Crucial Conversations

May 14, 2020

Guest Blog by Mike Rognlien

In 20 years of working with managers and leaders of all levels, I have taken one lesson learned early on and applied it over and over and over again: never assume that someone’s ‘level’ or title in an organization is an indication of their savvy with good old fashioned core people skills.

This is especially true when working with them on skills related to managing communication and conflict and, more importantly, the roles they play as leaders in being both conscious and competent with regards to the things they say and do (and, frankly, the things they don’t).

Of those 20 years, I’ve spent about 15 of them teaching a program called Crucial Conversations, a program based on the 5-million selling book of the same name. I had an opportunity recently to sit down with some start-up CEO’s and the team from Oceans to talk about that book and some of the lessons in it for leaders, and I’ll recap a few of them here for you.

In the absence of context,

we make up our own

Whether you work in a start-up or a big, established company, context is king. One of the principles from Crucial that has been the most educational for me and those I’ve taught over the years is that for everything we see and hear, our brain immediately tells itself a story about what that thing means. The less information we have about why

something is happening, the more likely we are to create a story about why it’s happening, and that story will be mostly based on past/unrelated (though, maybe similar) experiences. This is especially true when there are strong emotions tied to whatever the ‘thing’ is.

The lesson? The best way to ensure that people don’t make up / believe / share inaccurate stories about why you’re saying and doing what you’re saying and doing is to be very clear about why you’re behaving the way you are. And making yourself genuinely open to questions for clarification. 


If you’re involved in an interpersonal conflict, you’re playing a role. Which one is it?

As I’ve moved away from working with people in classrooms and towards smaller groups or 1:1 settings, another thing I’ve learned is the importance of helping people see themselves as actors in their conflicts, not as passive audience members. When people become leaders, this is especially important. Anytime you find yourself even remotely involved in a conflict, you are, by default, playing a role in it! Even if that role is that you’re doing nothing to solve it. The question that leaders must ask is “Is the role I’m playing here getting me closer to or further away from the result that I/we/they want?” Not only because you can then change your role to one that gets results, but you can change the way you show up and how others see you show up when it matters most. 

The lesson? Any time you find yourself or your teams not getting the results you say you want and need to achieve, immediately go to “What role am I playing and what role should I be playing if I really do want these outcomes?”

Communication and Culture are as important as product.

One of the things that really distinguished my time at Facebook was hearing constantly from leaders and early employees that culture – not cutesy slogans on posters, but the actual reality of how we got things done, every day – was our second product, behind the products we built for people. There was intense focus from Mark on down not only on what we were building, but how we were building it. One of the most important measuring sticks for the health and wellbeing of your culture is another principle that Crucial Conversations author Joseph Grenny shared with me/us years ago that I’ll share with you now: you can measure the health of your relationships, your teams, your organizations and even an entire nation by the amount of time between a problem happening and a problem being discussed. When I do consulting work with organizations that are struggling to get unstuck from their problems or can’t seem to build a culture where people confront problems openly and quickly, the first question I ask leaders is “How long did it take you to find out about and talk about (not solve) the last big problem you faced?” The bigger the lag time – and there’s a cavernous difference between ‘right away’ and ‘two days’ with big organizational issues – the more likely the organization’s culture was unhealthy.

The lesson? Leaders who embrace the importance of building and nurturing culture with as much commitment and vigor as they build their products build healthier organizations. 

How leaders create context, manage conflict and create healthy communication practices directly impacts their ability to create winning teams and products.


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