The key to crucial conversations

(MDP Series #5)

As a manager, where do you have the most impact? Is it the decisions you take? The results you achieve? The profits you bring in, even?

Arguments can be made for all these, and more. But if we focus on your daily role and the impact you have on an individual level, maybe it’s your communication that is key. More specifically, certain conversations that you have as a manager are crucial.

Continuing our series relating to Maximum’s Management Development Programme, the fifth module in the programme is focused on ‘crucial conversations’.

What is a crucial conversation?

The term ‘crucial conversation’ is often used in place of ‘difficult conversation’ and refers to a discussion with:

  • High stakes
  • Differing opinions/positions/perspectives
  • Strong emotions


  • Potentially significant impact.

For most new(-ish) managers, the most common kind of crucial conversation is giving feedback on performance or conduct to a member of the team.

Why is feedback difficult?

Few managers look forward to feedback conversations, especially when the feedback aims to address an issue (such as underperformance).

The reason is simple: it’s so easy to get wrong.

Delivering ‘negative/developmental feedback’ or ‘constructive criticism’ can easily result in a negative reaction from the person on the receiving end: whether it’s just defensiveness, an attempt to dodge or shift responsibility, or just anger and upset.

This is why it’s tempting not to initiate a crucial conversation in the first place: the reaction of the other person, the possibility of not getting your message across and understood, the risk of damaging the relationship you have with that person… No wonder roughly two-thirds of people feel stressed or anxious if they know a difficult conversation is coming up.

But… it’s your job as a manager to have these conversations – talk with people about how they’re performing, etc. – and in fact, your success as a manager will (at least in part) depend on them. Crucial indeed!

So acknowledge the emotional impact of telling someone something they almost certainly would prefer not to hear and…

Listen! – the key to a crucial conversation

Often, the fight/flight response people have when they receive feedback is about feeling threatened. Part of that is the differential in power (you’re the boss, remember?) and part is the one-sided nature of so much feedback. This is a conversation and should therefore involve two people talking, communicating, exchanging information, etc.

One of your key skills as a manager conversing crucially is to listen to what the other person is saying, to notice their reactions, and how they may be feeling in response to the feedback.

The best way to be sure that your message has been received and understood, that you have not missed out on any critical information or perspective, and that the other person is committed to taking action as a result, is to pay attention to them – invite them to talk/respond/contribute and then listen to what they say.

In a sense, this means taking a more coaching approach to the conversation – you focus on them (after all, it is their work/behaviour you’re discussing), listen, engage with their situation and perspective. Again, the clue is in the word ‘conversation’. The goal of any crucial conversation is change and as a manager, you’re there not just to initiate the conversation but also to support your team member towards a solution.


At Maximum, we believe in the value of management development, and the value of the individual manager. The MDP is one of our core programmes and we focus closely on the impact and consequences of the manager role because it’s a powerful role and what you do matters – one way or the other!

For more information on management development, and how we can use it to address your specific organisational and business needs, check out our MDP page or give us a call on 01582 463460. We’re here to help.

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