“Crucial Conversations” is a Guide for When the Stakes are High


Crucial Conversations

Mini book read.

When we meet a challenge with a response that is equal to it, we're successful. But when the challenge is on a higher level, we cannot meet it with the same response and expect the same results. This type of challenge has changed our lives.

Everything moves faster. Technology had made some things exponentially different, including our stress levels. If technology changes, humans don't — certainly not at the same pace. We inch our way forward, and our responses — especially the lack of response (ghosting) — miss the mark.

Conversation is the best tool we have at our disposal to make sense of what's happening. It's a tool we can use to collaborate, mend and nourish relationships, and find new and better solutions to our problems. Stephen Covey says, crucial conversations transform people and relationships.”

Our tools have become more powerful than our ability to use them to find what Buddhists call “the middle way.” To find this higher way where something new comes from two or more people, we need genuine dialogue.

Crucial Conversations provides guidance for finding this higher path. The stakes are high, and we must meet this challenge with a way to “break-with,” because that's how we breakthrough. 

Three layers of value

When I read a book, I examine the ideas in three ways—as a learner, as an author, and as a practitioner. Here's my take on Crucial Conversations.

First as a learner—the books moves from understanding the value of dialogue to helping you figure out and clarify what you want to have happen. Then it helps you focus on what's happening in reality. We want to create conditions of safety and use self-awareness and self-knowledge to prepare the ground. After tackling these topics, the authors move into helping you learn how to achieve a level of mutual understanding and creative synergy. This is what leads to emotional connection. From the right mind and heart, to developing and utilizing the right skill sets. There are handy charts and quizzes to test yourself.

Then as an author—the structural organization is simple. First we talk about what a crucial conversation is a who cares, then switch to mastering it. After talking about the power of dialogue, the authors answer a number of questions, each in a chapter. How to stay focused on what you really want. How to notice when safety is at risk. How to make it safe to talk about almost anything. How to stay in dialogue when you're angry, scared, or hurt. How to speak persuasively, not abrasively. How to listen when others blow up and clam up. How to turn crucial conversations in to actions and results. The last two chapters provide advice for tough cases and tools for preparing and learning. At more than 3 million copies sold, I hope the practice meets the teachings. The authors share what they've learned in the past ten years in the afterward. 

Third as a practitioner—here the most important question I ask is whether I would be able to incorporate the learning into my work, both in mindset and practice. The strength of the book is based on applying the principle, “seek first to understand.” Strategists know that there are inflection points that can make or break situations. Crucial conversations are especially powerful in those defining moments. They shape our lives, our relationships, and also our world. We get the world we talk ourselves into, after all.

The book itself is the product of a parternship between four practitioners, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, teachers and trainers who have been working together for more than twenty years.

To know and not to do is not to know,” Stephen Covey is quite correct in that assessment. The book has two forewords by Covey, one for each edition.

My highlights

It's often difficult to underestimate something that is so common —as our ability to talk with each other. But ability is not skill, and normal conditions are not always part of the context, either.

When leaders invest in Crucial Conversations culture, hospitals save more lives, firms gain greater customer loyalty and learn to function across international boundaries, and government organizations deliver improved service.

At a personal level, people have used the awareness and the tools in the book to reconnect with estranged family members, save lives by stepping up to avert diagnosis errors and even by connecting with carjackers in a foreign country. This stuff works.

Crucial conversations need to happen when: 1./ opinions vary, 2./ stakes are high, 3./ emotions run strong. Does this set up sound familiar? It seems to have gone mainstream in social media, even if the stakes are not literally high —it's just that our identity is tied to being right.

Emotions get us, every single time. Whether it's the context or our own doing that creates the pressure, we don't have enough practice to dealing with emergencies — and everything seems to be an emergency these days.

It gets tricky, because when we act under these conditions — pressure cooker with no practice — our actions are self-defeating. We harm our chances by being snide, for example, or short. I'm with the authors as they make an audacious claim:

At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations — ones that we're either not holding or not holding well.

Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period. 

The examples abound. Can you get things done and build on relationships at the same time? Do you know how to identify the few moments when your actions affect key performance indicators the most? Do you know how much it's costing you not to know?

Based on research, people who are skilled at crucial conversations:

  • Respond five times faster to financial downturns — and make budget adjustments far more intelligently than less-skilled peers (Research Study: Financial Agility)
  • Save over $1,500 and an eight-hour workday for every crucial conversation employees hold rather than avoid (Research Study: The Cost of Conflict Avoidance)
  • Increase trust substantially and reduce transaction costs in virtual work teams. Can't handle crucial conversations? Then suffer in 13 different ways, including backstabbing, gossip, undermining, passive aggression, etc. at a rate 3x more often in virtual teams than in colocated teams (Research Study: Long-Distance Loathing)

There's much more in the book. But these are common enough problems in organizations. Behavior is the real problem. Changing process or system won't address that.

How behavior spreads

We're often caught between two poor alternatives, and don't see a way out. This happens more frequently in the workplace, but you can probably think of examples at home:

  1. Option 1 —  Speak-up and turn the most powerful person in the company (or in your life)  into your sworn enemy.
  2. Option 2 — Suffer in silence and male a bad decision that might ruin the company (or your life).

Tell the truth, or keep a friend? It's a Fool's Choice. There's a third way.

We can get all the relevant information out in the open without ruffling feathers. It starts by understanding that we're all vessels for a specific pool of meaning filled with our personal opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences. Get in front of someone else, and you each a different pool of meaning.

If we enter a conversation and each of us put forth their personal beliefs and stories, behavior will follow. People with conversational skill make it safe for everyone to add to a shared pool of meaning. We don't have to agree with an idea to help it get out in the open. Good disagreement is central to progress, so you'll want it out there.

Grow the pool of shared meaning, and you have information that is more accurate and relevant, and can make better choices. When we're nasty and uncooperative, it's because we don't know how to share meaning. The good news is that we can learn to do it effectively.

Rising up to meet high stakes

My late father had a saying, if someone wants to understand, it doesn't matter how you say something; if someone doesn't, it won't matter how you say it. We're awah in tools, but unless we seek first to understand, they won't do us any good. Get this part right, and doing is much easier.

Here's the main problem though — it looks like work, and takes work. 

We are emotional beings, impulsive and self-protective, we sometimes act rationally. You can't have it both ways. If you want honesty, you need to respond by accepting a data point that you might not have considered into the shared pool of meaning. 

For example, are you breathing down necks to cut budgets and costs while building a second office with expensive furniture? Well, time to reconsider. How you respond to this information brought out in the open makes of breaks your credibility. 

What do most people do in similar circumstances? In the grip of emotion — make no mistake, this is what it is — we look for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace. But IF we manage to take a step back and figure out what we really want, then we can pull back from the cliff.

Because we can refocus the brain and find our bearings, including taking hold of our racing heart-rate. We're wired to defend and protect, but we also have reason and can use it to run through scenarios, figure out where things are headed, and make better choices.

In a high stakes situation, if you give your brain a more difficult puzzle, a complex problem to solve, it will rise to the occasion. Plus, you're the only person who can control yourself. It's worth a try. 

Most of the material that addresses the tools is about learning to look and notice when something is at risk — a valuable skill — to make conversation safe, master your stories, share your facts as you tell your story, ask for others' paths, talk tentatively and encourage testing so you can explore others' paths, and move to action.

Walking the talk is hard. But consider the alternatives. The “yeah, but” section offers insights on the danger point in specific high-risk scenarios. The putting it all together section includes coaching tools. Our emotions run us. The good news is that they're incredibly plastic.

I hope Crucial Conversations will give you the tools to rise up to high stakes situations in your life.