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Framework and Concepts in Critical Conversations


Humans communicate in all aspects of life, but the higher the stake of the conversation may fail to be effective. Also, opinions may differ during the conversation as each individual may present different ideas concerning a particular situation or event. In the course of time, emotions may prevail over the conversation, thus contributing to significant impacts on the relationship. Individuals engage in many different aspects of a crucial conversation, either at work, at home, or during their own leisure activities. I have been engaged in such a conversation with my boss in my workplace concerning a scenario that occurred out of my control. I was almost fired from my solid waste management position and wouldn’t have been more relieved if it had happened.

It was the most challenging position I ever took, and I put every aspect of my career to the test as I maneuvered through the socio-political climate relevant to environmental issues. The company was responsible for managing the city’s landfill, known to residents as the city dump. Fires at the dump were a legacy issue.

A massive fire broke out one year after the company acquired the landfill contract. It took almost a week to extinguish the blaze, which ignited a firestorm of public criticism. While it was the company’s first blaze to tackle, it certainly would not be the last. Within a few months, billows of thick black smoke emanated in the sky as another fire broke out. It was far worse than the first blaze. Nearby residents fled their homes, and schools shut down due to the miles of smoke blanketing the area. We were facing a significant crisis.

As communications lead, it was my first time dealing with a major catastrophe. I became stressed out and crumbled under pressure. We called a public relations expert to deal specifically with the issue. I remember feeling inadequate and like I had taken on a senior role too early in my career. I felt like a failure and embarrassed that my boss would fire me.

The Conversation

Before my boss approached me about my performance, I decided to address it first. Without further thought, I went to his office, shut the door, sat down, and said, “I need to talk to you.” I didn’t even wait for him to give a response but just started talking. I told him that I knew I messed up badly as communications lead and that it was my first-time dealy with a major crisis. I tried to explain that I was stressed out and crumbled under pressure. I said, “I just wanted to apologize for my poor performance. But after observing the PR expert and how he handled the situation, I realized it wasn’t anything he did I didn’t know to do.”

My boss responded sternly, “Then why didn’t you?” I replied, “I guess I didn’t know how to handle the pressure.” He then responded, “Well, how the hell do you expect to be able to do your fucking job if you can’t take the heat?” He began getting loud, and I remember him saying, “It’s in critical moments like these I depend on you as communications lead. This company is already incurring significant expenses to out these damn fires, and now I have to pay someone else to handle your fucking job. So why am I paying you?”

At this point, I realized how upset he was with me, and responding would only further ignite things. So I completely shut down as I am uncomfortable with direct conflict. More specifically, it was my avoiding conflict mode coming into play. Avoiding is one of five conflict-handling modes, according to the TKI assessment. When exercising avoiding, the individual is being unassertive and uncooperative. The individual does not immediately pursue their own concerns or those of the other person. In this case, I did not address the conflict. From the course, I learned that becoming quiet and not saying exactly what comes to mind helped me escape the conversation’s unhelpful behavior.

As he continued expressing his disappointment, the only thing left that I was waiting to hear was, “you’re fired.” Instead, he told me to go home for the rest of the day and return the next morning for a meeting. There was nothing effective in how I approached this conversation. I felt perplexed since I recalled the consequence of failing to communicate effectively in crucial communication with the boss. Now, I could face the extreme and lots of impacts in my life since I depended on the job.

The following day I met with my boss and HR in the boardroom. He began the conservation by apologizing for cursing at me, to which I responded, “It’s ok; I know you were extremely upset.” Despite being cursed at, I believe my empathic nature came into play. On my EQI, I scored in the mid-range for empathy, defined as the ability to recognize, understand and appreciate how others feel. My former boss was also facing immense pressure from all directions – government, environmental stakeholders, investors, the public, and the employees. By apologizing, he accepted that he also had contributed to the conflict.

I was then suspended for one week with pay pending a performance review. When I met with my boss upon returning to work, he was very frank with me and told me of his intent to let me go. However, he decided not to. It was here where my former boss did show empathy towards me.


Although this conversation occurred some years ago, I remember it vividly for so many reasons. Yet, in retrospect, there are numerous things I would have done differently, given the knowledge and experience I have now with handling difficult conversations. Effective handling high-stakes conversations makes the situation easier to control (Knight, 2015). It was a desirable trait that I achieved to save on my preference on my job though the results were not as I expected.

As I learned in this course, critical conversations happen on three levels – what happened, feelings, and identity. This particular conversation with my former boss posed a threat to my identity. Three identity issues seem particularly common and often underlie what concerns us during difficult conversations: Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love? (Stone et al., 2010). In this case, it was whether I was competent to do the job, especially when my former boss referenced having to hire an external PR expert to assist.

My goal was to address my lack of performance before my boss did. By approaching him first, I intended to show that I accepted responsibility for my ineffectiveness. However, I should have used meta communications and requested a meeting with him first or asked. I could recognize the crucial conversation according to the Difficult Conversation book. One of the events that I recognized the situation was how his physical signs could articulate with the kind of words he uttered. Throughout, I experienced a strong emotional response.

Whether he had a few minutes to discuss my performance, by doing so, I could have ensured that it was a time that was convenient for his schedule and allowed him time to prepare. I believe I did catch him off guard and forced a conversation that he may not have been ready for at that point. I mastered his emotions by considering his actions and withdrew my emotions from the conversation (Weeks, 2008). For my side, I honestly elaborated my view and experience without offense by sharing the facts of what happened and what I could not control.

I could have changed my mindset. I went into the conversation nervous and worried about being fired. Instead, I should have tried to frame it in a positive, less binary way (Knight, 2015). Rather than focus on my negative performance, it could have been a constructive conversation about my development. A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as just a normal conversation (Weeks, 2008). Controlling was my part of the action during the conversation as the pressure of my boss adopted my viewpoint, overemphasized facts, and dictated the conversation. I restored mutual purpose and respect for my boss as I recognized the purpose behind the strategy.

Additionally, as shared by our guest speaker Gina Cherwin, an effective technique to manage difficult conversations is to be prepared. To that end, it possibly would have helped if I had planned what I wanted to say by jotting down some notes and key points before having the conversation (Weeks, 2008). Drafting a script is not recommended, as it is unlikely to go according to plan. Instead, the strategy for the discussion should be flexible and contain a repertoire of possible responses. Your language should also be simple, clear, direct, and neutral. (Weeks, 2008).

As I began to hear my boss’s voice get louder and using expletives, I should have diffused the situation by saying, “Ok, let’s reset. Clearly, I see you’re upset.” I could have then asked to schedule a meeting at another time to let him blow off some steam, as he let his emotions get the best of him.

If we had another meeting, I would have started the conversation more positively. Perhaps I would have said how much I enjoyed working for the company and our good working relationship. I then would have said, “I want to be upfront with you and address my performance during a critical time when you needed my expertise most. I know I was not performing up to the mark, and I know at my level, that is particularly concerning for you.”

Although I appreciated that my former boss did not fire me at the time, I later handed in my resignation. Aside from the fires, other issues were sparking. I saw the writing on the wall and decided to walk away.


From the conversation, I learned several aspects and ideas that I can engage in a crucial conversation. After the scenario, I could have revisited how to be involved or prepared for a crucial conversation, like deciding precisely what I am dealing with. A point in the conversation, my boss, would inquire if there was any purpose of me getting paid if I could not handle my work. By ascertaining how serious the issue was, I could not have engaged myself in the conversation at such a moment before the boss could identify the cause first. From the textbook course, I understood why the discussion was so fierce, yet it was my first time being confronted about my job. Choosing dialogue that incorporates a free flow is very important that asserts for open conversation. If the boss had incorporated such a virtue in the conversation, then all the outcomes that happened would not have occurred. Personally, I utilized all the aspects of managing crucial conversations since I was the first to approach my boss and share the scenario. After the discussion with the board, the boss could have returned to dialogue and paid attention to my issue, but my former boss took the whole advantage of the events.


Knight, Rebecca. How to Handle Difficult Conversations at Work. Harvard Business Review, 2005.

Stone, D., Patton B., & Heen S. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (10 Anniversary Edition). Penguin Books, 2010.

Weeks, Holly. Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Press, 2008.


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