TAFEP Hero 2023 June
How to hold crucial conversations under mounting pressure and high stakes crises

How to hold crucial conversations under mounting pressure and high stakes crises


When we feel stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling villain stories that exaggerate others’ negative attributes. Instead, we could try and take control of our emotions by challenging our own story.

A study of close to 1,200 employees, managers, and leaders found that when it came to weathering a pandemic, how well you hold crucial conversations is more important than how well you innovate, the resources at your disposal, grit of your team, good ideas, and even talent. In fact, the skill of speaking up was listed second only to agility.

This research by VitalSmarts found that among the companies surveys, listed as having been successful during COVID, 46% attributed their success to discussing what needed to be discussed and taking action following conversations. And while 61% listed agility as paramount, they also said being truly agile was also dependent on their ability to communicate.

Specifically, successful companies attributed their ability to be agile and make quick pivots to:

  • Confronting the need to change.
  • Feeling safe to talk about things that needed to change.
  • Letting go of interpersonal or organisational sensitivities in order to consider necessary bold changes.

While on the topic of introducing bold changes, one in four leaders and employees in companies that were struggling cited that interpersonal or organisational sensitivities kept them from considering the bold changes that might have helped, and one in five said it was unsafe to talk about the things they really needed to change.

Joseph Grenny, Co-Founder of VitalSmarts and co-author of Crucial Conversations, explained: "Under normal circumstances top performers don’t behave drastically different than their peers. However, when the stakes are high, top performers are masters at stepping up to and engaging in candid dialogue."

While dialogue was critical, some conversations mattered more than others. According to employees and leaders in companies that were successful during COVID-19, the three most crucial conversations their leaders held during the pandemic were around:

  • Health: Are we sufficiently supporting our employees during a time of potential mental health crisis? Are we taking sufficient steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among our employees?
  • Process: Are our production and business processes adapted to new realities?
  • Culture: Is our culture resilient and adaptable to COVID-related challenges? Or are we stuck in old ways of working/acting?

Surprisingly, conversations about profitability were ranked least important among successful companies. 

Referring to the adage, researchers say a crisis like 2020 should never be wasted.

A few ideas shared by the researchers for holding crucial conversations under mounting pressure and high stakes crises include:

Speak up early. When we anticipate stress or pressure, most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at dialogue don’t think first about the risks of speaking up. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realise if they don’t speak up early and often, they are choosing to perpetuate and often worsen the situation—and their reaction to the situation—as they begin to work around the problem.

Challenge your story. When we feel threatened or stressed, we amplify our negative emotions by telling villain, victim, and helpless stories. Villain stories exaggerate others’ negative attributes. Victim stories make us out to be innocent sufferers who have no role in the problem. And helpless stories rationalise our over- or under-reactions because “there was nothing else I could have done!” Instead, take control of your emotions by challenging your story.

• Create safety. When communicating while under pressure, your emotions likely hijack your positive intent. As a result, others get defensive to, or retreat from, your tirade. As it turns out, people don’t get defensive because of the content of your message, but because of the intent they perceive behind it. So, when stressed, first share your positive intent. If others feel safe with you, they are far more open to work with you.

• Start with facts. When the stakes are high, our brains often serve us poorly. To maximise cognitive efficiency, we tend to store feelings and conclusions, but not the facts that created them. Before reacting to stress, gather facts. Think through the basic information that helped you think or feel as you do – and use that information to realign your own feelings and help others understand the intensity of your reaction.

ALSO READ: The employee connection crisis: 3 ways organisations can address it

Photos / Shutterstock

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top Human Resources stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's Human Resources development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window