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Preparation is Key for Having Successful Critical Conversations at Work

4 Mins read

I introduce the COIN framework (Common Purpose, Observations, Inquiry, Next Steps) to all my clients because every one of them has critical conversations during the timeframe that we work together and long afterward.

What COIN Is and When to Use It

The COIN framework gives you the tools to frame and structure a critical conversation—crucial when stakes are high, emotions run strong, and opinions differ.

COIN has two phases: preparation and activation. COIN lightens the cognitive load of conversations that you know will be emotionally demanding and require a lot of active listening. I like to think about COIN the same way you might use a recipe. COIN gives you the structure and confidence, so you can create the magic by adding your own creative touches. As you learn COIN, I invite you to think about everything you bring to the conversation as ingredients. COIN is your basic recipe to adapt and vary as you get more experienced with the techniques and process. COIN also helps you focus on the conversation unfolding and the other people participating in it.

Preparation for COIN

We prepare for a challenging conversation with a balance of toughness and softness. It’s important to bring a balanced perspective to the conversation—not too “tough,” that is, set in your way of viewing the issue one way. And not too “soft,” that is, shying away from saying the hard things that need to be said. Soft also means you remain open and curious to hear the other side of the story.

How do you default in your uncomfortable conversations? Most of us tend toward either a tough or soft approach, and it’s helpful to know which way we naturally lean. An effective conversation requires us to hold space for both tough and soft tendencies.

A softer perspective emphasizes emotions and feelings and the relationship.

  • What is important about this relationship?
  • What do I really want to be different?

A tougher perspective means you stand up straight and are clear about what you want to say and are invested in a concrete goal/outcome.

  • What is my position?
  • How can I share my position without blame or defensiveness?
  • What is not negotiable here?

To bring both the soft and tough aspects to the conversation, ask yourself these questions.

  • Am I clear and focused on my goal?
  • What might take me away from my goal and back to my place of comfort (either softness or toughness)?
  • Am I more committed to my goal than to easing my discomfort?

An example of approaching a conversation from too tough a perspective is: “You just aren’t a strategic thinker. I’ve given you opportunities to do this work and you’re not cutting it.”

And too soft an approach: “I was going to ask how you feel about the work you’re doing but things seem better. Why don’t we talk about that new project on the horizon for your team?”

An example of a balanced approach is: “I appreciate the hard work you’ve been doing and I know you’ve been picking up others’ slack. At the same time, my sense is that you’re avoiding doing the more strategic work because it’s harder for you. I want to understand if that is the case and how I can support you.”

Having this self-awareness of how you tend to show up in a conversation can be very powerful. Remember, we are looking for a perspective that balances the two.

You have prepared for the conversation. You know how you want to approach it. And now you are ready for the conversation itself!

Activating COIN and Using It in Real-Life

You want to launch the conversation with a common purpose. You have some observations, not assumptions, to share. You recognize the importance of asking questions, of truly listening to the other person’s perspective. And you are committed to concluding the conversation with clarity about what comes next, and the accountability that implies on both sides.

A few tips:

  • Critical conversations are about reconciling your stories with the actual facts, so you and your counterpart can get on the same page about what is going on.
  • The balance between “soft” versus” tough” depends on what the content of the conversation is—are you having a probing conversation to understand a situation better or are you delivering difficult, definitive news?
  • The beginning, common purpose, and end, next steps, of this recipe are straightforward. The challenging part can be the dance between observation and inquiry. That pathway is not always linear. You may share observations on both sides, probe what they mean through open-ended questions, and then bring up other facts that require further discussion before you arrive at next steps.
  • Many critical conversations are not easily resolved in one conversation, the next step may be to continue the conversation, remembering to line up in advance the time and date as your next step.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Coach Yourself!: Increase Awareness, Change Behavior, and Thrive by Antonia Bowring. Copyright © 2024 by Antonia Bowring. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold. 

Antonia Bowring is a highly credentialed, top New York executive coach. She works primarily with founders, C-Suite executives, and leadership teams. One of Antonia’s areas of expertise is helping neurodiverse leaders create the necessary scaffolding to leverage their gifts and maintain their focus. She is the author of Coach Yourself! Become the Best Version of Yourself Using Practical Frameworks. She is also a frequent speaker to companies and groups on topics ranging from mindfulness, ADHD in the workplace, and communication best practices. Her articles through the Forbes Coaches Council are widely read and The American Reporter named her one of the 10 leadership coaches to watch in 2022. For more information, please visit:

Critical conversations stock image by fizkes/Shutterstock

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