Mastering Critical Conversations

Apr 30, 2024 | By Saranne Durham
Father navigating a critical conversation with son on a park bench.

Critical conversations aren’t avoidable. This is because crucial discussions are a necessary part of successfully doing life.  Therefore, becoming proficient in them can make both your personal and professional life easier.  

What is a Critical Conversation? 

For everyone, critical conversations are usually the ones we regard as being high-stakes conversations. This is because the focus of these discussions is something that we have a vested interest in. For example, asking a relative to repay an overdue loan or addressing a lack of relationship intimacy. Often there are differing opinions and because of this, critical conversations can become emotionally charged.  

Being able to navigate a tough conversation successfully requires one to know that you’re expecting to or are currently engaged in one. It is possible to only realise how important a conversation was in hindsight. Or alternatively, be so overwhelmed by the emotions attached to a topic that things go array and communication breaks down. By knowing what’s transpiring, you are more likely to be able to use your communication tools to successfully navigate a conversation. 

These are three ways by which you can recognise that you’re having a critical conversation. 

How to Recognise a Critical Conversation 

  1. Physical Signs: You start to experience anxiety or stress-related symptoms. For example, a racing heart, sweating, rapid shallow breathing, dry throat or mouth, muscle spasms or a headache. 
  2. Emotional Signs: Strong and escalating (intensifying) feelings, such as anger or fear, manifest. 
  3. Behavioural Signs: Deviation from productively participating. For example, raising voices, keeping quiet, not being upfront about thoughts or feelings and trying to physically retreat. 

Is Avoidance a Good Strategy? 

There are several reasons why people battle to have important conversations. And as a result, why so many try and avoid or put them off for as long as possible.  

The reality is avoidance doesn’t make things easier. More times than not it compounds the issue by making it more complex to solve. Alternatively, delaying an inevitable conversation results in further escalating existing emotions. Another possible result of avoiding an important conversation is that an issue’s consequences are magnified. For example, not addressing a simple misunderstanding within a relationship could result in breaking up.  

Therefore, it’s advisable that if you struggle to have tough conversations, it’s best to build communication skills so you can navigate difficult conversations rather than avoiding them. 

Conversational Challenges 

Very few, if anyone, enjoys having a difficult conversation. Therefore, navigating them is a universal difficulty. However, some difficulties are more likely to be encountered by men. These can add to the complexities and challenges inherent within the critical conversations they are faced with. 

3 Challenges We May Have in Conversations 

1. Voicing Emotion.

Some of us may have been taught from childhood not to express our feelings. We may, therefore, struggle with emotional verbalisation. This can cause us to withdraw from or be silent during important conversations.  Not because we don’t want to participate, but it could be because you’re a little stuck or confused about how or if you should express yourself. It also may mean we may struggle to effectively manage the emotions of others in a conversation – allowing a safe space for expression and effectively managing our own emotions in response. 

2. Aim of the Conversation.

Men may often feel the need to fix the problem. Whereas sometimes what is more important for the other party is to express their emotions and have them heard. Processing emotions alongside someone else may feel somewhat uncomfortable for the listener. However, the person sharing may not actually be looking for a solution in the conversation. What they’re really trying to get out of a conversation is to process what they know they need to do. Thus, don’t assume the aim of a conversation is to fix the problem or challenge, rather ask what is needed. Consider whether a head/heart response is most helpful or a combination of the two. 

3. Varying Linguistic Style.

Research shows that the way we learn to speak in childhood affects how others judge our competency, credibility and confidence. Often the learned result is that girls and boys find different ways of creating rapport and negotiating status. Girls tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the rapport dimension of relationships. In contrast, boys tend to learn rituals that focus on the status dimension. Our characteristic communication style carries through into adulthood and impacts who gets heard and is given credit during a conversation as well as what ultimately gets done. It’s common to assume that others are using the same linguistic style (tone, speed, and loudness) as oneself. However, doing this is likely to lead to misunderstandings and incorrect perceptions, especially in a critical conversation where stress can further influence linguistic style. 

What’s helpful to remember is that most times an important conversation is a high-stakes conversation for all involved. This means that it’s unlikely that only one party is going into the conversation feeling a sense of trepidation.  

Barriers to Having Easy Crucial Conversations 

Unfortunately, the reality is that for men there are several stereotypes that may work against them when trying to initiate or partake in an important conversation.  These stereotypes may create unrealistic expectations that means a man starts off a conversation on the back foot. This is because he’s likely to have to overcome various assumptions made about him before his views are heard. These are 5 possible stereotypes men might encounter when they go into a conversation. 

5 Stereotypes Men Encounter: 

  1. Self-Sufficient: He won’t really listen because he believes he can do it better himself. 
  2. Knowledgeable: He won’t ask how or be interested in someone’s view, because he thinks he already knows best. 
  3. Hypersexuality: He’s more interested in conquest than fostering intimacy
  4. Act Tough: He’s not going to share honestly, especially when it comes to emotions, because he must be the tough guy. 
  5. Aggressive Approach: He’s likely to be aggressive and try to bully so he can be in control. 

    Assumptions like these can make the person assuming them more reactive and emotional in a conversation than they would otherwise have been, or they may give up sooner or perhaps not even engage in the conversation at all. This can often lead to the creation of barriers and obstacles in the conversation, in future conversations and in the relationship as a whole. Which makes having a toolkit of conversational skills essential for navigating important conversations. 

    How to Become Better at Having Critical Conversations 

    Difficult and important conversations should not be avoided. But conversing proficiently is a skill that can be mastered. Having a productive conversation and contributing meaningfully within it starts by being grounded and knowing how to express oneself. It’s an essential life skill that, once mastered, can augment both professional and personal spheres of life. The most efficient and effective way to accomplish this is by doing a course focused on How to Have Critical Conversations. This will assist in building a mix of skills and knowledge which will enable successful navigation through tough conversations. It will thereby show you how to collaborate with others to achieve the best outcomes in these conversations.  

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