Monthly Archives: April 2014

Get Better at Having Difficult Conversations

One of my C12 Group members has recommended the book Crucial Conversations multiple times over the last two years, usually in response to an issue a member was having with another person.  Since this member always has good advice and the book is on the C12 Group recommended reading list I finally bought it and recently finished reading it. My member keeps recommending it for a good reason; it offers invaluable advice on how to improve our skills in important conversations, whether those are in business, family or other situations where the discussion could turn into an unhealthy or unpleasant confrontation.

Here are some of the goals the book offers to help you achieve:

  • Prepare for high stakes situations
  • Transform anger and hurt feelings into powerful dialogue
  • Make it safe to talk about almost anything
  • Be persuasive, not abrasive

The book is well written and uses multiple stories to illustrate how the tools can be used in all aspects of life, not just business. Here’s a list of some common examples from the first chapter:

  • Ending a relationship
  • Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments
  • Asking a friend to repay a loan
  • Giving the boss feedback
  • Critiquing a colleague’s work
  • Asking a roommate to move out
  • Dealing with a rebellious teen
  • Discussing problems with sexual intimacy
  • Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem
  • Giving an unfavorable performance review

This list gives you an idea of what the term “crucial conversations” is referring to. Actually, these tools can be useful in any conversation, because sometimes we enter into a conversation thinking it’s a normal one, but surprisingly turns into a crucial one. Why does that happen? Usually, it’s because there is a misunderstanding of facts or motive and our emotions are kicking in. Our body’s response is to either fight or flee, neither of which are conducive to a good conversation. How do the authors suggest we overcome these tendencies?

An important concept shared is that everyone involved in the conversation must feel safe. Everyone needs to share all the information that they have in their head, contributing to the “pool of shared meaning”.  This is not the time for winners and losers. There are seven principles described in the book, guiding you to more successful conversations.

The first one is “Start with the Heart”. We often start these conversations with wrong motives. We need to focus on what we really want out of the conversation. Instead, we end up slipping into looking for ways to win, punish or keep the peace. Keep in mind what you really want for yourself, the others in the conversation and the relationships involved.

The second principle is “Learn to Look”.  What you are looking for are signs that the other person or people are not feeling safe and are moving toward the fight or flight emotional response.  In addition to awareness of the others in the conversation, you also have to be aware of your own emotional response and heading that off before you get to your typical style under stress. This chapter includes a test to help you determine what style you usually default to. My personal style tends towards the silence mode.

The third is “Make it Safe”. This is where the tools and skills start to really make a difference, bringing everyone in the conversation into a safe place of mutual purpose and mutual respect. This is the part of the conversation where you need to make sure the others know that you don’t have a malicious or selfish intent. You may need to apologize or use contrasting to clarify any misunderstandings.

Fourth is “Master My Stories”. This principle is focused on mastering yourself, recognizing when you are moving into the fight or flight mode and doing something about it. The first thing to do is analyze the “story” you are telling. Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?
  • What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?

Depending on the answers to these questions, you may need to retrace your steps and add additional information that would be helpful to the conversation.

The fifth principle is “STATE My Path”. STATE is an acronym for Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, Encourage testing. The first two parts of the acronym are where you state the facts you know and the conclusion that you have come to that is based on your knowledge of those facts. After that, you invite the other people to share their facts and conclusions, again making it safe for them to do so. The key to talking tentatively is to find a balance between being too soft or too hard in your statements. The “encourage testing” part of the conversation is where you encourage the person to offer facts that help us clarify what we believe about the situation.

Next is “Explore Others’ Paths”. This part of the book focuses on more methods to use when the conversation is not going well and the others have moved into fight or flight mode. As you can imagine, most of the time is spent discussing ways to improve your listening skills, including expressing interest in their opinions, respectfully acknowledging their emotions, paraphrasing their story to clarify understanding and finally expressing your best guess at what they are thinking if they haven’t been able to successfully share that.

Finally, “Move to Action”. Once the people involved in the conversation have come to a shared conclusion that something has to be done, it is time to move into the part of the discussion where decisions are made and they are documented. The first question to answer is how are decisions going to be made? Command, consult, vote or consensus are the four decision methods described. The second question is the assignment question. Who is going to do what, by when and what is the follow up to make sure it’s done?

This book is quite a contrast to the style we see played out on our TV and computer screens on a daily basis. I believe it’s an effective style that can benefit anyone, not just business owners and managers. Look again at the list of common “crucial conversations”. Don’t you think it would be helpful to be prepared to have one of these conversations at some point in your life? Take a step of self-improvement and get this book, you won’t be disappointed.

The authors (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler) have augmented the 2012 edition with videos and articles on the VitalSmarts web site. Grenny will again be speaking at the 2014 Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit.

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