Feeling Stuck? Might Be Time for a Crucial Conversation

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Feeling Stuck? Might Be Time for a Crucial Conversation

The Vendor Gone AWOL

I have been working with one vendor, Sebastian, for many years. I can honestly say that Sebastian is brilliant when it comes to numbers. He knows how to handle my books in a way that’s easy and intuitive.

He Helps Me Enormously… When He Is On


When he is on, he advises me on my finances in ways that help me enormously. Let me stress…when he is on. Because Sebastian goes AWOL, or missing, sometimes. More than sometimes. I won’t hear from him for a few weeks; he won’t answer emails and I sometimes wait for an answer for 10+ days, which is infuriating.

Every time I think it’s time to find a new vendor, Sebastian shows up with a new financial tip that makes my life easier. So then I decide to keep him as a vendor after all.

However, after repeated AWOL experiences, I decided it was time to have a crucial conversation with him.

It Was Time For a Crucial Conversation

Crucial conversations. The term makes it sound like it’s a life or death conversation. It’s not. It’s a concept pioneered by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler based on the premise that if you find yourself stuck in a personal or work situation, what is actually holding you back is the avoidance of a crucial conversation.

You Feel Stuck, But You’re Not

This is not a concept they merely discussed over coffee while pulling an all-nighter. It is based on 25 years of studying communicators who are considered influential by their peers and managers, pinpointing what makes them different than those less influential. What they found was that their subject’s ability to skillfully deal with conversations set them apart from the pack. The good news is, this skill-set is easy to learn, and once it is learned, will allow you to face anyone in any situation, regardless of power, position, or authority.

It Often Feels Like Life and Death

While a crucial conversation doesn’t necessarily indicate a life or death situation, it often feels like life or death because the conversation has escalated to red alert level. It’s more than just a conflict. It’s when the stakes are high and emotions run strong. Some examples could be when someone feels discriminated against, when a product launch is about to go awry or when team tension is running higher than usual due to rumored layoffs. Another example is my situation with Sebastian, the vendor who loved to go AWOL, which we’ll come back to.

So what do you do when it’s time for a crucial conversation? Here are seven steps from Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler’s book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High: 

Take These 7 Steps When It’s Time For a Crucial Conversation

Crucial Conversation Steps

  1. Start with Heart: What do you want from this conversation? Identify exactly what is at stake with this conversation to maintain your conviction.
  2. Learn to Look: It’s important to be on the lookout for a mutual purpose. Is the conversation being held with mutual dialogue or defensiveness?
  3. Master Your Story: Make sure you look back at all the factors leading up to this crucial conversation. Being armed with the facts allows for a more direct and balanced conversation, not based wholly on emotions or ‘he-said, she-said’.
  4. Make it Safe: If you notice that you or others are moving away from the dialogue into avoidance or defensiveness, it’s time to do something that makes everyone involved more comfortable. Show interest; ask questions, smile, or have a time-out to restore the safety.
  5. State Your Path: Share your facts and conclusions in a way that will make the other party feel safe telling their story, too.
  6. Explore the Other’s Path: Listening is a key element to communication and EQ, yet so many people don’t do it well. Asking questions and truly listening to the other’s story, with your ears, your eyes (for non-verbal cues), and energetically will allow you both to find commonalities and differences between you, leading to greater understanding and openness in the conversation.
  7. Move to Action: Come to a consensus about what will happen, document who does what by when and settle on a way to follow up.

In Truth I Didn’t Handle It Beautifully

So let’s get back to the crucial conversation that I needed to have with the often-AWOL Sebastian. In truth, I didn’t handle it beautifully and I didn’t follow the exact steps in the model. I’ll explain what happened in the context of the model, and I’ll let you decide how I could have handled it differently.

Okay, so what exactly did I want from my conversation? I knew for this to go well, I had to Start With Heart. And this wasn’t about expressing my frustration. I wanted him to know that I value his expertise and ideas. And although we have very different communication styles, we work well together when we both engage with each other. If we don’t engage together, our long-term relationship is at stake.

I needed to define our mutual purpose. And then it hit me—Sebastian and I didn’t have a mutual purpose. We never defined that. I hired him to help me with my accounts and we’ve worked together since then. It’s transactional. There is no purpose. Hmmm…maybe that’s the problem? I hadn’t noticed our lack of mutual purpose before; I needed to Learn to Look.

To further prepare for this crucial conversation, I had to make sure to Master My Story. What were my facts? Well, it took him 10 days to answer my last 3 emails. He was unprepared for our last meeting, asking me what our agenda was. My accounts aren’t updated yet this month.


We met at my office over coffee, which felt a little awkward at first since we usually video chat. So while that didn’t necessarily Make is Safe from the start, once we started talking about our purpose, we both leaned in to the conversation and got excited about the possibilities. However, I had to self-manage my emotions as I was still frustrated by him going AWOL.

Despite my frustrations, I knew my purpose for the conversation. But what did Sebastian want? I wanted to Explore His Path, so I asked and I listened. It turns out he was getting bored with my work. He wanted to move on to bigger clients. Yet, he valued our relationship and didn’t want to ‘fire’ me. Wow…that was a news flash to me. Why didn’t he ever tell me this before? After all, I’m approachable. He explained that he was afraid of hurting our long-term relationship.

So now what? Well, for the first time in years of working together, we were truly honest with each other. We each stated our own path and showed our fears. Now it was time to Move to Action.

Yet it didn’t have to be binary; my first coach said there are 16 solutions to each challenge. He always made me find 16 solutions before I could make a move, which frustrated me to no end. Yet his premise is right; we often stop looking after two or three ideas.

Without a Common Purpose There Is No Motion Forward

What’s the solution that honors both of us? The first step was to find a common purpose. Without that, there was no motion forward. So Sebastian and I determined that we both valued creativity and innovation. We also valued trust and long-term relationships.

So what’s the common purpose amongst all that? To create new ways to work together that engaged both of us, and to hold each other accountable when one of us went AWOL.

When it came to actions, we agreed to work together for another six months if:

  • Each of us brings complete engagement to our meetings
  • We admit when the other frustrates us

It’s now been 9 months and we’re still going strong!

Can you see a way that I could have handled this crucial conversation differently? I’d love to hear your critiques. Tell me in the comment section below, via email, or find me on Twitter.



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  1. Kathryn Go, PhD
    July 13, 2018

    Hi Anne, I continue to learn so much from your leadership training and use everything from your coaching course in Boston from many years ago. Thanks!

    • Anne Loehr
      August 8, 2018

      Hello! That’s awesome! So happy to hear that.


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