Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
BY Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Al Switzler, Ron McMillan
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High discusses how to handle disagreements and high-stakes communication. It is written on the premise that when you are stuck in any situation – whether it’s at home or work – there is a crucial conversation keeping you from accomplishing the desired results. If you can learn to speak up in these crucial moments effectively, then you can accomplish the results you are after.
The authors support this idea by referring to people who are considered influential by their peers and managers in their work and relationships. They studied successful communicators over a period of 25 years and concluded that what typically set them apart from the rest of the pack was their ability to deal with crucial conversations. They possess a skill-set that is easy to learn and allows them to face any situation with nearly anybody–no matter power, position, or authority.
Top 20 Insights:
1. Decisive talks are defined as discussions between two people where there is significance, opinions are divergent, and emotions are strongly expressed. These repetitive daily activities affect everyone's lives in a variety of situations, and the outcome of these pivotal conversations is incredibly important.
2. The smooth flow of relevant information is at the core of any successful conversation. The key to successful dialogue is openness and honesty in expressing thoughts, feelings and reasoning, and a willingness to share views when the ideas discussed may be controversial or unpopular. This stream of clear thought is dialogue.
3. Each of us engages in a conversation with different thoughts, feelings, experiences, ideas, and theories about the topic being discussed. This combination of thoughts and feelings creates an individual set of thoughts.
4. People with good communication skills often try to create a sense of security for people to discuss their opinions – forming a shared source of information. As this shared resource is added to the information, it grows.
5. The first step to mastering the conversation is to gain self-knowledge. So the first rule is “practice with yourself first”. If you can't get yourself right, you'll have a hard time getting the conversation right. One of the first steps to doing this is to understand that when faced with a failed dialogue, you are often quick to blame the other person. Although in rare cases you are the one who actually did absolutely nothing wrong; but often, people often contribute to the difficulties they go through.
6. When you're in a decisive conversation, it can be difficult to discern exactly what's going on and why. Sometimes, when discussions get heated, you do what you shouldn't.
7. When the other person goes silent or gets hysterical, it's time to step out of the conversation and create a safe atmosphere. When and only when feeling safe can return to the matter and continue the conversation.
8. Shared purpose – the other party perceives that you are working towards a common goal in the conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values, and vice versa. When purpose is not guaranteed, you will face arguments.
9. After letting others know what you want to say to them, it's time to give back – it's your turn to listen to what they have to say. Encourage the flow of thought and help others leave silence and/or hyperactivity behind. It's best to start with curiosity and patience to help bring back the air of safety.
10. Humans communicate all the time but the higher the stakes, the less likely you will handle a conversation effectively. This could be because you're used to communicating in everyday low-stakes exchanges so you have become less attentive and more automatic with your responses.
11. You can assess how you usually handle a crucial conversation by reflecting on how you typically manage heated conversations: you may hide how upset or angry you feel and work yourself up internally but not say anything, you may react aggressively towards the others involved or you may speak honestly and respectfully.
12. You need to enter the conversation knowing why you're having it in the first place and what your preferred outcome is. Do you need more information from the person? Do they need to apologise? Does a plan need to be created? You need to understand your reasoning for the conversation because this will keep you focused even when you significantly differ in opinion or experience strong emotions.
13. A time and location where you can all fully attend to the conversation is needed or the issue won't be dealt with effectively. Ensure that you check with the others that they can attend at that time and place and double-check when you meet. This consent also ensures that you're all committed to the conversation.
14. In the Crucial Conversations book the authors discuss the importance of dialogue. They define dialogue as the free flow of meaning between people. This essentially means that you should talk openly and honestly with each other. Dialogue is meant to fill the "Pool of Shared Meaning". This is where the views, facts, opinions, theories, emotions, and experiences shared in the conversation are understood and valued by everyone involved. The greater the shared meaning there is, the better the decision. However, this is not easily achieved because not everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinions and views.
15. Recognize that the conversation will be just as difficult, maybe more so, for the others involved so enter it with empathy and compassion. Also, enter assuming that you have something to learn. You may think about canceling the meeting but consider the risks of not speaking up compared to speaking up.
16. It's important to make everyone feel comfortable enough to share or you risk diluting your content, or just saying whatever is on your mind without any concern. You need to learn to step away from the content when it feels unsafe to share, make it safe and then go back in.
17. Ideas may not be put into action if people are unsure of how the decision will be made and if people don't follow-up on their promised action. Conclusions and decisions must be clarified.
18. It’s often the case that when one first steps into this emotionally charged situation full of positive intent, the other person is not in the same space. They may be feeling hurt and so will often ‘fire’ out at us. When emotions (and words that wound) start flying around, then it is easy to get ‘hooked’.
19. In any conversation don’t be a one-sided thinker, Always enter in any conversation by being “Open” Don’t think that only our perception thinking is right, however, we can be wrong, hence try to understand other's perspectives and opinions and thinking related to any situation or event, and In any conversation do maintain Mutual Respect.
20. The story we tell ourselves about our experience is actually what drives our feelings, if we are angry we must have told ourselves a story in which our anger is justified, and if we are sad or upset then also we must have told ourselves story which has justified our emotions. However, these stories are not inevitable. We can choose what story to tell ourselves and when a particular story drives us in an undesirable direction, we can choose to tell a different story.
Chapter One: What’s a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares?
A crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. When we face crucial conversations, we can do one of three things: We can avoid them, we can face them and handle them poorly, or we can face them and handle them well. Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. We often hold things inside by going silent until we can take it no longer—and then we drop a bomb. In short, we move between silence and violence—we either don’t handle the conversation or don’t handle it well. We may not become physically violent, but we do attack others’ ideas and feelings. When we fail a crucial conversation, every aspect of our lives can be affected—from our careers to our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health.
Chapter Two: Mastering Crucial Conversations: The Power of Dialogue
Dialogue is the free flow of meaning between two or more people. At the center of dialogue lies a Pool of Shared Meaning. It contains the ideas, theories, feelings, thoughts, and opinions that are openly shared. The more information we have in the pool, the better prepared we are to make decisions and get results. Anything less than total candor shrinks the shared pool, saps motivation, and dumbs down decisions. Taking time to fill the pool leads to faster and more effective results than the game-playing that inevitably follows silence and violence strategies. Dialogue takes time. The alternative takes longer.
Chapter Three: Start with Heart: How to Stay Focused on What You Really Want
Where you come from dictates where you will get to. How we discuss something is often the real issue rather than what we are discussing. Thus we need to be in the right place ourselves and create the right space for the other person. So first we need to manage our emotions and mindset.
If we approach the situation with the wrong emotions and mindset and enter a conversation in a place of anger, resentment and revenge (having already made up our mind about someone), it is unlikely to end the way we need it to. Instead, we have to start with a positive intent and good-will for the other person.
It’s difficult to change another person but easier to change yourself. So the first principle of dialogue is to start with ourselves. We often see the issue to be with the other person, but we are also culpable. For example, we often play games in relationships (e.g. ‘Salute and stay mute’, ‘Freeze your lover’ or ‘Martyr’), hiding behind sighs, raised eyebrows, hints, sarcasm, or innuendo rather than confronting the issue. And when we do decide to act, we lurch to the other extreme, leading to hyperbole, overly directive, and didactic communication (where we do not listen). Both extremes fail.
Thus, we need to enter the conversation being ‘open’. Our unique past experiences are bought to bear on any situation we find ourselves in – and this unique past creates meaning of that event. Hence it’s critical not to assume that our view is the only truth – after all, we may be wrong! We must therefore ensure we understand the differing perspectives/meanings people have of an event in order to hold an effective debate.
Furthermore, we need to maintain a place of mutual respect. Realistically the only way to remain in conversation is to be authentic. Our verbal and non-verbal communication will play witness to the truth (something the other person will often unconsciously sense). But how do you feel respect for a person that we don’t respect? Often feelings of disrespect come from focusing on what’s different from us. To build a level of respect we need to instead focus on areas that they are similar to us on. We all have weaknesses and it’s a case of accepting that their weakness is no weaker than our own (cf the witticism caught in this prayer: “Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I”).
Chapter Four: Learn to Look: How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk
When a conversation turns crucial, we either miss or misinterpret the early warning signs. The sooner we notice we’re not in dialogue, the quicker we can get back to dialogue, and the lower the cost. As you pull out of the content of a conversation and learn to look for the conditions of dialogue, pay attention to early warning signs. Learn to look for when a conversation becomes crucial, for signs of silence and violence, and for your own style under stress. A large part of this is watching your actions and emotions, as well as the actions and emotions of the other person. Paying attention to both the content of the discussion and how people are acting and feeling is no easy task. But it’s an essential part of dialogue.
Chapter Five: Make It Safe: How to Make It Safe to Talk about Almost Anything
We need to make a person feel ‘safe’ The safer they feel, the more likely they are to open up. The greater their fear the more likely they will either close down or fight back. Closing down can take one of three forms: Masking (where we pretend to agree/be listening etc); Avoiding (distraction techniques); and Withdrawing.
Being in a high risk conversation (or any conversation for that matter) requires total sensory acuity – we need to be awake to all the nuances that are taking place (the faster you spot them, the quicker you can adapt). Dealing with people is not about having a fixed plan – we need to keep the end in mind and be flexible, addressing the issues as they emerge through the dynamic exchange.
We get so drawn into the conversation we may miss the bigger picture – we focus on the words and fail to read the cues around us. Three key areas to look for: When the moment a conversation turns crucial; Signs that the other person does not feel ‘safe’ and also being aware of own style under duress (Examples for all of these include our own feelings, plus for them a tightening of eyes, change in energy and language and tone). Thus we need to be triple processing: Content, Context and Self. This often involves self-observation – as if we were watching another person.
When one senses a situation is becoming unsafe, we need to step out of the conversation (and not get caught in the game that is now in play) and instead keep focused on the end desired outcome. If we stay ‘in content’ to try to fix the safety issue then all we do is water down what we were going to say (so fail to achieve the cut-through that was required). We need to instead focus on the context. Often people have taken what’s been said and created a negative meaning out of it. This needs to be addressed often by merely restating your positive intent. For example “Can we just switch gear for a minute? My goal here is not to make you feel guilty. My intent is purely to help us both find a way through this together”.
We re-establish safety primarily by listening. We need to demonstrate that we are willing to listen openly and respectfully to them. This can only be done from an authentic place of compassion and curiosity. Critically we need to encourage them to tell us everything. Sometimes we want them to ‘back-fill’ the story as a way of understanding where the issue ultimately stems from (as the saying goes, ‘every sentence has a history’) Hopefully, the more you ‘pull’ from them, the more their emotions will subside. Furthermore, having listened carefully to them, they are then more open to listen to us.
Chapter Six: Master My Stories: How to Stay in Dialogue When You’re Angry, Scared, or Hurt
When we become upset, our most common reaction is to defend ourselves and place the blame on someone else. As convenient as it is to blame others for pushing our buttons and causing us to become upset, it’s not exactly true. The key to how we feel lies in the stories we tell. These stories consist of our guess as to why people do what they do. As we become emotional, our story seems to be “What is the worst and most hurtful way I can take this?” This negative spin escalates our emotions and causes us to do the worst when it matters the most. To break away from your volatile emotions, you must rethink the conclusions you drew and the judgments you made. That requires you to tell the rest of the story. New (more accurate and complete) stories create new feelings and support new and healthier actions. Better still, new stories often encourage you to return to dialogue.
It’s often the case that when one first steps into this emotionally charged situation full of positive intent, the other person is not in the same space. They may be feeling hurt and so will often ‘fire’ out at us. When emotions (and words that wound) start flying around, then its easy to get ‘hooked’. To stop getting hooked there are three things we can do: 1) Keep focused on the end goal 2) Refuse to play the game (merely being aware that a game is ‘in play’ means you are less likely to get caught by it) 3) Avoid the sucker’s choice – we can often find ourselves in a situation where we think there are only two solutions – to shut up and let it go or to express ‘brutal’ honesty. The reality is both will fail. The latter because it causes the other person to close down all barriers – we will not get heard. There is a middle ground that needs to be walked.
Chapter Seven: STATE My Path: How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively
To speak your mind completely in a way that allows room for dialogue, you must express your views in ways that maintain safety, and you have to find a way to be both confident and humble. You have to know how to speak without offending and how to be persuasive without being abrasive. The five skills contained in this chapter help us do just that – to confidently state our opinions and humbly and sincerely invite others to do the same. The five skills that help us share our tough messages can be easily remembered with the acronym STATE.
It stands for:
Share your facts
Tell your story
Ask for others’ paths
Chapter Eight: Explore Others’ Paths: How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up
As we see others moving to silence or violence–sharing mostly stories or very little at all–it helps us stay in dialogue if we can encourage them to share their entire Path to Action, or the explanation of how emotions, thoughts, and experiences lead to our actions. We have to find a way to move others back to their facts. We typically join them at the end of their Path to Action. They show us their feelings and share their stories, but we may not know what they actually observed. We know what they think, but we don’t know what we or others may have done. When others go to silence or violence, actively explore their path. Exploring helps others move away from harsh feelings and knee-jerk reactions and toward the root causes of those feelings and reactions. It also helps curb our own defensive response. Rather than ask, “What’s the worst and most personal way I can take this?” (leading to defensiveness), we should ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person think or feel this way?” (leading to curiosity). It’s hard to feel defensive and curious at the same time. Finally, it takes us to the only place where the feelings can be resolved: The source (the facts and story behind the emotions).
Chapter Nine: Move to Action: How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results
The ultimate goal of dialogue is not just to create a healthy climate or even a clear understanding between parties. While both are helpful outcomes, both fall short of the real purpose: To get unstuck by taking the appropriate action. If you don’t take action, all the healthy talk in the world is for nothing and will eventually lead to disappointment and hard feelings. Always agree on when and how follow-up will occur. It could be a simple e-mail confirming action by a certain date. It could be a full report in a team meeting. It could be just one report upon completion, or it could be progress checks along the way. Regardless of the method or frequency, follow-up is critical in creating action. There is no accountability if there is not an opportunity to account for action. Document your work. Effective teams and healthy relationships are supported by records of the important decisions made after difficult dialogues, and the assignments agreed upon. Good teams revisit these documents to follow up on both the decisions and the commitments. When someone fails to keep a commitment, candidly and directly discuss the issue with him or her. As you do so, everyone benefits in two ways. First, you increase the motivation and ability of the individual to do better. Second, you develop a culture of integrity in the team or relationship—letting everyone know that keeping commitments is an important value.
Chapter Ten: Putting It All Together: Tools for Preparing and Learning
This chapter helps with the daunting task of making dialogue tools and skills memorable and useable. If we first learn to recognize when safety is at risk and a conversation becomes crucial and that we need to take steps to Make It Safe for everyone to contribute his or her meaning, we can begin to see where to apply the skills we’ve learned. Using these tools and reminders will get us started in mastering the skills that help us improve our crucial conversations.
Chapter Eleven: Yeah, But: Advice for Tough Cases
Many people think the skills in this book don’t apply to the situations they care about most, but in truth, the dialogue skills discussed apply to just about any problem you can imagine. However, since some situations are more difficult than others, the authors chose seventeen tough cases and share solutions to each problem.
Chapter Twelve: Change Your Life: How to Turn Ideas into Habits
In this chapter, the authors discuss several factors that affect the success of a crucial conversation as well as four principles for turning ideas into action. First, master the content. Learn to recognize what works and why, and how to break away from scripts, or pre-bundled phrases used in common conversations. Instead generate new scripts of your own. Second, master the skills. Understanding a concept isn’t enough. While it’s helpful, even necessary to talk the talk, you also have to be able to walk the talk. You have to be able to say the right words with the right tone and nonverbal actions. Third, enhance your motive. You must want to change. You have to move from a passive sense that it would be a good idea to change, to an active desire to seek opportunities. Ability without motive lies dormant and untapped. Fourth, watch for cues. To overcome surprise emotion, and scripts, you must recognize the call to action. This is usually people’s biggest obstacle to change. If a problem doesn’t cue your new skills, you’ll return to your old habits without even realizing you missed a chance to try something new.