Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
We’ve been through Crucial Conversations Training, have returned back to work, and aren’t changing all that much. Everyone liked the ideas and wanted to do something new, but we haven’t been very good at transferring what we learned in training to how we behave at work. What can we do to kick-start our interest and actually change how we behave at work?
The problem you suggest is common to everyone who has ever had a new aspiration. You finish a training program, set down a book, or walk away from a lecture or sermon—fired up with good intentions to embrace what you just learned. But then you get back to work and are faced with eighty new e-mails waiting for you, a boss who is on your case about a project you let slide, and your coworkers who want you to join a new action team. You’ll have to implement what you learned at training sometime early next week, once you get caught up.
As the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months, you envision the decay curve from your introductory psychology class associated with embracing new concepts. It’s not one of those slightly sloping lines you might see when tracking, say, weight loss. No, the nasty decay curve that plots changes in behavior against time is really more like a decay cliff. With each day that passes without making some kind of change, the likelihood of doing anything new drops precipitously. As the days pass, good intentions transform into apathy, apathy into old habits, and old habits into guilt.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can implement new techniques that support the changes you’d like to make. Here are six tools (following the model we use in Influencer) for transforming good intentions into behavioral changes.
1. Value Links. There are probably at least two reasons you wanted to embrace what you learned in training. First, you believe implementing the skills will make your life better. You also want to be the kind of person who speaks honestly and effectively. You want to work in a company where people replace back-biting with honest dialogue. These are some of the values that go with learning and implementing the skills. Keep these values in mind. Talk with your colleagues not just about the training content, but also the underlying values. As you link behavior changes to the qualities you care about, you increase the likelihood that you’ll actually implement what you learned.
2. Advanced Learning. Most training sessions are intended to start you on a path of learning. Crucial Conversations Training is no different. At the end of the formal training, kick-start your informal and extended learning. Assign your work group to study one of the chapters from the book. Meet and review what you studied. Discuss how it applies to you and your work group. Continue through the end of the book. In addition, ask your HR manager or trainer to conduct a follow-up training session where you review Crucial Conversations concepts, discuss applications, hone skills, and otherwise continue to advance your learning.
3. Contract with the Boss. As the training comes to an end, meet with your boss and lay out a plan for implementing what you learned. Make it clear that you want to bring the skills back to work where they can do some good. Review the skills you think will help you the most, discuss them candidly with your boss, and then tie them into your formal performance review. You might as well get credit for making personal changes and adding to your skill repertoire.
4. Maintenance Crews. Find one or two other people who have been through the training and form a “maintenance crew.” Meet monthly and work to maintain and improve the concepts and skills you learned during the training. Discuss common problems, jointly settle on how you can use the skills, and then practice the conversations. Take turns practicing each skill with real problems you face and don’t forget to give each other candid feedback and specific coaching. By practicing in a safe setting and receiving honest feedback and advice, you can improve your skills in a risk-free environment while preparing to deal with real problems at work.
5. Rewards. Ask your boss or HR manager if it would be okay to reward people who practice the new skills they’ve learned. Make the reward simple and then ask people to report their attempts at holding crucial conversations. People shouldn’t share the names of others involved in the crucial conversation (respecting privacy), but should write a short report of the skill they tried, what happened, and if necessary, what they might do different next time. Then, based on hitting a certain target number of attempted crucial conversations, celebrate efforts with small rewards.
6. Agenda and Reminders. If you care about something, you talk about it, and if you want to hard wire the conversation about high-stakes conversations, add it to your agenda. In each team meeting, openly share what you’re doing, what’s working, what isn’t, and any corrections you are making. Post the Crucial Conversations model on your office wall. Also place a copy in your meeting rooms. Use the model as a reminder of what to do and how to do it. Use the model when discussing your experience as a team.
Use any of these suggested follow-up tactics in combination, and the chances you’ll continue to practice and master the skills increase. Use four or more methods, and the likelihood you’ll transfer the skills from the training room to your work increases tenfold.