The What and How of Crucial Conversations

Headshot TightEngaging colleagues and addressing sensitive, divisive issues is a part of the day-to-day existence of an attorney. The ability to do these things while maintaining one’s composure is often at the core of building relationships. The ability to do these things while consistently reaching a meaningful conclusion is what separates leaders from the pack.

In the groundbreaking book, “Crucial Conversations,” the writing team of Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillian and Al Switzler explored the key factors necessary for consistent success in crucial conversations. This 6-part series will examine the aspects of the crucial conversation and how to ensure you are having more success than failure.

Characteristics of Crucial Conversations

Being successful begins with knowing the characteristics of a crucial conversation.

1)  Opinions Vary - The chasm between the opinions or the entrenchment on those opinions will determine how “crucial” the conversation has the ability to become.

2)  Stakes are High - The outcome can often determine how vested an individual will be in the conversation. A conversation regarding placement in a particular practice group  or on a particular litigation team can impact the path of an attorney’s career.

3)  Emotions Run Strong – Emotional investment is the one characteristic that is most often associated with the crucial conversation. It’s the most visible of the characteristics; however, they are all equally important.

4)  Tough Issues - When there is an issue that doesn’t provide either a clear path to resolution or an easy basis for opinion. The uncertainty of the resolution opens the door for the above three characteristics to play a role in the conversation.

Technology – The Double Edged Sword

Time constraints and filing deadlines are an integral part of an attorney’s life. Luckily, technology has helped to change the way we communicate. E-mails and texts have become a primary means of sharing information, seeking clarification and addressing issues. It’s shortened turn-around and freed up time to generate work product and strategize.

While technology is certainly expedient and efficient, the use of technology in place of face-to-face communication is not a communication best practice for crucial conversations. In fact, more often than not, it can escalate a very manageable exchange into a crucial one.

E-mails, texts and voicemails are great for conveying facts; however, rarely is a crucial conversation going to be decided primarily on the presentation of facts. More often than not, it will be on the nuances of positions. Attempting to convey that without the benefit of personal interaction often leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Did I Say That??

How often have we written a harmless e-mail, sent it to a colleague or friend and received a response that was so hostile/ antagonistic we were immediately taken aback. Our minds raced to, “How could they get THAT from my e-mail?” “What e-mail did THEY read?”

Then we do one of a number of things: 1) We send the e-mail to a 3rd party for their opinion of both the initial e-mail and the response; 2) We immediately pick up the phone and try to clear the air; 3) We walk to their office to clear the air; 4) We sit in silence and try to figure out what the “real issue” is between you and your friend or colleague; or 5) We return the salvo with our own well-crafted retort thus escalating the conversation to crucial-defcon #1.

The above example has happened to all of us over very benign matters. The reason is simple: You rarely know the mood or countenance of the recipient at the time they read your correspondence. Perhaps your practice leader just left a meeting with the equity partners and was berated for not generating enough new business. Maybe your colleague is having marital issues and the stress is becoming stifling.

If you are about to approach a dialogue and it has one of the characteristics of a crucial conversation, the first step is to prepare to have the conversation in person. Face-to-face should be the starting point for any crucial conversation. When it comes to crucial conversations, it’s better to err on the side of caution than expediency.


Elliott Robinson, JD

Elliott Robinson, JD

Elliott Robinson, JD is an Executive Coach, Workshop Facilitator & Mediator with Trove, Inc. ( Elliott brings his unique insight to the areas of leadership development, communications and career advancement. Elliott’s writing can be found at:, and his relationship blog, Elliott is the co-host of Blog Talk Radio shows: The Wellness Blueprint ( and Career Impact Radio by Trove, Inc. ( You can follow him on Twitter at: @ERobinsoncoach. You can contact Elliott at


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