4 Steps to Approaching Critical Conversations: A Roadmap for Higher Education Leaders

April 23, 2019 by  
Filed under Leadership Coaching

Note: This is the 2nd part of a 3-part series on Effective Communication in Conflict for Higher Education Leaders.  If you missed the 1st part of the series on Emotional Intelligence, you can read it here.

As an executive coach for higher education leaders, I’m often asked to coach executives and leadership staff on how to improve their ability to handle conflict and conduct critical conversations. I get asked about this subject so often that I developed and teach a course called Effective Communications:  How to Approach Critical Conversations and Conflict Situations, which is designed for higher education leaders who face situations that are often unique to educational environments.

This post is the second in a three-part series on handling conflict and critical conversations in a higher education environment. Last time, I discussed the critical role your Emotional Intelligence plays in your success in conflict. Today, I’ll walk you through a four-step model that helps you approach critical conversations and conflict situations successfully.

The Four Steps to Approaching Handling Conflict and Critical Conversations as a Leader in Higher Education

There are 4 key steps in my model for approaching conflict and critical conversations. They are:



Each step requires different thinking strategies and behaviors from the higher education leader. Together, these four steps allow you to navigate difficult, often emotionally charged conflict situations with greater ease and skill.






Reflection is the first step for handling conflict and critical conversations, andyou need to do this before you speak with anyone.

Reflection is the act of preparing yourself for what’s ahead and think through the outcomes that you want to achieve, the needs others may have, and mentally prepare yourself for the difficult conversation you anticipate.

Four questions to ask yourself at this stage include:

  1. What are my goals?
  2. What are his/her possible goals?
  3. How will Iget into the right frame of mind to have this conversation?
  4. What are other possible reflection points that I need to consider?

I recommend using a powerful tool called mind mapping to prepare for difficult situations. Mind mapping is an intuitive brainstorming framework that allows for generating ideas without regard to linear structure or order. Per the illustration, start with a concept and brainstorm a list of connected ideas.




In step one, you reflected on all the goals and conditions that you anticipate experiencing during the actual conversation. In step two, you create a plan for how you intend to handle the actual conversation where you address the conflict with the other party/parties involved.

This 4-step model can be applied to conversations with other higher education leaders, colleagues (administrative or faculty), students, or other individuals with whom you interact.

The four questions you ask yourself in this step are:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. What information do I need?
  3. How might we move toward partnership?
  4. What are the other options?

There may be only one outcome for success, or you may be open to multiple outcomes for success.  You may not be able to anticipate all the information you need at this point, but you need to gather all the information you believe you’ll need and have a plan for acquiring that which you don’t have during the actual conversation.

The goal of every critical conversation is to move people closer together instead of farther apart.  As a higher education leader, you want to build consensus and a collaborative team spirit, not cause chasms to widen.

Before the actual conversation, you need to consider what steps you would be willing to take to reach a more congenial relationship and what conditions you won’t accept. Think through all your options in the planning stage of the process.


Step three is when you get to the heart of the matter in a live interaction. Your job here is to engage the person or people you’re conversing with, extending compassion, respect, and an open mind.  As a higher education leader, you must balance the emotional temperature of the room, expressing yourself and your goals calmly, clearly, and decisively.  Sometimes your most important job at this stage is to just listen.

You may begin the conversation with the phrase “I’d like to talk about ________ with you, but first I’d like to hear your perspective.”

Ask as many questions as it takes for you to get a clear picture of what’s going on.


In step three, you figure out what’s really going on and what critical issues are on the table (which may be different than what you originally anticipated).

Step four focuses on how the parties involved will move forward together. The goal of this step is to formulate a clear, complete vision for what is to happen next.

The questions you need to answer in this step include:

  1. What are our agreed-upon, concrete steps going forward?
  2. How will we communicate going forward?

Finally, as a leader, you need to “debrief” this encounter once you’re alone.

Reflect on what happened, what went well, what didn’t, goals for the future, etc.  It’s a good time to return to step one and go through the reflection process to prepare yourself for the future.

 Facing Conflict Situations in Higher Education: Two Examples of the Four-Step Approach in Action

I’ve coached several executives in using this four-step model, and I know it is a valuable tool for the specific scenarios you face as a leader in higher education.

For example, one of the leaders I worked with was about to lead an academic department meeting where there was no buy-in for program changes.  He was a relatively new leader and knew he was facing an up-hill battle. Using the four-step approach I’ve described here, he was able to prepare for his meeting more effectively, ascertain the real issues that had not yet surfaced, and create a spirit of collaboration in his meeting. In the end, he won significant support for his change initiatives.

Another example where this four-step approach proved invaluable was for a new VP at a prominent educational institution.  She came to me for help because she was about to have a meeting with one of her new staff members, someone who’d applied for her VP role and was not hired.  The new VP understood that their working relationship would be greatly impacted by how she approached their first meeting together. I walked her through the four-step model, and she was able to prepare for and conduct the meeting with ease and grace.  The two work together beautifully today, thanks to the care that the VP took with anticipating and preparing for the critical conversation.

Final Thoughts for Higher Education Leaders Facing Conflict Situations

Your role as a leader in higher education requires you to be adept at handling conflict situations and critical conversations with finesse, empathy, and determination.

As was discussed in part one of this series, building your Emotional Intelligence is the first step to becoming more skilled in conflict.

Using the four-step approach to critical conversations that I’ve introduced today is the next step, and it is certain to help you be more successful in difficult encounters you face as a leader in higher education.

Navigating conflict successfully is a skill that will not only help you improve overall results on your team but will also give you a career advantage for years to come.

In my third and final installment of this series, I will walk you through a case study drawn from real-life conflict situations in a higher education environment where the 4-step model I introduced today is applied.

In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss this 4-step model with me directly, or inquire about my executive coaching services for higher education leaders, let’s get better acquainted. Contact me at  [email protected]


Emotional Intelligence and Conflict: Vital Lessons for Higher Education Leaders

April 8, 2019 by  
Filed under Leadership Coaching

Emotional Intelligence and conflict management skills are among the most important competencies for higher education leaders to master. It turns out the two skillsets are also directly correlated.

As a leader in higher education, you are already keenly aware that conflict is both inevitable and sometimes extremely difficult to mitigate. You also understand the importance of addressing conflicts before they get out of hand.

Because conflict management and resolution are so important for higher education leaders, I’ve devoted a full three-part series to the subject. In this series, you’ll learn how to tap into your Emotional Intelligence to deal effectively with emotionally-charged situations and high-stakes conversations, key conflict management skills that will set you apart as a remarkable leader.

In this first installment of this three-part series, we will concentrate on understanding the power of Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence Defined

Emotional Intelligence is your ability to accurately perceive and understand your own emotions and feelings, as well as others’ emotions and feelings. When your Emotional Intelligence is strong, you are better able to handle social situations and interactions with others with tact and skill. Emotionally Intelligent people are more adept at forming strong interpersonal relationships; they also make great leaders, because they better understand the emotionally-charged needs of those they lead.

Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of Emotional Intelligence in his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which he published in 1995 along with four highly popular articles in the Harvard Business Review.

Leaders who possess strong Emotional Intelligence make better decisions, solve even difficult problems more easily, understand the dynamics of human factors in the workplace more precisely, and form better working relationships with staff, peers, and executive management.

As a seasoned coach to higher education executives, I employ the EQi-2.0 assessment to help measure a leader’s command of various aspects of Emotional Intelligence.

Today I will introduce you to fundamentals of the EQ-i 2.0 Model. There are many things you can learn from this insightful tool to improve your ability to navigate conflict and crucial conversations more easily.

The EQi-2.0 Model® 

Based on the original model authored by Dr. Reuven Bar-On, the EQ-I 2.0 Model explores a total of 15 key competencies, all nestled under five core Emotional Intelligence proficiencies, which are: Self-Perception, Self-Expression, Interpersonal, Decision-Making, and Stress Management.

1. Self-Perception  

Self-perception is both how you view and regard yourself; it is a measure of your emotional self-awareness. Self-perception involves your sense of self-confidence and personal strength.  How confident do you feel?  How strong do you feel?

When you feel confident in yourself and feel powerful, you are far more likely to go after what you want in life, despite how difficult the journey might be. People are drawn to leaders who demonstrate a healthy sense of self-confidence and personal power

2. Self-Expression

Self-expression considers how you express yourself outwardly. Leaders with high Emotional Intelligence feel free to express their thoughts and ideas without being overly worried about what others think.  They also express themselves in constructive and caring ways, as opposed to coming across passive or, at the other end of the spectrum, using intimidation tactics (which are both indicators of insecurity, and hence, low Emotional Intelligence).

Leaders with high Emotional Intelligence are naturally good at handling the feelings and emotions that surface in conflict situations and critical conversations because people appreciate leaders who express empathy while offering clear and helpful contributions to the dialogue.

3. Interpersonal

Your interpersonal skills relate to your ability to form respectful and mutually beneficial interpersonal relationships. Strong interpersonal skills speak to your ability to establish trust with others.

As already mentioned, when your self-perception is strong, you possess the confidence required to form great interpersonal skills.  When your self-expression skills are strong, you can connect with people more easily, because you communicate in ways that show you care.

The ability to demonstrate a true understanding of another’s perspective and express sincere interest in others are attributes required for successful leadership, especially in times of conflict.

4. Decision-Making

Your decision-making skills include how you go about solving problems while fully understanding and considering the emotional factors involved in the problem.

A person with strong Emotional Intelligence easily resists the urge to act on impulses and remains objective throughout the decision-making process, rather than opting for the much less effective, rash decision-making style that bends to raw emotions and pure impulse.

The stronger your Emotional Intelligence, the stronger your decision-making abilities are in conflict situations.

5. Stress Management

Stress management considers your ability to handle the high demands you face as a higher education leader while maintaining a sense of flexibility and optimism.

Do you succumb to stress easily or is your stress tolerance quite high?

A leader who possesses strong stress management skills handles change more easily, remains hopeful about the future, and is strong enough to be resilient when facing tough problems and unexpected hurdles.

Conflict situations tend to be inherently stressful.  Leaders who are adept at handling conflict typically possess exceptionally strong stress management skills

A higher education leader who has a strong command of self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal skills, decision-making, and stress-management is poised to be excellent at handling difficult conversations and conflict situations.

Three Reasons Emotional Intelligence Is Required for Handling Conflict

Research clearly shows that strong Emotional Intelligence gives leaders a considerable advantage when facing conflict situations and difficult people. Here are three reasons this is true:

1. The Leader Recognizes How Emotions Translate into Thinking and Behavior

Leaders who don’t understand the emotional factors that enter others’ (and their own) thinking processes and behaviors are ill-equipped to handle the often emotionally-charged conversations common in conflict.  Leaders who are adept at reading the emotional landscape are well-equipped to bring calm to situations that could otherwise easily escalate into chaos. Remaining clear and cool-headed are hallmarks of a savvy leader.

2. The Leader Knows Triggers and Anticipates How to Respond

Leaders who understand the human factors that enter conflict situations are far better able to avoid triggers that could make the conflict situation even worse.  Because they understand the emotions involved, leaders with strong Emotional Intelligence are also better able to anticipate the emotional impact of conflict situations, and hence, can create better strategies to respond to conflicts.

3. Emotional Intelligence Expands a Leader’s Executive Presence

As I’ve stated in previous posts,I consistently find there’s a missing link for many higher education leaders, namely, executive presence.  This link is not missing for leaders who possess strong Emotional Intelligence.

Leaders who command Emotional Intelligence are far better able to convey confidence and build exceptional careers, as they rise far higher far faster than their colleagues who fail to build their Emotional Intelligence skills

In Summary:  The Stronger Your Emotional Intelligence, the Better You Are At Handling Conflict as a Leader

Knowing how to employ your Emotional Intelligence in the face of conflict is key to being successful as a leader in higher education.

Are you curious about your Emotional Intelligence aptitude? Or are you interested in a fresh perspective on your own leadership skills from a seasoned higher education executive coach?  I’d like to hear from you. Let’s get the conversation started-contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss the many possible paths forward.

In my next post, I will show you a four-step approach to handling critical conversations in a higher education environment while tapping into your Emotional Intelligence.  Stay tuned.