Crucial Conversations Can Make or Break a Camp

Joseph Grenny
September 2003

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:

  • You sent a camper home who was repeatedly harassing other campers. His/her parents are on the phone demanding an explanation — and a refund.
  • You’ve got a handful of counselors who do as little as they can get away with — without being fired. They seem to think summer vacation includes them. Your track record shows that if you come down on them they’ll more than pay you back with attitude — and you can’t afford to lose them in the middle of the season.
  • A child was given the wrong medication during a camp stay. It was a fairly innocuous mistake — but the parents, who are now demanding an explanation — don’t seem to think so.
  • Another homesick child. That you can manage. What’s tough is that the parents keep calling and making matters even worse — almost ensuring night after night of withdrawal pains for the child. The parents are adamant that “they know what their child needs better than you.”
  • It’s the end of the season. Whew. You’re facing a staffer who is gung ho about returning next year. Only you’d rather hire Gomer Pyle than bring back this guy.
  • You’ve got a cook whose vocabulary doesn’t seem to include the word “quality.” It does, however, include words like, “I’ve been here since you were wearing diapers.” Translation: Don’t pressure me; I’ve got more clout here than you do.

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:

  • quality of your products and service;
  • productivity of your staff;
  • loyalty of your customers;
  • level of commitment and happiness in your family; and
  • quality and length of your life.

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.

  1. Recognize when you're facinga crucial conversation. Whenever you're stuck in achieving some important result in your business or personal life, look for the crucial conversation you're either not holding or not holding well. Clarify who it's with and what your concern is.
  2. Hold the right conversation. Sometimes we're talking, but not about the right thing. If you have an employee who fails to show up on time, and you keep nagging and nagging her about it, you're not holding the right conversation. The first time the employee is late, you should discuss her lateness and ask for a commitment to punctuality. The second or third time she’s late, the issue is no longer tardiness, it is integrity. When a pattern of missed commitments becomes apparent, you should be talking with your employee about her willingness or ability to keep commitments — a much more serious issue than tardiness. If you trap yourself into repeated conversations about the issue and fail to escalate to discussing the pattern, you are holding the wrong conversation. Think about this when approaching counselors who never return equipment they’ve used, chronically fail to turn lights out on time, or persistently enforce low standards of cleanliness in their cabins. The conversations you hold should not be about the most recent violation, but about commitment, integrity, or honesty.
  3. Start with your intent, not your content. When we hold crucial conversations, we usually start at the wrong place. We dive into the content of the issue. The other person then becomes defensive, and we conclude that this is a topic we just can’t discuss without a blowup. This conclusion is completely wrong. Others do not become defensive because of the content you are sharing — no matter how sensitive it might seem. People become defensive because of the intent they assign to you for raising it. Those who are skilled at crucial conversations begin by sharing their positive intentions for raising the issue. They do not proceed with the specifics of the conversation until they are confident the other person trusts their intentions. For example, let’s say you approach a co-worker who is persistently lax on safety policies. This is your third conversation about the issue. As you begin, she becomes very defensive and says, “Some of the rules here are just stupid. I’m not going to enforce something that keeps the kids from having fun. That is just dumb.” At this point, the worst thing you can do is either force your point home again or back off your point. The counselor is not becoming defensive because of what you are saying, but because she feels disrespected or believes you don’t care about her goal — letting the kids have reasonable fun.

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 . . . .”

  1. Start with facts, not feelings. Some will tell you to start sharing sensitive information by disclosing your feelings. Start with “I messages,” they suggest. This is truly bad advice. When you begin with your feelings, you are more likely to generate resistance and defensiveness than interest and openness. The place to begin is with facts (you’ve arrived late to work three times in the past week), not feelings (I’m feeling disappointed). Share the experiences you’ve had or observations you’ve made that caused you to think what you think and feel how you feel. If you start with the facts, the other person is more likely to understand your point of view rather than feeling attacked by it. For example, “According to the duty manager’s log, your cabin light went out late four out of five nights last week.”
  2. Learn to doubt your feelings. Strong emotions are dangerous during crucial conversations. When discussing sensitive, high-stakes issues, it’s not uncommon for one or both parties to feel angry, scared, or hurt. These emotions can cause us to behave badly — making matters even worse than when we started. Those who are best at crucial conversations examine their emotions to see if they are legitimate. They do so in a blatant attempt to open themselves to the possibility that there are other ways of seeing the situation.

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.

  1. End with clarity. How you end a crucial conversation is as important as how you start it. Too often, if we actually succeed in getting all the issues out in the open, we heave a sigh of relief and just assume others will change their behavior, or situations will remedy themselves. Wrong!

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 dí©jíæ 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?”

There’s Hope

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 or call 800-449-5989.

Originally published in the 2003 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.