Welcome to this issue of our free E-zine, People Skills for Skilled
People! Today, we’ll tackle a special topic, an issue that comes up very often in our lives and carries enormous impact in the workplace and other places, too. It’s something we call “Pivotal Conversations.”
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Navigating Through Pivotal Conversations
Vol.2, No. 2
We know what they are. They’re those critical, often tense, exchanges we have
with a person we live or work with. The trouble is we almost always recognize
them after they’ve occurred, and then are filled with ideas about what we
could or should have said at the time.
We call these “Pivotal Conversations”—interpersonal encounters where
there’s a lot at stake. A “Pivotal Conversation” is a candid and important
discussion between two people on a sensitive subject that represents a turning
point, favorable or unfavorable, in their relationship. Maybe you’re on a
life-changing job interview, or in a conflict with a top-level executive peer,
or on a high-powered project team where someone isn’t pulling his or her
weight. Guaranteed, in situations like this, your ability to handle
communication in a professional way can make all the difference for your organization—and you.
It’s probably in teams where we see the powerful role pivotal conversations
play. And teams in trouble are the ones that 1) either haven’t had enough of
these conversations (there are a lot of “undiscussables” around, or as one
team member we know put it, “We’re ignoring the elephant sitting in the
middle of the room.”) or 2) have experienced too many pivotal conversations
going south. The biggest problem for members of teams like these is they often
think that pivotal conversations are only about changing behavior and don’t
recognize that pivotal conversations always change the relationships involved
for better or worse.
One type of pivotal conversation that gives leaders the most grief is
giving criticism in the professional workplace. In fact, encounters like this
are the best examples of pivotal conversations gone wrong since they usually
result in a lowering of the quality of the relationship between the two parties.
This doesn’t have to happen, of course; but people’s limited skill in
handling touchy situations leads them down a path they can’t seem to control.
In this issue, let’s follow a typical sequence of events that occurs when
someone has to give professional criticism to another team member. Say someone
on the team isn’t getting reports in on time despite numerous warnings.
Finally, you, as team leader, decide to confront the malingerer but are unsure
of how to proceed. Here are some suggestions, both in format and words, of how
to emerge successful from such an encounter, keeping the relationship intact or
even advancing it.
1. Preparing for a Pivotal Conversation of Criticism
Rule #1: Never conduct this kind of pivotal conversation “on the fly” or in
a state of emotional agitation. Cool heads think better. Rather postpone a tense
encounter than enflame a situation and risk damaging a relationship.
Rule #2: Be conscious of the fact that all communication exists on two levels at
once: task and relationship. In the context of giving criticism, getting the
desired behavior is your task, but keeping the ongoing relationship on an even
keel is also a priority.
Rule #3: Remember, criticism-giving is inherently emotional. Keep in mind the
old proverb "People might forget what you said. They may even forget what
you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel." (see
PSSP vol. 1, No.1).
Rule #4: Remember that the “con” in conversation means “with” not
“at.” In most criticism encounters, the criticizer usually talks at
the criticizee. Keeping this rule in mind will help you move toward
problem-solving once the initial emotional hurdles have been jumped.
2. Conducting the Pivotal Conversation of Criticism
As you begin confronting your team colleague, remember that in emotional or
tense conversations, the first words out of your mouth count ten times more than
anything you say afterward. Also remember that you’re the one who owns the
problem, not the other person. You may not appreciate those reports coming in
late, but your uncooperative team mate isn’t getting anywhere near the
heartburn you are. Therefore, you’re best off when you start with an “I”
statement rather than a “you” statement. Some samples include:
“I have a concern about something, and I’d like to talk with you about
“Something’s on my mind, and I’d like to run it by you.”
“An issue came up, and I want to get your take on it.”
As you’re delivering lines like these, it’s critical to remember that as a
leader, your attitude toward anything or anyone will tend to determine your
colleagues’ attitudes toward those same things and people. Therefore, it’s
highly advisable to maintain a neutral facial expression and an understated
tone. This kind of introduction does a great deal to reduce the natural
defensiveness of the person being criticized.
Moving to the Problem Behavior
Quite soon, you’ll move to describing the behavior you want changed. Be
prepared for some mild defensiveness (mostly nonverbal with crossed arms,
closed-off gestures, unpleasant or stressed facial expressions). At this point,
you can “cushion” the blow by using or not using certain expressions.
1. Substitute “and” for “but.” “We’ve been able to get by so far
with late reports,
but and it’s really getting to a critical
2. Use “challenge” or “issue” instead of “problem.” “The
challenge these late reports are posing is that other groups aren’t getting
the information they need on time.”
3. Avoid terms like “you need to” or “you have to.” Instead, say “the
team needs.” “Our team needs to have the reports on time” versus “You
need to get the reports in on time.”
Now here’s the point where most criticism conversations pivot the wrong way.
As you start to describe the problem behavior in more detail, you’ll almost
always encounter stiffer defensiveness. Now, in addition to nonverbal
defensiveness, it will come across verbally as well. The other person is most
likely to justify why the behavior has continued (“You know perfectly well
that I’ve lost my assistant. No wonder I’ve missed a few deadlines!”).
You need to diffuse this next stage of defensiveness and get the conversation
pivoting right. Here’s how to do it:
Affirm and Validate the Other Person.
This procedure is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean agreeing with the
substance of the person’s response. It does mean affirming the person’s
feeling or recognizing the other person’s viewpoint. One response could be “Anyone
would be challenged by the loss of a key assistant.” A response like this
opens the door to reducing the emotionalism of the criticism, moving to a
fair-minded position on both sides, and enhancing the problem-solving process.
And as the reciprocity rule states, if I’m fair-minded and calm, you’ll tend
to be fair-minded and calm―our total desired state for a productive
Correcting the Problem Behavior Together
To really achieve change, you can take advantage of a major shift of rhetorical
style: move from making statements to asking questions. Statements tend to
result in the “blame game.” “All you have to do is organize yourself
better.” (Your colleague will LOVE to hear that!) Instead, try this
question, “How could we work together to help organize that report writing
operation?” Question-asking has two major benefits: 1) it sends the
message to the other person that you’re open to his or her ideas, and 2) it
focuses the person’s attention directly on the behavior you’re seeking.
3. The Missing Step: Getting a Commitment for Change
This is the part of the criticism sequence that almost everyone forgets (maybe
they’re just relieved to have gotten this far!). By omitting this one, we’re
just asking for the behavior to resume.
The key to making this step work is to discuss the consequences if the behavior
continues. Here’s one way to put it. “So we’ve come to an agreement on
the expectations we’ve been talking about, and if this doesn’t hold, I’ll
have to look at a reorganization of the team.” Expressions like this show
you mean business, but in a professional and respectful way.
If you structure those pivotal conversations in this manner, you ensure that
they’ll “pivot” in the direction of permanent change and enhanced
Yours in communication excellence!
Jan and Neal Larsen Palmer
Communication Excellence Institute
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