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communicate_betterA challenge for all small business owners, even bread stores, is finding and keeping good employees. The best business owners realize that the culture of the business impacts employee satisfaction in important ways. A key component of that culture is the approach to communication.

Put a group of people together and there is bound to be conflict -- misunderstandings, hurt feelings, confusion and emotional responses. How do business teams successfully navigate these waters?

I’m reading a book that has some great advice on this topic – Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. This book has been on my “to read” list for a while and I’m wishing I had read it sooner.

It’s great information about the communication process that can help a team of any size working on a common goal. Here’s what I’m learning:

What is a “Crucial Conversation”?

Everyone has crucial conversations, although we may not realize it. They often make life difficult for us because we aren’t naturally very good at them. Here is the authors’ definition:

Crucial Conversation: A discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.

I don’t know about you, but my brain doesn’t work well when emotions are high and I’m in a disagreement, especially when I wasn’t expecting it. And unfortunately, the consequences of a failed conversation can be extensive and lasting, especially when you are the leader of a team or the owner of the business. Or a spouse, friend or parent, for that matter!

A Fool’s Choice and the Better Alternative

Somewhere along the line, most of us bought in to what the authors call the “Fool’s Choice”:

The mistake most of us make in our crucial conversations is we believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend.

Sound familiar? There’s a better alternative that’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment – dialogue. Good communicators don’t buy into the Fool’s Choice. They pause and approach a difficult conversation with the intent of being both truthful and respectful. Their goal is to encourage discussion and attempt to get all the relevant information on the table.

Pool of Shared Meaning

At the beginning of a crucial conversation, each person has their own opinions, perceptions, solutions, feelings, history and beliefs on the topic at hand. Think of this as that person’s individual pool of meaning. Effective dialogue is the process of each individual adding information from their own pool into a shared pool of meaning.

The advantages of this are clear:

  1. Our individual perceptions aren’t always reality. As we get more accurate information and other perspectives, we all get smarter. Better information leads to better decisions and better outcomes. 
  2. A shared decision-making process helps everyone involved in implementing the decision understand it better. If people don’t add their input into the shared pool (likely because they are still buying into the Fool’s Choice and choosing to remain silent) they may end up passively resisting or criticizing behind the decision-makers back.

A shallow pool of shared meaning isn’t optimal, so it’s important that everyone feels safe contributing their thoughts. That’s not an easy outcome and it’s the responsibility of all the people involved to create a safe environment.

This process reminds me of an African proverb:


The book is full of tactics for improving safety so people will share and not choose silence, and how to handle situations where people manipulate the process and force their meaning into the pool. The first step is to start by examining yourself . . .

Start with Heart

The author’s first principle for dialogue is to start by examining our own motives, because our motives often lead to ineffective behavior in a crucial conversation:

“. . . the first step to achieving the results we really want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us.”

So if you’re still with me and are wondering what you can do to improve your dialogue skills, we can break this down into four parts.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself at the Beginning of a Conversation That is Turning Crucial:

1. What do I really want here?

This question forces you to examine your motives, which in the heat of the moment may have shifted to a place you don’t want to go. If you are feeling attacked by a conflicting perspective, a knee-jerk motivation might be to save face or win at all costs. Instead of letting that feeling rule your behavior, try to step back and think about the big picture.

2. What do I really want for others?

Do I really just want them to give in, accept my ideas and stop having independent thoughts? Of course not. You want others to freely contribute their ideas, without fear, over time. Winning one battle isn’t worth losing that.

3. What do I want for the relationship?

Remember the Fool’s Choice and don’t be a fool! There are more options than just 1) getting results or 2) preserving a relationship. Causing your brain to start thinking about all the options will actually help slow it down and get it out of the “flight or fight” mode that is often triggered by conflict.

4. How would I behave if I really wanted those results?

Once you start looking for the “ands” (peace and honesty, results and relationships, etc.) real dialogue and some surprising solutions will start to emerge.

The authors claim that mastering the art of crucial conversations is:

“The most important set of skills you’ll ever master.”

That’s a bold claim that smacks of hyperbole. But think about it – doesn’t almost everything we do at work and home involve communicating with others? And eventually we’ll run into a topic where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run high with everyone we know. What if these conversations were as productive as possible? What could we achieve?

Communication is one of the many processes business owners must navigate. You can avoid much of the trial and error by tapping into business processes that are already proven effective.

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Read more about business communication in these posts:

Image credit (top): © Can Stock Photo

I'm Debbie Huber. I love great bread, nice people and authentic businesses. As a veteran employee at Great Harvest, I've met amazing small business owners and eaten a lot of whole wheat bread. I've even baked it myself, and there is not much in life that is more immediately satisfying than pulling trays of your own bread out of the oven. Except maybe watching people put butter on a steaming slice, enjoy that first bite and say "wow! Just like my grandma used to make..." or "this is whole wheat? But it tastes so good..." In my free time I enjoy exploring Montana, golfing with my family and teaching business-related classes as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Montana - Western.