9 tips for Critical Conversations at Board Level

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Being a board member requires balance in many ways.  We have collective responsibility, so we need to work as an effective team.  We also have individual legal duties, so we need to recognise that responsibility and live up to it.  Sometimes the hardest part of board membership is when difficult conversations need to be had.  Shying away from those conversations isn’t an option. 

Here are 9 tips for Critical Conversations at Board Level:
  1. Be brave.  You know the conversation needs to happen, so make it happen.  The sooner you have it, the better for all involved.  The great book ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ gives practical guidance on this.
  2. The goal.  Rather than setting out to ‘win’, seek to build shared understanding to get results that are best for the organisation, and also maintain healthy relationships.  Imagine how good it will feel when a positive outcome is achieved, and focus on the vision of that.
  3. Prepare.  Think through the key points you want to make, and be ready to question your own thinking when you really listen to the views of the other party.  Recognise that it’s healthy to think differently.  That’s why it’s valuable to have a group of diverse board members, who may bring very different perspectives.
  4. Process.  Agree how you expect the conversation to happen.  Discuss the goal (see 2 above).  Agree an agenda, and some ground rules.  Allow enough time to really listen to each other, and ensure you have a suitable location which is neutral, comfortable, quiet and confidential.
  5. Explain.  Give your view of the context, the facts and the desired outcome.  Explain how it makes you feel.
  6. Listen.  Ask the other party to give their view of the context, the facts and the desired outcome.  Ask how it makes them feel.
  7. Options.  Explore the possible options for the way forward, and how each party feels about them.  Seek consensus.
  8. Decide.  Be specific about the way forward.  Agree who will do what, when.  Ensure mutual understanding, and check that the language is clear.  Agree who else needs to know the outcome, and what follow-up process will be useful.
  9. Thank the person for having the conversation.

If you can’t agree on the way forward, bring in a skilled independent person to facilitate the conversation.  Their lack of emotional involvement with the issue will help to bring clarity and objectivity.


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