Reading: Crucial Conversations

By Shabnam Gideon

Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler

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I’ve long felt like a complete disaster when it comes to tough conversations, personally and professionally. My impression has always been that most other people navigate them effortlessly, likely made possible by their totally well-adjusted family units and functional relationships. Because, you know, the Joneses are perfect, not me.

Ok, you get it: that belief (quite possibly shared by many of you) is B.S.

Historical predilections or not, I’m pretty sure at least the handful of you still reading this can identify with the desire to improve your ability to communicate. Especially in times when you’re faced with (or avoiding?) challenging singular or ongoing discussions about situations that matter to you.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

I picked up Crucial Conversations on Erik’s recommendation; he’d started reading it but hadn’t finished and was looking for a co-reader with whom to discuss the book’s content. We spent a couple months reading and meeting weekly. Even before finishing it, I found the content useful enough to improve a relationship with a colleague, felt compelled to present one of the primary lessons at our weekly company roundtable, and use the techniques within to successfully, mutually, and even pleasantly resolve a real estate dispute involving thousands of dollars with my ex-husband. So, yeah, I’d say I recommend the book.

Here’s the gist: the authors, researchers in organizational leadership (among other fields), argue that the inability to appropriately respond to disagreement in important situations is one of the biggest sources of our personal and professional problems. Subsequently, they propose that  organizations can improve their performance by teaching their members the skills of those who successfully navigate those “crucial conversations.”

They define a crucial conversation as one in which:

  • Opinions vary
  • Stakes are high
  • Emotions run strong

The book goes on to show how, when faced with a conversation of this nature, we humans are remarkably predisposed, biologically and psychologically, to respond in ineffective and even damaging ways. Their proposal continues to claim that “the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues.”

Chapters present a prescription for mastering our biology and psychology in these situations, covering topics such as welcoming and encouraging open dialogue, focusing on the goals of a given conversation, creating a safe environment for others, noticing when your own emotions are high, creating appropriate responses to others’ high emotions, and creating an action plan to ensure the success of those conversations. Each chapter contains examples, mental exercises, and methodologies for applying the concepts within.

Words - so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Proofed by their research findings and case studies, not to mention my own successful applications of their methods, the book presents a very compelling case for adopting the practices they describe—especially at a time when leaders in all types of organizations are realizing the benefits of creating emotionally intelligent working environments.

I found the writing style rather trite, littered with clichés and overly emotional, singsong-y devices. But then again, I hate feeling like I’m being sold to. If you can overlook that, though, it’s an easy yet engaging read.

I’ve recommended this book to our leadership group here at Focus Lab, and will be sharing more of the details in a lunch-n-learn with the whole team later on this week. Let us know if you have any questions, recommendations for further reading, or other topics you’d like us to cover.