Making the Most of Critical Conversations

Difficult Convos

We’ve all found ourselves dreading going into the office on days we know we are going to have an uncomfortable conversation. Whether it’s asking for a raise, disciplining a subordinate, or requesting that your boss stop micromanaging you, there doesn’t seem to be a clear, easy way to have these difficult conversations. Should I start with a strong lead or work my way into the conversation? How do I make sure that all the points I want to cover are covered? How do I go about ending the conversation?

Fortunately, we’re taking the guesswork out of preparing for these conversations by offering some do’s and don’ts for having critical conversations.


  • Have a plan but not a script. Have an outline of the points you definitely want to hit before going into the conversation. Avoid scripting, however, because often times these conversations don’t always go according to plan. By having a bulleted outline, you can ensure that you can make all of your points even if the person you are talking to goes off script. Go into the conversation with a mindset of flexibility and you’ll leave feeling accomplished.
  • Practice active listening. Even though you may be the one initiating the conversation, it is still imperative that you listen to what your counterpart is saying back to your points instead of rushing to get all your points out there. Give the conversation your undivided attention and show that you are listening by responding substantively to what your conversation partner is saying. Make sure your body language shows you are listening too by using gestures to convey your attention and avoid fiddling with your phone or things around you.
  • Reflect and learn. Regardless of if you felt the conversation went well or poorly, take some time after to debrief and reflect on what went right and wrong. Think about how you reacted to certain parts of the conversation and contemplate what you could have done differently. Once you know how you engage in critical conversations you can practice the parts you are good at and work on areas you are lacking in, making each subsequent conversation much easier to have.


  • Start the conversation with content. Rather than diving into the content of the conversation, start with intent and why you are having the conversation in the first place. Establish mutual purpose and respect and lay out what your intentions for the discussion are. By establishing that the conversation is taking place in a safe space before diving into the meat of the discussion allows your counterpart to open up and have a more productive conversation.
  • Forget the facts. Critical conversations are often emotionally charged and it can be easy to base the discussion in your feelings about the topic instead of the facts. Presenting the facts makes the conversation less controversial and more persuasive and also gives you an opportunity to ask the other party for their facts. After you discuss the facts about the topic at hand, you can then turn and examine your feelings on the situation and start moving towards a conclusion.
  • Let the conversation end by dwindling off. After you go through the main points of what you wanted to get through in the conversation, you may find yourself at a loss at where to end it. Instead of letting the discussion dwindle off awkwardly, recognize when a critical conversation is coming to a close and end it with clarity. This means both parties know that the conversation is over and there is a clear outline of who is doing what and when follow up conversations will take place. Having a necessary critical conversation is a good start but it will be much more worth it if the outcomes of the discussion are clear and there is a path to meet the goals set through the conversation.

Want more career development resources? The NextGen Leadership Development Program could be for you. Learn more about what you can get out of the program here.

Source: GovLoop


How to Learn New Things as an Adult

Glasses and Books

From GovExec:

Quick, what’s the capital of Australia? No Googling! (And no points if you’re Australian—that means the information is more meaningful to you, which means you’re more likely to know it). Did you get it? Or are you sure you learned it at some point, but forgot right around the time that you forgot how the Krebs cycle works? In his new book, Learn Better, author and education researcher Ulrich Boser digs into the neuroscience of learning and shows why it’s so hard to remember facts like that one. Boser explains why some of the most common ways we try to memorize information are actually totally ineffective, and he reveals what to do instead.

Because we’re all getting dumber in the age of Google, I interviewed Boser recently about what people can do to boost their memories and skill sets, even if they’re long past flash-card age. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: What does it mean to learn something? Is it to memorize something? How do you know when you’ve learned something?

Ulrich Boser: Really what we want to do is to be able to think in that way, so that it shifts our reasoning abilities. If we want to learn to learn to become a car mechanic, you want to learn the reasoning abilities of a car mechanic. My favorite example of what it means to be expert, are the Car Talk guys. Because it’s such a weird thing, people call them and they have a car problem, but the Car Talk guys can’t actually see the car. Someone will call and be like, “I have this issue with my Buick, and it makes this weird noise,” and they’re able to solve the issue.

They’re thinking about their own Buicks, their own car problems, to help you solve your car problems. You want to learn the systems, or the analogies, of the relationships between things in a certain field, and how they interact with each other. Then ultimately you gain that knowledge so that you can shift your own thinking, so when you see a new problem you’re better able to solve it.

Khazan: You mentioned things that don’t work, like highlighting a lot, or skimming your notes before a meeting. Why don’t those work?

Boser: Re-reading and highlighting are particularly ineffective. They’re just passive, and you are just kind of skimming that material. It makes you feel better. You feel comfortable with the material, but you don’t really know the material. Doing things that are a little bit more difficult, that require you to really make connections, is a better way to learn. [You might] explain things to yourself, [or] simply quiz yourself. If you’re preparing for a meeting, you’d be much better off just putting the material away and just asking yourself questions. It gives you a false sense of security, that kind of re-reading.

Khazan: Why is teaching other people such an effective learning strategy?

Boser: It’s not that different from explaining ideas to yourself. Self-explaining has a lot of evidence. You’re explaining why things might be interconnected, and why they matter, and those meaningful distinctions between the two of them. The other thing that’s particularly helpful about teaching other people is that you have to think about what is confusing about something, and how you’d explain that in a simpler way, and so that makes you shift the way that you’re thinking about a certain topic.

Khazan: You mentioned that learning is, by necessity, really difficult. Why does it have to be so uncomfortable?

Boser: I think there’s so much stuff out there now that’s like, “Learning’s supposed to be easy, learning’s supposed to be fun!”

If I ask you, what’s the capital of Australia? Do you know what it is?

Khazan: [Breaks into a cold sweat.] Is it Sydney? I don’t know. It’s probably not.

Boser: No, it’s not Sydney. Another guess?

Khazan: Melbourne?

Boser: Nope. One more.

Khazan: Oh my God, I can’t believe I don’t know this. What’s another … Brisbane? I have no idea, I’m so sorry.

Boser: Yeah, it’s Canberra.

Khazan: What?

Boser: Yeah!

Khazan: Oh my God.

Boser: I had this experience with a researcher. I was in your spot, where I was like, “I’m so embarrassed by this. I should know, this is a major country.” The difficulty of that is going to help you remember it. I’m not going to promise you that you are going to remember the capital of Australia 10 years from now, but it’s now a much more salient fact. It’s something that’s a little bit more meaningful to you.

Both of us probably, at one time in the world, had this fact come across us, but it wasn’t meaningful, it certainly wasn’t an embarrassing situation. In my experience it was a source being like, “Do you know this?” I’m trying to be like, “I went to a fancy school, I should know this information.” It became salient to me. Part of the reason that learning’s supposed to be hard, or a little bit difficult, is it makes memory work a little bit more.

The other reason that learning should be difficult is that, when we’re a little bit out of our comfort zone, we are a little bit more challenged, and that helps us develop skills. We see this a lot in games. Part of the attraction of even a shoot-em-up game is that it’s always getting a little bit more difficult, and that way it’s building on our skill.

Khazan: What’s the most effective type of feedback that you could be getting in order to learn better?

Boser: What is helpful is that [the feedback] comes close to when you perform the task, and that it requires you to generate an answer. You don’t necessarily want to simply give people the answer, because then they haven’t really made that information meaningful to themselves. By forcing you to make these wrong guesses [about Australia], when you heard the actual answer, it made it more meaningful to you.

Khazan: Why is it helpful to distribute learning over time?

Boser: I find this one really fascinating. The basic thing is, we forget, and we forget at a very regular rate. People underestimate how much they forget, and people who are able to revisit their learning at a regular rate end up learning a lot more. There’s some good software that does that. Anki is one, and they have, I think, a really nice model, which is, you’re learning at your rate of forgetting. If we know that you’re going to forget details like the capital of France in three months, you would revisit that material at that particular point in time. What’s surprising about it is, this isn’t new. This is stuff that dates back to the 19th century, but we really just don’t use it in schools or in colleges, even though we know that people forget a lot, and they forget at this very regular rate.

Khazan: I was really interested to read about Bill Gates’ Think Week, where he reads all those white papers in a secluded cottage. Why does he do that in that way, and what can other people learn from that?

Boser: He just sort of squares away and has these moments of quiet in order to develop new skills. I think we really underestimate the role that deliberation and reflection plays in learning. To a degree we know it, this is why you think of things in the shower or right before you go to bed. You have these moments where your brain is thinking through the day, making connections, and what’s important, I think, for people who are trying to learn more effectively, is to make organized time for that. We’ve seen some schools have students do more reflections on their learning. There’s one or two studies that have even found that reflection can be more effective than practice itself.

Khazan: How can I get better at remembering peoples’ names?

Boser: One thing that helps with memory is if they’re emotional. You will not forget the name of the person that you gave your first kiss to. I don’t think this is, of course, a very practical solution to this problem.

The other thing that you can do is try and hang that information on other information. Say you want to remember the names of your boss’s daughters, you can see if you can wrap that information into other information that you already know. If you like the Knicks, and his daughters are named Kelly and Neely you can be like, “Oh, the first two letters of the New York Knicks.” That’s another way of making that information more meaningful to you.

DEL Quiz: How well do you know DHS?

Think you know DHS? Answer these five questions to check your knowledge:

The Department of Homeland Security was formerly called the Office of Homeland Security.
That’s actually true! Before the Department of Homeland Security was established, President George W. Bush announced the formation of the Office of Homeland Security, which later became DHS.
Try again!
 Who was the first Secretary of Homeland Security?
Michael Chertoff
Try again!
Janet Napolitano
Try again!
Tom Ridge
Correct! Secretary Ridge became the director of OHS on October 8, 2001. Once DHS was established, his role transitioned into the Secretary of Homeland Security.
The Department of Homeland Security is comprised of how many agencies?
Try again!
Try again!
Prior to the creation of DHS, the United States Coast Guard was part of which department?
Department of Transportation
Correct! Though many assume the USCG was part of the Department of Defense, it was actually under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation.
Department of Defense
Try again!
Department of Justice
Try again!
DHS has approximately how many employees?
Try again!
Try again!


3 Steps to Inspire Your Team Without Paying Them (Or Without Paying Them More)

Inspire Team ArticleFrom

As a leader of more than a dozen volunteer organizations and a founder of three not-for-profit organizations, I have extensive experience in trying to motivate people who are extremely talented but aren’t financially reimbursed for their time. In addition, as a supervisor in government work, I know the challenges of inspiring employees who are older and more experienced, or younger and may not feel that they have the skills or abilities to tackle a new responsibility.

This year, I’ve written about reward programs to incentivize the performance you want repeated, and I’ve covered using authentic compliments to build closer relationships with your team. But what about when you simply need to get a job done today? You don’t have time to create an employee recognition program or build that relationship with an employee whose nose you need on the metaphorical grindstone. The job needs to be done now and you may have to work with limited resources who are constrained by other work obligations. How can you do it?

First: Perform A “Sanity Check”

Before you step out of your office, perform a quick “sanity check” on the plan you want to put into action. I always recommend using S.M.A.R.T. goals, which helps to ensure that you’re giving someone a task they can accomplish. S.M.A.R.T. is a classic business acronym which stands for:

– Specific: The goal must be detailed and focused, not vague or too broad.
– Measurable: The goal must have targets that can identify under performance and over performance.
– Attainable/Achievable: The goal must be able to be accomplished with the time, budget and resources available.
– Relevant (Some use Realistic): The goal must meet the mission of the organization.
– Timely: The goal must have a deadline for completion.

When you perform this quick analysis, you can be confident that you have created a goal worth pursuing, and that will help you in the next phase.

Next, Get “I’ve Had Way Too Much Coffee!” Enthusiastic

Remember, at this point, your goal is exactly that; yours. You need to build enthusiasm and support for this solo mission to become a team effort, and this starts from within. Make sure you are aware and confident of the importance of this project to the agency, and that will be conveyed when you begin promoting it to your team. After all, how many times have you had to watch your manager try to push senior leadership’s “mission statement” on you? You can tell if they believe in it or if they’re just toeing the company line because they have to. You must be convinced that this is a mission-critical task that will make or break the organization. Make sure you communicate this with all of the answers you developed in making your goal S.M.A.R.T., so the team member knows exactly what is expected and when it is due.

Finally, Follow-up With Your Full Support

Don’t forget, you are delegating this task because the resource has the talent you need to successfully meet the objective. Ensure they have the resources and time commitment (especially if this is a multiple department or inter-agency project) to be successful. Check in with them at a frequency they designate, and do so in-person (do not send an email), to see how they are progressing. Ask how other teams are cooperating, or if they need additional support to accomplish the task. Most importantly ask; “are you still as excited about this task as I am?” And follow up with authentic compliments to help recognize the individual’s work and build professional rapport as the project progresses.

This Technique May Work Better Than You Expect

Recently, I needed a member of another team (who is brilliant, and is constantly tasked with more than his fair share of work) to help me out by developing an API (computer code that let’s one system talk to another) that was very important for my team’s success. It involved partnering with a third department in our agency to create a real-time link with our phone systems to ensure my disaster recovery alerting system always had the latest contact information to reach employees. After checking with another department supervisor to make sure my goal was S.M.A.R.T., I approached the employee with the task and explained how amazing it would be for our organization to have this information available at the touch of a fingertip. Before I could even complete my sales pitch, he was already telling me how excited he was to work on this project, and how the information could be used in other areas of government business. I’ve pledged him my full support and I will be checking in with him on a weekly basis (his requested follow-up period) to find out how I can help clear the way for this project.

How can you apply this method at your agency?

Daniel Hanttula is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

What is the Next Generation of Government Training Summit?

The NextGen summit is the embodiment of what NextGen represents: inspiring government innovation and providing training and leadership opportunities for public servants. Since 2010, the two-day summit has inspired over 4,000 federal, state and local govies to be positive change ambassadors.

Why does it matter to me?

The NextGen Summit is a place to cultivate and enable the absolute best next generation of government. Whether you’re a millennial just entering the government workforce or a manager tasked with retaining and developing talent, or a seasoned public servant looking for new resources or challenges, the NextGen Summit is where you want to be.

Check out this year’s schedule, our Public Service Awards program, and line up of past speakers to take a closer look at who and what makes the NextGen Summit great, and why you need to be a part of it.

Watch the video at