PatCruc 10-10-141

Crucial Conversations

Tools for talking when stakes are high


Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

McGraw Hill, 2002, 234 pp.   ISBN 978-0-07-140-194-4



The authors are founders of VitalSmarts and leading authorities in organizational effectiveness and leadership.  Others have recommended this to me as a breakthrough book.


1.  What's a Crucial Conversation - And who cares?

A crucial conversation is a discussion where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.  When conversations turn crucial emotions interfere with effective communication.  We often feel pressure, don't know how to get beyond the emotions, and act in self-defeating ways.  Such conversations might be about things like ending a relationship, confronting an offensive coworker, asking a friend to repay a loan, giving the boss feedback about her behavior, critiquing a colleague's work, confronting a spouse, and so forth. 


The ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, and controversial topics helps build strong relationships and good careers.  One key to good bosses, good companies, and good relationships is dealing effectively with problems and high-stakes issues such as safety, productivity, quality, and other hot topics.


2. Mastering Crucial Conversations - The Power of Dialogue

Find a way to get all relevant information, including opinions, feelings, and theories, both yours and theirs, out in the open. This combination of thoughts and feelings is the "pool of meaning."   When people feel comfortable speaking up and meaning flows freely, the shared pool of meaning can help the group make better decisions.   


3. Start with the Heart - How to Stay Focused on What You Really Want

When conversations have problems, more than likely we are contributing to the problem.  We need to begin with ourselves, enter high-risk discussions with the right motives and stay focused.  Don't change your goal to save face, be right, avoid embarrassment, or punish someone else.  Mentally step outside, look at yourself and ask "What am I doing?"  "What do I really want out of this?"  Clarify.  Stay focused.  Avoid the sucker's choice of forcing your way or giving in.  Open yourself to change.  Set up new choices, creative and productive options, with and.  When you find yourself moving toward silence or violence, stop and pay attention to your motives. 


4. Learn to Look - How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk

Process a conversation in two modes.  Watch both content and conditions, the what and why. Watch for a conversation to turn unhealthy.  Look for the cues.  Look for physical signals (stomach tight, eyes dry), emotions (scared, hurt, angry), and behavior (raising the voice, pointing the finger, getting quiet).  Respond quickly.  Fear kills the flow of meaning. 


"On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen.  If you don't fear that you're being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive." (49) "When others begin to feel unsafe, they start doing nasty things." (50) Understand silence and violence as signs of feeling unsafe.  Fight your tendency to respond the same way.  Do something to make it safe.  Be vigilant in monitoring your own emotions. (56)


5. Make It Safe - How to Make It Safe to Talk about Almost Anything

Safety requires mutual purpose and mutual respect.  This requires genuinely caring about the interests of others.  Others may interpret the content of conversation as malicious intent.  Watch for signs that respect is violated and safety lost.  Emotions are the key.  Do others believe that I respect them?  The key is to step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe; and then step back in. 


When you "step out" of the content, what do you do?  

  1. Apologize.  Express a sincere apology for your role in causing pain or difficulty.  For it to be sincere, your motives must be right, not saving face, or being right, or winning. 
  2. Contrast.  Express what you don't want to cause and confirm your real purpose.  (For example, the last thing I want is to communicate that I don't value your work.  I think your work is excellent.) 
  3. Pursue mutual purpose.  Commit to seek a mutual purpose.  Change the strategy to get to the purpose.  Look for compatible goals. Transcend short-term compromises to build a mutual purpose.  Brainstorm new strategies.  Suspend judgment and think outside the box for alternatives. 


6. Master My Stories - How to Stay in Dialogue When You're Angry, Scared, or Hurt

You create your emotions.  Take charge of them.  When you have strong feelings, think them out.  Rethink yourself back into control.  The tendency when I feel hurt is to go silent or take a cheap shot. Between the experiences of observing something and feeling something, we add meaning or motive.  We tell ourselves a little story.  Stories explain what is going on.  He did this (observation).  It meant that (motive).  I'm hurt (feeling).  Then we act on our feelings.  So after observing something, stop and analyze what story you are telling yourself.  Don't confuse your story with facts. Tell yourself a different story.  Feel differently.  Act differently.  Master your stories.


We tell clever stories to ourselves to get us off the hook for our own selfish behavior, allow us to feel like victims, keep us from acknowledging our own part of the problem.  "When we don't admit to our own mistakes, we obsess about others' faults, our innocence, and our powerlessness to do anything other than what we're already doing.  We tell a clever story when we want self-justification more than results." (112)


"A useful story, by definition, creates emotions that lead to healthy action--such as dialogue.  And what transforms a clever story into a useful one?  The rest of the story.  That's because clever stories have one characteristic in common: They're incomplete.  Clever stories omit crucial information about us, about others, and about our options." (112)


7. State My Path - How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively

There are skills for talking when you risk making others defensive or shutting them down.

Make it safe for others to hear and respond.  Blend confidence, humility, and skill.  Many have one or two but not all three qualities. 

  • Share your facts - Facts are the least controversial, most persuasive, and least insulting.  The aim is for your meaning gets a fair hearing.  Think through the facts before beginning the conversation. 
  • Tell your story - Share your rational, reasonable judgments and conclusions based on the facts. 
  • Ask for others' paths - Encourage others to share their point of view - their facts, stories, and feelings.   
  • Talk tentatively - Give your judgment with confidence: don't be wimpy. But tell it as tentative, a story, your opinion, not as a fact.  Don't pile it on. Watch for safety problems and use contrasting where needed.  Tentative language reduces defensiveness.  Being forceful reduces persuasiveness.
  • Encourage testing - No matter how controversial their ideas, you want to hear them.  Hear them out.  Invite opposing views.  Mean it.


8. Explore Others' Paths - How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up

Listen with your heart.  Be sincere.  When others get furious, become curious.  What's behind the anger?  Look for the source.  Don't over react to their story.  Ask why a rational, decent person would say such things.  Be patient.  Let the adrenaline dissipate.  Recognize that you've missed the foundation of their story.  Encourage them to move back down the chain from harsh feelings toward the root cause. Invite them to express themselves.  "What's going on?  How do you see things?"  Mirror to confirm their feelings, describing how they look or act.  Be calm.  Paraphrase what they said to acknowledge their story.  Don't push too hard and violate respect.  Even in violent disagreement there is often an underlying agreement.  Start with an area of agreement.


"Now when the other person has merely left out an element of the argument, skilled people will agree and then build.  Rather than saying: 'Wrong.  You forgot to mention …,' they say: 'Absolutely.  In addition, I noticed that…'  If you agree with what has been said but the information is incomplete, build.  Point out areas of agreement and then add elements that were left out of the discussion." (158)  When you differ significantly, instead of suggesting the others are wrong, compare your views.


9. Move to Action - How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results

People often fail to convert ideas into actions because they have unclear expectations about how decisions will be made or they do a poor job of acting on the decisions they do make.  Often new challenges arise.


"The two riskiest times in crucial conversations tend to be at the beginning and at the end." (162) 


 Decisions are made by command, consult, vote, or consensus.   Put decisions into actions.  Clarify four elements: 1) Who?  2) Does what?  3) By when? And 4) How will you follow up?  Name every responsibility.  Be sure to spell out deliverables. If needed, contrast what you don't want and what you do want.  Point to pictures and talk about it.  "The clearer the picture of the deliverable, the less likely you'll be unpleasantly surprised."  (176) Document the work.  "One dull pencil is worth six sharp minds." (177)


10.  Putting It All Together - Tools for Preparing and Learning

11.  Yeah, But - Advice for Tough Cases

12.  Change Your Life - How to Turn Ideas into Habits

1) Master the content.  Generate your own scripts.  2) Master the skills and enact the new scripts.  3) Enhance your motive: care enough to change.  4) Watch for cues.  Recognize the opportunity for action and avoid the old habits.  (219-220)



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Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.