You know those times you mix it up with a fellow employee, dear friend, or relative? When you bite back your sarcasm or maybe let a hurtful zinger fly and end up in a shouting match?
Well, unless you’re a fan of verbal warfare, you might be happy to know there’s a way to handle these situations better. And in their book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler lay it out for you.
The book was published in its first edition in 2002 and revised in a second edition in 2011. The authors are leadership trainers and consultants who claim that if we can manage disagreements better, we can solve many (if not most) of our organizational problems.
With this claim in mind, they’ve spent years observing and researching the impact of dialogue on resolving conflict. And the explanations, strategies, and tools in Crucial Conversations come directly from that experience.
What are crucial conversations?
You probably have a gut feeling about what they are, but the authors define them as any interaction in which opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong. In other words, they’re relationship powder kegs.
Most often these kegs blow up. Interactions can turn emotional unexpectedly. We’re not prepared, and even if we’ve anticipated trouble, we’ve never learned how to diffuse it. So it explodes, and damage ensues.
But according to the authors, “Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period.”
So how can you learn to manage crucial conversations?
The authors provide a ton of practical advice for learning this key skill. But there are two main themes that run throughout the book.
- You have to be honest and objective about your own feelings and opinions.
- You have to help others honestly share their feelings and opinions.
Start with yourself.
If you’re going to get good at productive dialogue, you have to start with the right motives. You have to genuinely want to work it out. Start by asking yourself “What do I want for myself, others, and the relationship?” And also ask what you don’t want to happen.
When your heart’s in the right place, you need to learn how to recognize these tricky situations before they degenerate. We’re sometimes so carried away by emotion we don’t even realize the cat fight has begun. So we have to be able to recognize our own tendencies to shut down or lash out and identify the same habits in others.
The authors kindly include a little quiz so you can find your least cooperative personality traits. And I suppose you can post them on Facebook if you like.
Make it safe.
Once you’ve been honest with yourself, you have to create a safe environment for others to share their opinions and feelings openly. This is hard to do, but if you’ve practiced staying focused on the real goals of the conversation (what you want for yourself, others, and the relationship), then you’re ahead of the game.
The authors suggest that when you realize the situation has become unsafe for sharing, step out of it and establish mutual purpose and mutual respect.
You can step out of the conversation with a phrase such as “I think we’ve moved away from dialogue.” Then, you can back up and build mutual purpose by helping others understand that you care about their goals, interests, and values. And make sure they care about yours.
If you need to, you can also re-confirm your genuine interest in a positive outcome by taking responsibility for misunderstandings or acknowledging that others might suspect your motives and repeating your real goals.
Understand the nature of stories.
Now that you’re all sharing openly, it’s important to understand the role of stories in how we form opinions. We use stories to make meaning out of neutral data.
For example, if an employee is late, we can create a victim story: “I told him to be on time. It’s not my fault if the shipment doesn’t go out.”
We can create a villain story: “He’s always late just to show me up and make me look bad.”
Or a helpless story: “He’s just a bum. Nothing I can do about it.”
But just because we can interpret an action a number of ways, doesn’t mean the story reflects reality. And when two stories conflict, a crucial conversation arises.
So when you’re in a difficult dialogue, divest stories of their emotional content with the author’s STATE strategy:
Share the facts. And just the facts, ma’am.
Tell your story along with your interpretation.
Ask for others’ stories with a genuine desire to understand their interpretations.
Talk tentatively. As you share, acknowledge the fact that stories can be wrong by saying “this led me to believe” or “it looked like.”
Encourage testing. Compare everyone’s stories with the facts of the case and test out other possibilities, which can help everyone detach from their own tales and find a mutual understanding.
Ok, so we’re in agreement. What now?
Going from an emotional breakpoint to a mutual understanding is a huge accomplishment, but you’re still only halfway there. Once you’ve agreed on a decision or plan, you have to move on to action.
And at this point, things can fall apart all over again if no one knows who’s supposed to do what. The authors advise readers to clearly designate an action plan which explains who will do what by when and how you’ll follow up.
Does all this work really make a difference?
The authors plainly acknowledge that learning these skills takes time and dedication. And dealing with other humans who may or may not be willing to work with you presents a challenge.
But they’ve observed over the years that people don’t have to become Jedi conversation masters to get better results. In fact, they’ve spoken to people in the field who’ve used these techniques successfully for years but never even finished reading the book.
From Crucial Conversations:
“One thing our research shows clearly is that you need not be perfect to make progress. You needn’t worry if you make only stuttering progress. We promise you that if you persist and work at these ideas, you will see dramatic improvement in your relationships and results.”
And if you do want to get better at conversation management, they offer several resources to help. Thank you to Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler for a well-written, useful, powerful, and inspirational book that can help us get through our most trying conflicts.