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Crucial Conversations Can Make or Break a Camp
Every camp director has been there. In fact, if you’re like most camp leaders, you’re there right now. If asked, you could immediately name two or three people with whom you should have a crucial conversation about some topic, but you haven’t. Perhaps you’ve even brought it up, but you danced around the real issue and never laid all your cards on the table. When you think about facing it again, your mouth gets dry, your head aches, and your muscles start to twitch.
The Universal Dread
If you haven’t been camping alone in a cave, you’ve probably faced situations like these:
And if that’s not enough, there’s your spouse or life partner who is constantly after you to spend more time with him or her. The conflict between you is rarely handled through candid and effective conversation, so instead it surfaces in sarcastic comments, petty games, and the "silent treatment."
We all know these conversations are uncomfortable. But do they represent a critical factor in the success or failure of a business?
Crucial Conversations Can Be Sticky Business
Our research with over 20,000 employees in companies around the world has revealed that conversations like these are far more than just emotionally uncomfortable events. They literally determine the success or failure of any group or organization. We called them Crucial Conversations because how you and others in your camp habitually handle these conversations has a profound influence on:
For example, our research has shown that the productivity of your staff can double if you and others in your camp learn to deal immediately, directly, and respectfully with unmet expectations and poor performance. In fact, in the best camps, while leaders play a key role in giving feedback, most feedback is given by fellow staffers who are most affected by the behavior of their colleagues.
In summary, we've found that often the most effective people in both personal and professional pursuits are those who are most skilled at handling the crucial conversations that either lead to or keep us from the best results.
Tips for Succeeding at Crucial Conversations
If your idea of staff training is to read The Giving Tree or The Lorax, the following tips may dramatically improve your results next season. After twenty years of watching hundreds of people succeed — and fail — at crucial conversations, we’ve found that success can be achievable and predictable if you use a few powerful principles.
Rather than take either of these ineffective routes, step out of the issue, clarify your positive intentions, and then go back to the discussion. For example, “The kids’ fun is absolutely important to me, too. I’m glad it is to you. And I don’t want you to be limited by rules that have no value. Please understand that I’m with you 100 percent. The only issue I want to resolve here is that I have to be able to trust that you will come to me and propose changing a rule. We cannot maintain safety here if counselors individually interpret safety policies . . . .”
When you’re approaching an employee who might have stolen something, you could ask yourself, “What other possible conclusions could I draw from the information available?” or “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person have done what he or she did?” Before opening a conversation with a cook who produces terrible quality food, you might ask yourself, “Could it be that I have set a poor example of quality standards in some way? Or could our food budget be discouraging him from aspiring to better standards?”
Gifted communicators don’t challenge their emotions in a weak attempt to let others off the hook; they do so to prepare themselves for a healthy, candid conversation where new information may yet come to light. Then, if it doesn’t, they proceed according to the information they already had.
Always end a crucial conversation with a clear understanding of who will do what by when. Also, clarify when and how you will follow up. This makes the difference between resolving issues and déjà vu dialogues where you end up rehashing the same issues continually.
When concluding a crucial conversation with a counselor who has persistently violated safety policies, you might summarize as follows, “It sounds like you are committed to enforcing all of the safety policies from now on. And if you find one that seems pointless, you will come and discuss it with me to get it changed before backing off on it. Also, given that this is the third discussion of this kind we are having, you have agreed that if this problem happens again, it is reasonable for you to lose a day’s pay. Finally, we will chat in a couple of weeks to talk about whether this agreement is working for you and for me. Is that right?”
So, what if you weren’t born with a silver tongue? What if you are great at Native American lore and archery but dismal when it comes to facing up to crucial conversations?
You can learn to make significant and rapid improvements in the way you face the conversations that shape your world. It takes concentrated effort. If you’re willing to work at it, you can make significant gains in your ability to tackle tough conversations. You can’t do it alone. Just as you can’t learn to play tennis by playing alone, you can’t get better at crucial conversations sitting alone in an office. You’ll need a curriculum from which to work from and a partner with whom to practice. Get together with one or more friends, family members, or camp colleagues who would like to get better at crucial conversations. And, start by working on some conversations you’d really like to improve. As you make progress, you’ll see the benefits in every area of your life.
Joseph Grenny, along with Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, is the author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. The authors are the founders of VitalSmarts™, a consulting firm that has worked for twenty-five years to help individuals, teams, and organizations become and remain measurably more vital. For more information, go to www.CrucialConversations.com or call 800-449-5989.
Originally published in the 2003 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.