Crucial Conversations — Tools for Talking When Stakes are High — A Book Summary (Part 1)
Ratings — 4/5
This is a book that about managing crucial conversations. Not just in business but in personal and social lives most of our defining moments come from crucial or breakthrough conversations. And as I say, I remember many past events when things have been successful for me because of the way I handled a certain conversation and also remember those occasions where I blew it up completely in an emotionally charged situation.
I found myself in one such conversation sometime ago where I was to face a hostile group of people in a committee I am part of who disagreed to my way of doing things. I had prepared myself to keep my calm before we met but when accusations were hurled upon me, I just couldn’t keep my emotions in check. The conversation was a disaster and nothing productive was ever achieved. The entire episode played into my mind for days and I pondered over all the different ways I could have handled the conversation much more maturely. The problem is most of us do not have proven models to handle such conversations. And when conversations veer towards areas where emotions run high and disagreements ensue it becomes too hot to handle.
A product manager by the very nature of his role is cross functional and handling communication and interaction with varied people is of utmost importance.
Soon after that bitter experience of mine that I just shared, I chanced upon this book at a local store and lapped it up. It eventually turned out a powerful book and its timely access proved precious to me. The book is aptly titled Crucial Conversations, written by 4 eminent writers a Kerry, Joseph, Ron and Al Switzler. They are experts in the field of organisational behaviour and sociology.
I am going to summarise the insights from the book that product managers can apply in their day to day work.
The book begins with a compelling foreword by Steven Covey himself.
The book has a total of 12 chapters. In part 1, I summarize the first 6 chapters:
- What is Crucial Conversation
- Mastering Crucial Conversation — The Power of Dialogue
- Start with Heart — How to Stay Focussed on What you Really Want?
- Learn to Look — How to Notice When Safety is at Risk?
- Make it Safe — How to Make it Safe to Talk about Almost Anything?
- Master my Stories — How to Stay in Dialogue when you are angry, scared or hurt?
Chapter 1: What is Crucial Conversation?
“The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation.” — NORTHCOTE PARKINSON
- What qualifies a conversation to be crucial is that the results of it could have a huge impact on the quality of your life. A conversation involving your promotion, relationship with your spouse, debate over property etc . In short crucial conversations are discussion between two or more people where:
1. Stakes are high
2. Opinions vary
3. Emotions run strong
- Most of us are masters in avoiding to make such crucial conversations because its human nature to avoid pain and discomfort.
- So what do you do when faced with a crucial conversation?
- We can avoid them
- We can face them and handle them poorly
- We can face them and handle them well
- Most times we humans are on our worst behaviour when it matters the most because we are wired that way genetically through years of fights for survival instincts instead of intelligent persuasiveness and attentiveness.
- However, research has shown that strong relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw from the same source of power-the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics. Hence the only way out is to master these crucial conversations to strengthen relationships.
- Individuals who are the most influential-who can get things done, and at the same time build on relationships-are those who master their crucial conversations.
Chapter 2: Mastering Crucial Conversation — The Power of Dialogue
This chapter talks about the power of dialogue in mastering crucial conversations.
- When it comes to risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves and others) out into the open.
- At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories. They willingly and capably share their views, even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular. It’s the one thing, extremely effective communicators are routinely able to achieve.
- And theres a word for it — it’s called dialogue. The free flow of meaning between two or more people.
Filling the Pool of Shared Meaning
- A profound concept that was personally a big takeaway for me. Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feelings makes up our personal pool of meaning. This pool not only informs us but also drives our every action.
- When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition we don’t share the same pool. Our opinions differ. I believe one thing, you another. I have one history, you another.
- People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool-even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.
- As the Pool of Shared Meaning grows, it helps people in two ways. First, as individuals are exposed to more accurate and relevant information, they make better choices. In a very real sense, the Pool of Shared Meaning is a measure of a group’s IQ. The larger the shared pool, the smarter the decisions. And even though many people may be involved in a choice, when people openly and freely share ideas, the increased time investment is more than offset by the quality of the decision.
- On the other hand, we’ve all seen what happens when the shared pool is dangerously shallow. When people purposefully withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people can do collectively stupid thing.
- The Pool of Shared Meaning is the birthplace of synergy.
- Not only does a shared pool help individuals make better choices, but since the meaning is shared, people willingly act on whatever decisions they make. As people sit through an open discussion where ideas are shared, they take part in the free flow of meaning. Eventually they understand why the shared solution is the best solution, and they’re committed to act.
- Every time we find ourselves arguing, debating, running away, or otherwise acting in an ineffective way, it’s because we don’t know how to share meaning. Instead of engaging in healthy dialogue, we play silly and costly games.
- Now, here’s how the various elements fit together. When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, we’re often at our worst. In order to move to our best, we have to find a way to explain what is in each of our personal pools of meaning- especially our high-stakes, sensitive, and controversial opinions, feelings, and ideas-and to get others to share their pools. We have to develop the tools that make it safe for us to discuss these issues and to come to a shared pool of meaning. And when we do, our lives change.
Chapter 3: Start with Heart: How to Stay Focussed on What You Really Want?
- How do you encourage the flow of meaning in the face of differing opinions and strong emotions? Given the average person’s track record, it can’t be all that easy. In fact, given most people’s long-standing habit of costly behaviors, it’ll probably require a lot of effort. The truth is, people can change. But it requires work. You can’t simply wish yourselves to change.
- The first principle of dialog: start with Heart.
- If you can’t get yourself right, you’ll have a hard time getting dialogue right.
- Although it’s true that there are times when we are merely bystanders in life’s never-ending stream of head-on collisions, rarely are we completely innocent. More often than not, we do something to contribute to the problems we’re experiencing.
- People who are best at dialogue understand this simple fact and turn it into the principle “Work on me first.” They realize that not only are they likely to benefit by improving their own approach, but also that they’re the only person they can work on anyway.
- In this summary, I have been avoiding sharing any of the real examples or anecdotes shared in the book. But let me share succinctly one example the book shared about a certain Greta, who is a CEO of a middle-size corporation. She is amidst a tense meeting with her top leaders. For the past six months she has been on a personal campaign to reduce costs. Little has been accomplished to date, so Greta calls the meeting. She wants to know why little has been achieved in cost cutting. And she believed the leaders would be open about it.
- When Greta opened the meeting for questions, a manager stands up figeting his feet and and nervously asks if he could ask a tough question back to Greta.
- “Greta, you’ve been at us for six months to find ways to cut costs. I’d be lying if I said that we’ve given you much more than a lukewarm response. If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about one thing that’s making it tough for us to push for cost cuts.” “Great. Fire away,” Greta says as she smiles in response. “Well, while you’ve been asking us to use both sides of our paper and forego improvements, you’re having a second office built.”
- Greta freezes and turns red. Everyone looks to see what will happen next. The manager plunges on ahead. “The rumor is that the furniture alone will cost $ 150,000. Is that right?”
- So there we have it. The conversation has just turned crucial and raised the temperature in the room. Will Greta continue to encourage honest feedback, or will she shut the fellow down?
- What would you do if you were in place of Greta?
- We call this a crucial conversation because how Greta acts during the next few moments will not only set people’s attitudes toward the proposed cost cutting, but will also have a huge impact on what the other leaders think about her. Does she walk the talk of openness and honesty? Or is she a raging hypocrite like so many of the senior executives who came before her?
- How Greta behaves during this crucial conversation depends a great deal on how she handles her emotions while under attack. If she’s like most of us, Greta will defend herself and protect her public image.
- In reality, Greta didn’t give in to her raging desire to defend herself. After being accused of not following her own advice, at first she looked surprised, embarrassed, and maybe even a little upset. Then she took a deep breath and said: “You know what? We need to talk about this. I’m glad you asked the question. It’ll give us a chance to discuss what’s really going on.”
- And then Greta talked turkey. She explained that she felt the office was necessary but admitted that she had no idea what it would cost. So she sent someone to check the numbers. Meanwhile, she explained that building the office was a response to marketing’s advice to boost the company’s image and improve client confidence. And while Greta would use the office, it would be primarily a hosting location for marketing. When she saw the figures for the office, Greta was stunned and admitted that she should have checked the costs before signing a work order. So then and there she committed to drawing up a new plan that would cut costs by half or canceling the project entirely.
- How could you have the composure and balance of Greta. By stopping and asking questions that return you to a dialogue. You can ask these questions either when you find yourself slipping out of dialogue or as reminders when you prepare to step up to a crucial conversation
- Some questions could be:
1. What do I really want for myself?
2. What do I really want for others?
3. What do I really want for the relationship?
4. How would I behave if I really wanted these results?
- However, as we step up to a crucial conversation, fully intending to stimulate the flow of meaning, many of us quickly change our original objectives to much less healthy goals like wanting to win, seeking revenge, and hoping to remain safe.
- There is an innate human desire to win. Unfortunately, as we grow older, most of us don’t realize that this desire to win is continually driving us away from healthy dialogue. We start out with the goal of resolving a problem, but as soon as someone raises the red flag of inaccuracy or challenges our correctness, we switch purposes in a heartbeat. First we correct the facts. We quibble over details and point out flaws in the other person’s arguments.
- Another aspect of it is the hope to remain safe.
- Of course, we don’t always fix mistakes, aggressively discredit others, or heartlessly try to make them suffer. Sometimes we choose personal safety over dialogue. Rather than add to the pool of meaning, and possibly make waves along the way, we go to silence. We’re so uncomfortable with the immediate conflict that we accept the certainty of bad results to avoid the possibility of uncomfortable conversation. We choose (at least in our minds) peace over conflict. Had this happened in Greta’s case, nobody would have raised concerns over the new office, Greta never would have learned the real issue, and people would have continued to drag their feet.
The chapter also talks about refusing the Sucker’s Choice
- Is there a way to tell your peer your real concerns and not insult or offend him? Is there a way to talk to your neighbors about their annoying behavior and not come across as self-righteous or demanding? Is there a way to talk with your loved one about how you’re spending money and not get into an argument?
- Sucker’s choice is about choosing between two distasteful options. Either we be honest and attack our colleague or we can be kind and withhold the truth. Either we can disagree with the boss to help make a better choice-and get shot for it-or we can remain quiet, starve the pool, and keep our job. It’s about picking your poison.
- What makes these Sucker’s Choices is that they’re always set up as the only two options available. It’s the worst of either/or thinking. The person making the choice never suggests there’s a third option that doesn’t call for unhealthy behavior. For example, maybe there’s a way to be honest and respectful. Perhaps we can express our candid opinion to our boss and be safe. In summary, Sucker’s Choices are simplistic tradeoffs that keep us from thinking creatively of ways to get to dialogue, and that justify our silly games.
- The chapter on the other hand suggests something more. Move from either/or choice to that all important and ever elusive AND.
Chapter 4: Learn to Look — How to Notice When Safety is at Risk?
- When caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on and why. We get so caught up in what we’re saying that it can be nearly impossible to pull ourselves out of the argument in order to see what’s happening to ourselves and to others.
- “So what do you look for when caught in the middle of a crucial conversation? What do you need to see in order to catch problems before they become too severe?”
- It helps to watch for three different conditions:
- The moment a conversation turn crucial
- Signs that people feel safe
- Your own style under stress
Learn to Spot Crucial Conversation
- First, stay alert for the moment a conversation turns from a routine or harmless discussion into a crucial one. In a similar vein, as you anticipate entering a tough conversation, pay heed to the fact that you’re about to enter the danger zone. Otherwise, you can easily get sucked into silly games before you realize what’s happened.
Learn to Look for Safety Problems
- People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety. They pay attention to the content — that’s a given — and they watch for signs that people are becoming fearful.
Look for your Style Under Stress
- “When a discussion starts to become stressful, we “often end up doing the exact opposite of what works. We turn to the less healthy components of our Style Under Stress.
- “To break from this insidious cycle, Learn to Look. • Learn to look at content and conditions. • Look for when things become crucial. • Learn to watch for safety problems. • Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence. • Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.”
Chapter 5: Make it Safe: How to make it safe to talk about almost anything
In a dialog, when its safe you can say anything. gifted communicators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning-period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both these reactions-to fight and to take flight-are motivated by the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people wi1l listen. If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.
If you spot safety risks as they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety, and then find a way to dialogue about almost anything.
the first condition of safety is Mutual Purpose. Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that we are working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that we care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. We believe they care about ours. Consequently, Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue. Find a shared goal and you have both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.
Here are some crucial questions to help us determine when Mutual Purpose is at risk: • Do others believe I care about their goals in this conversation? • Do they trust my motives? Remember the Mutual in Mutual Purpose. Just a word to the wise. Mutual Purpose is not a technique. To succeed in crucial conversations, we must really care about the interests of othersnot just our own. The purpose has to be truly mutual.
After Mutual Purpose comes Mutual Respect
While it’s true that there’s no reason to enter a crucial conversaM tion if you don’t have Mutual Purpose, it’s equally true that you can’t stay in the conversation if you don’t maintain Mutual Respect. Mutual Respect is the continuance condition of dialogue. As people perceive that others don’t respect them, the conversation immediately becomes unsafe and dialogue comes to a screeching halt.
Why? Because respect is like air.The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the origi· nal purpose-it is now about defending dignity.
This brings to a question whether you can respect people you dont respect?
Dialogue truly would be doomed if we had to share every objective or respect every element of another person’s character before we could talk. If this were the case, we’d all be mute. We can, however, stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and regard another person’s basic humanity. In essence, feelings of disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking for ways we are similar. Without excusing their behavior, we try to sympathize, even empathize, with them.
When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s easier to find a way to respect others. When we do this, we feel a kinship, a sense of mutuality between ourselves and even the thorniest of people. It is this sense of kinship and connection to MAKE IT SAFE 73 others that motivates us to enter tough conversations, and it eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.
The chapter then shares 3 tactics to help rebuild Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose:
- Apologize when appropriate
- When you’ve made a mistake that has hurt others (e.g., you didn’t call the team), start with an apology. An apology is a statement that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing-or at least not preventing-pain or difficulty to others. Now, an apology isn’t really an apology unless you experience a change in heart. To offer a sincere apology, your motives have to change. You have to give up saving face, being right, or winning in order to focus on what you really want. You have to sacrifice a bit of your ego by admitting your error. But like many sacrifices, when you give up something you value, you’re rewarded with something even more valuable-healthy dialogue and better results.
- Contrast to fix misunderstanding
- Sometimes others feel disrespected during crucial conversations even though we haven’t done anything disrespectful. the insult is entirely unintended.. When others misinterpret either your purpose or your intent, step out of the argument and rebuild safety by using a skill called Contrasting.
Contrasting is a don’tldo statement that: • Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part). • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part).
For example: [The don’t part] “The last thing I wanted to do was communicate that I don’t value the work you put in or that I didn’t want to share it with the VP. [The do part] I think your work has been nothing short of spectacular. “
Now that you’ve addressed the threat to safety, you can return to the issue of the visit itself and move to remedy.
- CRIB to get Mutual Purpose. CRIB is an acronym for four skills for a mutual purpose.
- C stands for commit to seek mutual purpose. : Make a unilateral public commitment to stay in the conversation until you come up with something that serves everyone.
- Recognize the purpose behind the strategy: Ask people why they want what they’re pushing for. Separate what they’re demanding from the purpose it serves.
- Invent a mutual purpose: If after clarifying everyone’s purposes you are still at odds, see if you can invent a higher or longer-term purpose that is more motivating than the ones that keep you in conflict.
- Brainstorm new strategies: With a clear Mutual Purpose, you can join forces in searching for a solution that serves everyone.
Chapter 6: Master Your Stories: How to Stay in Dialogue when you are angry, scared or hurt?
This chapter explores how to gain control of crucial conversations by learning how to take charge of your emotions. By learning to exert influence over your own feelings, you’ll place yourself in a far better position to use all the tools explored thus far.
- The fact is emotions don’t just happen and the author shared two claims. first. Emotions don’t settle upon you like a fog. They are not foisted upon you by others. No matter how comfortable it might make you feel saying it-others don’t make you mad. You make you mad. You and only you create your emotions.
- Second. Once you’ve created your emotions, you have only two options: You can act on them or be acted on by them. That is, when it comes to strong emotions, you either find a way to master them or fall hostage to them.
- Most times we harbour a negative emotion in response to someone’s behaviour. And we justify it as a reaction to someone’s else’s behaviour. But the following actions are driven by these emotions. If you dont act on your emotion, your emotion will act on you.
- The best at dialogue do something completely different. They aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors that create better results.
- Here’s where story telling plays a part. Stories explain what’s going on. Exactly what are our stories? They are our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what we see and hear. They’re theories we use to explain why, how, and what.
- For example, when you are delivering a presentation and one of your team members laughs, you tell yourself a story about it. Did he think I am stupid, did he mock my slides?, Am I funnily dressed? The story translates to feeling of hurt, embarrassment, and that leads to action. You snap back, you ask them to leave the room, etc. And that is an entire path of action that begins from what you see and hear to what story you tell to yourself to what you feel to Act on that feeling.
- As we come up with our own meaning or stories, it isn’t long until our body responds with strong feelings or emotions-they’re directly linked to our judgments of right/wrong, good/bad, kind/selfish, fair/unfair, etc.
- If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us. People who excel at dialogue are able to influence their emotions during crucial conversations. They recognize that while it’s true that at first we are in control of the stories we tell-after all, we do make them up of our own accord-once they’re told, the stories control us. They control how we feel and how we act. And as a result, they control the results we get from our crucial conversations.
- If you want improved results from your crucial conversations, change the stories you tell yourself-even while you’re in the middle of the fray.
So what are the skills for mastering our stories?
- To slow down the lightning-quick storytelling process and the subsequent flow of adrenaline, retrace your Path to Action-one element at a time. This calls for a bit of mental gymnastics. First you have to stop what you’re currently doing. Then you have to get in touch with why you’re doing it. Here’s how to retrace your path: •
- [Act] Notice your behavior. Ask: Am I in some form of silence or violence? •When an unhelpful story is driving you to silence or violence, stop and consider how others would see your actions.
- [Feel] Get in touch with your feelings. What emotions are encouraging me to act this way? •Actually, identifying your emotions is more difficult than you might imagine. In fact, many people are emotionally illiterate. When asked to describe how they’re feeling, they use words such as “bad” or “angry” or “frightened”-which would be okay if t hese were accurate descriptors, but often they’re not. I ndividuals say they’re angry when, in fact, they’re feeling a mix 01' embarrassment and surprise. Or they suggest they’re unhappy when they’re feeling violated.It’s important to get in touch with your feelings, and to do so, you may want to expand your emotional vocabulary.
- [Tell story] Analyze your stories. What story is creating these emotions? •
- The first step to regaining emotional control is to challenge the illusion that what you’re feeling is the only right emotion under the circumstances. This may be the hardest step, but it’s also the most important one. By questioning our feelings, we open ourselves up to question our stories. We challenge the comfortable conclusion that our story is right and true. We willingly question whether our emotions (very real), and the story behind them (only one of many possible explanations), are accurate.
- [See/hear] Get back to the facts. What evidence do I have to support this story?
- Don ‘t confuse stories with facts. Sometimes you fail to question your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught up in the moment that you begin to believe your stories are facts.
- Spot the story by watching for “hot” words. Here’s another tip. To avoid confusing story with fact, watch for “hot” terms. For cxample, when assessing the facts, you might say, “She scowled at mc” or “He made a sarcastic comment.” Words such as “scowl” anu “sarcastic” are hot terms. They express judgments and attribu- 1 06 CRUCIAL CONVERSATIONS tions that, in turn, create strong emotions. They are story, not fact. Notice how much different it is when you say: “Her eyes pinched shut and her lips tightened,” as opposed to “She scowled at me.” In Maria’s case, she suggested that Louis was controlling and didn’t respect her. Had she focused on his behavior (he talked a lot and met with the boss one-on-one), this less volatile description would have allowed for any number of interpretations. For example, perhaps Louis was nervous, concerned, or unsure of himself.
In part 2, I will summarise the rest of the 6 chapters which covers topics on how to speak persuasively and not abrasively, how to turn crucial conversations into intended actions and turning ideas into habits.