Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2nd Edition)
By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
McGraw-Hill, New York, 2012

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and they suddenly got defensive? Maybe you were talking with your partner or your child and you brought up some behavior of theirs that you found annoying or troubling. They took it badly. They thought you were being overly critical, that you were always critical. Tempers flared, harsh words were exchanged, doors were slammed.

Ever had a conversation with someone and suddenly you got defensive? Maybe you were talking with your boss, perhaps during The Dreaded Annual Performance Review, and you received some feedback that you thought was unfair, unhelpful or just plain unfounded. Screaming and yelling at your boss was out of the question so perhaps you became withdrawn and sullen, gave one-word answers and left the meeting as soon as you could.

Ever wish you could have a conversation with someone but didn’t know how to even broach the subject let alone achieve a positive outcome? Perhaps there’s someone you work with who frequently misses deadlines, or takes credit for the work of others, or makes sexist comments. You don’t know what to say, so you say nothing, but inside you’re seething, telling yourself this person is an idiot, a jerk, or both. You can barely stand to be in the same room with them, let alone work together.

What all these conversations have in common is that they involve opposing views, high stakes and strong emotions. They are what Kerry Patterson and his co-authors define as crucial conversations.

Crucial Conversations cover

Crucial Conversations, the book, teaches you how to recognize these conversations, plan for them, and successfully manage them to achieve your goals. It presents strategies and skills and many pages of examples in a clear seven step program. I’m going to focus on just two of these seven steps, the two that the authors say are the most important.

“Learn to Look”

Before you can adopt any of the strategies or master any of the skills presented in the book, you need to recognize crucial conversations when they’re happening, or preferably beforehand. The authors call this “learning to look.”

Detecting the signs of a crucial conversation, while you’re in the middle of one, isn’t easy at first. That’s because what starts as an ordinary conversation can turn crucial in an instant. So you have to learn to participate at two levels. You must monitor both the content of the conversation (what’s being said), and the conditions (how it’s being said and how people are responding). The authors call this “dual-processing.” Others might call it mindfulness. Ray Dalio, in Principles, refers to it as looking down on your personal machine. The idea is to maintain a little detachment so you can look for signs the conversation is becoming crucial.

Monitoring the conditions of a conversation means observing how people are responding. Start by checking your own responses.

  • Physical: Do you feel your gut tightening, your jaw clenching?
  • Emotional: Are you starting to get angry, or frightened?
  • Behavioral: Are you pointing your finger, or raising your voice?

In others, you need to look for signs of what the authors call “silence or violence”. Is the person you’re speaking with becoming loud and aggressive (violence), or withdrawn and noncommittal (silence)?

In both yourself and others, these behaviors are signs of fear. They signal a loss of safety. If people do not feel safe in a conversation, if they fear they might be harmed or rejected, they won’t participate fully. They won’t contribute their ideas or their opinions, and they won’t listen to the ideas or opinions of others. They’ll revert to silence or violence.

“Make it safe”

Whenever you detect silence or violence in others or in yourself, your first job is to restore safety to the conversation. The means stepping out of the stream of discussion – the content – to focus on the conditions. The authors recommend doing two things:

  • Establish mutual purpose. To quell the fear of harm, try to identify a mutual purpose. It may be something more abstract or generalized than the subject of the conversation. For example, rather than argue about your partner flirting with other people at a party, you might need to both agree to work on creating a happier relationship. You might not appreciate that your co-worker missed another deadline, but instead of tackling that head-on, you could try to establish a mutual goal such as functioning more smoothly as a team.
  • Establish mutual respect. The authors point out that when people don’t feel respected, safety evaporates. They immediately switch from discussing the original topic to defending their dignity. They’ll become emotional, unreceptive to ideas, almost incapable of hearing any of the content of the conversation until their dignity and respect are restored. And you’ll do the same if it’s you who feels disrespected. To restore respect, you’ll need to step out of the conversation to focus on your similarities rather than on your differences.

So how do you establish mutual purpose and respect? The book suggests:

  • Apologize: If you’ve made a mistake that has hurt others, apologize. You have to be sincere about this. Insincerity is easily detected and will only exacerbate mistrust.
  • Contrast: To clear up a misunderstanding, use contrast. State what you don’t want or didn’t intend, and follow with what you do want or do mean. “The last thing I wanted was to cause X. What I really would like is Y.”
  • Create mutual purpose. Make it clear you’re committed to finding a mutual purpose. Recognize that the other person has a purpose too. Try to understand what it is. Ask questions to draw it out. Once you understand it, you’re in a better position to work together to come up with a mutual purpose and to address is with new strategies or approaches.

Once you’ve restored safety, you can return to the content of the conversation, though of course by now that content may have been re-shaped, hopefully into something more productive.

Learning to look and restoring safety are the two cornerstone skills for handling crucial conversations. They, along with the other steps and strategies detailed in the book are designed to help you achieve what you want for yourself, for others, and for your relationships.

Unsolicited Feedback

In general I really appreciate books that give you an organizing framework for thinking about a problem or a subject area. Crucial Conversations certainly does that, plus it provides concrete guidance for how to handle specific and difficult situations at home and at work. I think that makes it very worthwhile reading.

I haven’t put the lessons of Crucial Conversations to use in my own conversations yet, but I have been trying to develop the habit of being a bit more detached just to make space for that dual-processing recommended in the book. We’ll see how it goes.

The book has made me reflect on some past conversations though, particularly with my family, when I lost my temper or simply walked out of the room in frustration. I could have used this book years before it was written.

Related Links

Crucial Conversations – official site

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