Earlier this week, I attended a conference for the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. The Forum is a network of associations from across the country, so I was glad to connect in-person with our colleagues.
The conference planning committee did an excellent job providing relevant content. For me, our most interesting plenary session was on Crucial Conversations, delivered by Ron McMillan from VitalSmarts. The stage was set for this session as we talked about how the field of philanthropy is changing. Transitions like these often require staff and members of regional associations to engage in difficult conversations about future directions and the role associations play in supporting grantmakers on their journeys.
McMillan and his team call these discussions “crucial conversations” (which also happens to be the title of their best-selling book). Crucial conversations are those that have high stakes and opposing opinions, and that trigger strong emotions. They are crucial because decisions about our future are often on the line. In other words, these are conversations that matter.
Unfortunately, when it matters most, we often do our worst. Others judge us by the way we handle these conversations. While crucial conversations make up only about 10% of the conversations we have, they are the conversations that people remember us by.
When the stakes are high and there are disagreements on what to do and our emotions are coursing powerfully through us, people tend toward two reactions:
- We go silent and cave in without effectively communicating our point of view, or
- We go violent (sometimes physically, but most often vocally) and let our emotions get the better of us, so that the content of the discussion becomes clouded by the outburst.
There are consequences to both of these reactions. When we “go silent” and shut down, the problem that we are trying to solve only gets worse, because we fail to be honest and open about our thoughts on the matter. When this happens, organizations get stuck in old ways and old ideas. When we “go violent,” other people react by getting defensive, or worse, getting even. Problems don’t get solved because the conversations are so volatile that we lose sight of what we were arguing about in the first place.
Master communicators neither “go silent” or “go violent”. They remain calm. They ask probing questions. They encourage dialogue, or the free flow of meaning. And they make it safe for others to join them in crucial conversations by creating mutual purpose (“You know that I care about your goals”) and mutual respect (“You know that I care about you”).
Crucial conversations are hard, but they happen every day in foundations and nonprofits. Think about the conversations that take place in your organization: When do crucial conversations come up? How are they handled? What can you do to make your organization a safe place for these kinds of conversations? Please comment on this post with your tips and tools for how you engage in crucial conversations.
-Stephanie Jacobs, MCF director of member services