Five steps to successful Crucial Conversations in agile teams

Crucial Conversations happen where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. These situations arise all the time in agile development teams and can lead to misunderstandings, inaction or strained relationships. In this post I’ll explain when Crucial Conversations can pop up and give you some tips on how to tackle them. 

From Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high

The book that defined the term “Crucial Conversations”, Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high by Patternson, Grenny, McMillian, Switzler, has been hugely useful for me in my role working with teams and in my life interacting with humans! It identifies difficult discussions as key points in relationships that when navigated well can lead to conflict resolution, better decisions and improved long term relationships. But when handled poorly, these inflection points can lead to bad situations, foolish decisions and broken relationships.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high by Patternson, Grenny, McMillian, Switzler

The book itself gives some weighty examples of times when crucial conversations can pop up and where poor handling of them can hold us back. Like ending a relationship, asking a friend to repay a loan, dealing with a rebellious teen, asking in-laws to quit interfering or confronting a housemate on their antisocial behaviour.

These are situations that can really affect our home life and happiness, but do crucial conversations happen at work, in our teams and between our peers? Well, of course they do. All the time. And our handling of them is holding us back in our relationships with colleagues, in the delivery of our work and in our career progression.

Want an example? Well, picture the scene…

You are a software engineer and a colleague who has recently joined your team tells you during an inaugural pair programming session that something you’ve written is “really stupid” and grabs the keyboard to “quickly fix it”. They then continue typing, as if nothing has happened.

You really don’t like being called “stupid” and feel insulted. You think your antagonist misinterpreted what you’d written and has now made the code worse. You had previously noticed that the engineer seemed arrogant when working with others and you want to take the engineer down a peg or two.

So, you take a deep breath, point your finger at your new team mate and unleash a volley of barbed comments about their new solution.

Does that kind of situation ring a bell? When a colleague carelessly criticises something you have done and it hurts your feelings? And if so, did the resulting conversation go well? Did your relationship end up in a good place, either in the short term or in the longer term, as a result of this earlier tussle? I’m guessing not.

How about this hypothetical scenario?

You lead a development team. The Product Owner assigned to your team is often out of the office visiting customers, so she’s quite distant from the team. However, today she’s come along to the team’s Sprint Review. In it she seems unhappy with the latest feature that has been shipped incrementally to users. She asks some probing questions, states that the feature is “not right” and suggests that the release is recalled.

You disagree, as the feature seems valuable to users and has gone out already. The team worked hard on it and you feel she is being overly critical of them, when she’s not been around to help. You want the release to remain available.

So, you openly disagree in front of the team, telling the Product Owners you disagree and that the release is “staying shipped”, because as team leader, you ultimately have the authority.

Sound familiar? Somebody you rely on let you down and then made, what you consider, to be an unreasonable request? Maybe you’re not as combative as those people. Maybe you’d just stay quiet and not rock the boat, wishing to avoid an argument or make matters worse. Well, that’s not a great strategy either, is it?

Five Steps to A Successful crucial conversation

Instead of descending into an argument or clamming-up, there is third option; to face into the difficult situation, manage your emotions and step into dialogue. Here are five simple steps you could take to follow that path when you find yourself in a conversation where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong:

1. Focus on yourself – When entering a crucial conversation, you may have an overwhelming desire to fix the person that you are interacting with, change their opinions or help them see the error of their ways. This is an entirely normal reaction, but not something you can actually achieve.

You should bare in mind that you cannot control the other person and, in trying to fix them, you are likely to exacerbate the situation rather than resolve it. Instead, when we enter a crucial conversation we have focus on our own emotions, our behaviour and our thinking. We should reject the idea that the other person is the only one that needs to make a change and focussing on the only person you really can control; yourself. By managing yourself, you are much more likely to achieve the actual outcome you want.

2. Give yourself some time to respond – If when entering a crucial conversation, whether by choice or unintentionally, you notice that your emotions are running high, you should take a step back to give yourself time to think and respond, rather than allow yourself to just react. Pausing for as little as six seconds before you speak or act when angry, could allow the chemicals being pumped through your body by your amygdala to dissipate somewhat, and allow you to react more rationally. However, you might find that making your excuses to step away for a longer period of time will help you gather your thoughts and plan the conversation you’d like to have more deliberately.

3. Don’t choose between honesty and keeping a friend – When faced with a difficult conversation where you have a view or perspective that is contrary to another person’s or is misaligned with their expectations, we can subconsciously assume that we only have two choices; to tell the truth or to protect a relationship. That is, we tell the truth and damage a relationship with a friend or colleague, or we hide the truth and stay on good terms with them. This is a foolish choice that we can reject. We can look for a third way, to tell the truth but to do it in a way that avoids bad feelings. This isn’t as tricky as it sounds, if you can summon the courage and empathy – then you’re most of the way there.

4. Separate facts from stories – When entering a crucial conversation we can often be drawn into attributing motive to the actions of others. For instance, I might decide a person has criticised my code harshly because they hate me and want me to feel embarrassed. As humans, we do this quickly and often subconsciously, so we don’t even notice that we’ve implied a narrative and told ourselves a story to explain someone’s actions. Stories drive emotional reactions (it’s what stories are meant to do) and those emotions can push us into arguments or a retreat.

The problem is, we often have no idea if this story is actually true. We have observed events – in the previous example there were some code review comments you considered harsh – but we have invented a narrative – that the review wants to embarass you. That narrative may fit the facts, but that does not make it objectively true. The code reviewer could simply be having a bad day, or lack a little empathy. Challenge yourself to identify what you know to be true and what you have implied or invented.

5. Work out what you really want – Once you have mastered your own reaction to the situation, taken some time to gather your thoughts, decided to tell the truth while avoiding bad feelings and spotted where your clever brain may have invented a narrative, you should ask yourself “what do I really want from this conversation?”. Yes, what do you really want?

If you want to punish the other person or gain dominion over them – well, think again; down that path darkness lies. Instead, ask yourself what would be a good outcome for you from the conversation. It might be something like: To explain that your feelings were hurt and that you disagree with the new code. Next consider what you would really like for the other person. Perhaps for them to listen to my point of view and then explain rationally why they felt it was wrong. Then ask yourself what you want for your relationship. For there not to be a problem when we work together in the future.

Equipped with those answers, finally ask yourself “how would I act if I really wanted those things?”. By then you will be thinking more clearly and constructively, and I think you might find that what you need to say becomes fairly obvious.

Want to know more about crucial conversations?

If you want to know more about Crucial Conversations, specifically why we often handle them so poorly, what we can do with that insight and how we can improve how we handle them, here’s a recording of a talk I gave at the Agile Manchester Virtual conference in 2020 about that very subject. I also ramble on about rogue housemates, road rage on the A14, sniping at stand-ups, calamitous meetings and (allegedly) Machiavellian team mates. I’m hoping you find it a fun watch:

Video: Crucial Conversations in agile teams by @chrisjsmithy

Of course, if you have found this post interesting then you should definitely read the book that inspired it, Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high by Patternson, Grenny, McMillian, Switzler. It’s made a difference for me and really helped me navigate my day-to-day life working with humans.

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