconds.

Focus on the issue, not the person. Staying focused on the issue or behaviors to be discussed, not the person. Leaders build up people on their strengths, not weaknesses, so do the same verbally.

Say more, talk less. Focus on the quality of the conversation, not the quantity. Say what needs to be said, and then move on. Don't let the conversation degrade to a marathon session that will bring up tangential issues and cause more problems for the future.

Don't bring up multiple issues. Deal with one issue at a time, to avoid a conversation getting overly complex and out of control. Avoid trying to deal with multiple grievances simultaneously. Respectful defer other topics to a later time. No matter what happens, and how poorly you feel you did, don't brood on dwell on your performance. Handle the conversation as well as you possibly can, and then move on. Self-doubt will erode your own confidence and lessen your effectiveness in the future. Having done your best, let it stand!

Eamonn Percy is the principal of The Percy Group, a business advisory and capital firm focused on helping business leaders accelerate the growth of sales and profit. Subscribe to his newsletter at

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