Let’s Talk

Carrie Woods speaks to Crucial Conversation program participants.

By Shawn Ryan | Photos by Angela Foster

When Carrie Woods stands in front of a room full of business people to discuss communication skills—specifically, how to simply talk to each other—she knows she needs to be straightforward and plain-spoken.

“They don’t need theory; they don’t need the idea behind it,” she says. “They need something I can give them today that they can take home and use and be successful tomorrow. Right?”

Starting this month, Woods, a member of the UTC Center for Professional Development, will take those skills, which she has developed during the past decade, and apply them to a brand-new client—domestic violence shelters.

Using a first-time $60,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Programs, the center will carry a program known as Crucial Conversations to shelters in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Johnson City. But the program is not to help shelter employees communicate better with those who come to them for help and protection; they’re already good at that. It’s to help managers and employees learn to talk to their co-workers in difficult situations—negative performance reviews or peer-to-peer conflicts, for instance. Most folks try to dodge those battles, which is where the trouble lies.

“Teams don’t function well and can’t achieve their goals if there are communication breakdowns,” says John Freeze, director of the Center for Professional Education. “Sometimes there’s an elephant in the room, but nobody wants to talk about it. They dance around it. They avoid it.”

From left, Carrie Woods, John Freeze and Ginger Duggan from UTC’s Center for Professional Education.

In the spring of 2018, UTC approached the state Office of Criminal Justice Program, hoping to get buy-in from the department to use Crucial Conversations in domestic violence shelters. The office—whose mission is to distribute federal and state money to fund programs for law enforcement, safety and other proposals—liked the plan and approved the grant.

“Domestic violence advocates work hard each day having crucial conversations with survivors across the state,” says Jennifer Brinkman, director of the Office of Criminal Justice Programs. “Conversations that are positive and built on mutual respect are the cornerstone of these discussions, and a training like Crucial Conversations enhances the skills that advocates bring to their work.”

Emotional response

Since joining the Center for Professional Education in late 2017, Woods has been presenting communication-focused programs to local corporations and businesses through her certification from VitalSmarts. The nationwide company provides Crucial Conversations training programs and materials to help organizations deal with communication problems inside the company.

“We’ve got multiple companies across the area and region that are saying, ‘Hey, we want our employees trained in this,’” Woods says.

Her experience has taught her that, when face-to-face discussions are necessary to resolve a problem, the first instinct is fight or flight.

“Your adrenaline is taking over your body, the reptilian brain, all of these things. Stakes are high, and that’s where the outcomes matter,” Woods says.

The lessons of Crucial Conversations help people handle the uncomfortable, sometimes frightening feelings that flare up when things reach a boiling point, she explains.

“When they start feeling that emotional response and they start recognizing that for what it is, I mean, some people, their hands shake or maybe you get butterflies in your stomach, your neck gets hot, whatever that is,” Woods says. “As soon as they feel it, being able to pull back and look at the conversation and remember: What was my original intent? Logic and emotion can’t live together. When emotion shows up, logic leaves.”

Training employees at domestic violence shelters is not all that different from working with companies, Woods says. There are just a few tweaks need to be made.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about Crucial Conversations; the approach is the exact same,” she says. “You just have to be prepared. You have to practice using the tools in a variety of scenarios.”

Ginger Duggan, assistant director of business development in the Center for Professional Education, will be partnering with Woods on some sessions. To document whether the program is having the desired effect, she says, they’ll be collecting data in four specific areas: frequency, severity, dialogue and solvability.

“These are just four types of scenarios that they run into most often,” she explains. “So, we’ll ask a series of four questions. One is the frequency: ‘In the past 30 days, how often has this happened?’ Then, ‘When this happens, how severe is it? Is it a big deal or not a big deal?’ Then, the third one is: ‘What amount of dialogue is happening? Is anyone talking at all about this?’ Then the solvability. ‘When you all talk, is anything solved, is it better afterwards?’”

Learning to discuss unpleasant subjects with other employees can help shelter employees improve their connection with women who need help, she adds.

“You can move further down the line to help these women get back to a sustainable, safe environment, to get them past the turmoil that they’re in and get them to the other side,” Duggan says.