red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
New York: McGraw-Hill ©2002

 

The first chapter-heading quotation in this book (by C. Northcote Parkinson) gets right to the point: "The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel, and miscommunication." Hel-lo. And Stephen Covey, the '7 Habits' guru, acknowledges in his Foreword to this book that he found himself "deeply influenced, motivated, and even inspired by this material — learning new ideas, going deeper into old ideas, seeing new applications and broadening my understanding." Covey goes so far as to say that "crucial conversations transform people and relationships." Although there's a significant difference between reading about something and making a commitment to practice and implement it, Crucial Conversations offers a practical, straightforward, and engaging process that makes a lot of sense and actually seems do-able.

A crucial conversation is defined by the authors as "a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong." Sounds like anything you'd hear during a typical day in the neighborhood, right? Of the three ways we might handle such encounters — avoid them, face them and handle poorly, face them and handle well — we most often do poorly, if we haven't initially taken the avoidance option and are living with the often unintended (and usually unforeseen) consequences of that non-decision decision.

So why don't we handle these important interactions well? As the authors contend, "we're designed wrong." We've been genetically prepared to fight or flee, neither of which serves our purposes in a world where we must continually — and appropriately — connect with people. So how did the life-saving fight-or-flight response become a problem? Consider: "Someone says something you disagree with about a topic that matters a great deal to you and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The hairs you can handle. Unfortunately, your body does more. Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidneys pump adrenaline into your bloodstream. You don't choose this. Your adrenal glands do it, and then you have to live with it. And that's not all. Your brain then diverts blood from activities it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting and running. Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less. As a result, you end up facing challenging conversations with the same equipment available to a rhesus monkey." And it works about as well.

Given that we're almost always under pressure and we don't know where to start (tell me the last time you witnessed or participated in a healthy conversation about tough and touchy issues...), it's no wonder we behave in self-defeating ways. We're scared of conversation because we've been burned many times before and because we don't know how to conduct one properly. How many times have you heard a family member or business leader say — or have you said yourself: "What? You mean I'm going to have to talk to this person?" Yup. And, the authors contend, it's absolutely powerful when you do it effectively. Their "research has shown that strong relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw from the same source of power — the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics," and they claim that if you master crucial conversations, "you'll kick-start your career, strengthen your relationships, and improve your health. As you and others master high-stakes discussions, you'll also vitalize your organization and your community."

Crucial conversations might explore such potentially volatile issues as "ending a relationship, talking to a co-worker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments, giving the boss feedback about her behavior, dealing with a rebellious teen, talking to a colleague who is hoarding information or resources, giving an unfavorable performance review, or asking in-laws to quit interfering." So how do we do this? Through dialogue, which the authors define as "the free flow of meaning between two or more people." Duh, you say. Well, labeling the process is one thing. Getting out of our adrenaline-fueled brain warp and regularly using such a system is another. Not only do we need to create a "Shared Pool of Meaning" to get the process started, we must continuously work to make the space safe enough for dialogue to flourish.

The balance of the book covers three main areas: "how to create conditions in yourself and others that make dialogue the path of least resistance...;" learning the "key skills of talking, listening, and acting together...;" and mastering "the tools for talking when stakes are high."

The process includes "start with heart: how to stay focused on what you really want" (often much easier said than done) and emphasizes both "how to notice when safety is at risk," as well as "how to make it safe to talk about almost anything." In working through the "Style Under Stress" quiz, you discover whether you move into "silence or violence," both of which are common, often subtle, responses that can cause dialogue to collapse. But the authors provide a way to recognize the story you told yourself about the situation which put you in the space where you find yoursel — and how to uncover the path that others took that brought the two of you to the crisis point. Then, they offer a process for returning to dialogue and moving forward productively. They even anticipate naysayers by providing seventeen "Yeah, But..." scenarios and solutions for those hard-to-crack, this-doesn't-apply-to-me attitudes and cases.

Using real-life examples, a great sense of humor, and a number of acronym-based sequences (STATE, CRIB, AMPP, etc.), Crucial Conversations offers a sound system for making all kinds of communication more effective, more enjoyable, and more productive. Yes, it takes motivation and practice to apply the principles, but what else were you going to do today that could possibly be more important?

 

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