Don Follis: Crucial conversations are vital for a meaningful life

Don Follis: Crucial conversations are vital for a meaningful life

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," said Martin Luther King Jr. I thought about this quotation when I attended the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit earlier this month.

For 20 years, Bill Hybels, senior pastor of the 30,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, has spent two days in August gathering pastors and community and business leaders from across the U.S. to talk about leadership.

In the many summits that I have attended, few topics resonated with me as much as one that was featured this year — the importance of having crucial conversations. Joseph Grenny brought his expertise on this topic to the Willow Creek Stage by saying if we don't talk out problems, we will act them out. Grenny's organization VitalSmarts has developed training solutions for 300 of the top Fortune 500 companies.

Sadly, plenty of times I have side-stepped having crucial conversations. In fact, as I think over my life, four crucial conversations I regret not having immediately come to mind. Two involved confusion about finances with an employer. Two were times that I didn't stand up for myself when I should have.

In the book "Crucial Conversations — Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High," (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Grenny says, "Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period."

What do you think makes crucial conversations so, well, crucial? For starters, they almost always involve opposing opinions. I talked with a guy just the other day who feels that he is ready for a promotion but his boss doesn't. They see it differently. "What do you think I should do?" he asked in frustration.

Standing next to opposing opinions is the fact that the stakes are high. I talked with another person who told me about the goals his company set for him. It doesn't involve just him but his entire team. He isn't the only one who has to do something different. Everyone has to pull their weight or the company will not meet its annual goals. Indeed, the stakes are high.

By now you may be thinking of your own pending crucial conversations and a third fact for is surfacing. You feel strong emotions. That's not surprising since strong emotions nearly always precede crucial conversations.

With opposing opinions, high stakes and strong emotions on the line, how do we even begin to proceed? Frankly, it is not easy. For example, if you speak up, you risk turning your boss into your sworn enemy. That's not much of an option, is it? Does that mean you just suffer in silence? Who likes that option?

I often get push back when I counsel people by asking them, "How can you be 100 percent honest with the person with whom you are in conflict, and at the same time be 100 percent respectful?"

That's frankly impossible, right? Well, I'm not so sure. Who says you have to make a choice between two bad alternatives? This brings to mind one my favorite biblical proverbs that says, "Above all, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." (Proverbs 4:23)

Most of us likely have observed a healthy crucial conversation that we admired. As it unfolded, we said to ourselves, "That woman is amazing. She's so good — courageous, fair, kind and firm. The guy she just confronted is actually listening. Wow."

Now what makes that happen? I can guarantee you that kind of conversation starts with the heart. From a good heart comes the courage to confront and then to stay focused no matter what happens.

But I admit to having a slight problem with my good heart. When I'm under pressure, it has a habit of taking sudden and unconscious turns. If I feel pushed in a corner or stepped on, I can forget the goal (clear and honest dialogue) and start looking for ways to win at all cost — either by punishing you by being mean in what I say or by going to silence just to keep the peace. Both options I usually regret.

I do much better at returning to healthy dialogue if I first try to step back and ask myself, "What is it I really want?" "What do I really not want?" "What do I want for others?" "What can I say to help create a safe atmosphere for everyone?" Those questions usually calm my heart and give me perspective.

The more clear-headed I am, the more likely it is I'll be heard. Still, I never pretend this is easy. Are you kidding? Speaking the truth in love from a pure heart is very hard. Period.

Let's be clear then. You don't have to be perfect to make progress. But you do have to start. So, what is it this week for you — to ask a friend to repay a loan, to give the boss feedback about her behavior, to try resolving visitation issues with your ex-spouse or to ask your in-laws to quit interfering? Having the courage to have a crucial conversation might be just the ticket to give great meaning to your week.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.

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