Crucial Conversation Skills: Don’t Leave Home Without Them

Mastering the art of crucial conversations puts you in an elite group of Pros

Crucial Conversations photo

Throughout human history the presence of conflict and the need for crucial conversations has been a constant. And yet, when faced with irate customers, an angry boss or an irksome co-worker, some of us cringe at the thought of conflict and freeze; others seem to relish it; most of us simply try to avoid it.

Because crucial conversations can become messy and uncomfortable, we tend do handle them clumsily, sometimes even incompetently.

Only a select minority of skilled people understand how to manage potential conflict and harness its power. These great communicators are like alchemists who turn even the most difficult of differences into opportunities. These leaders are highly valued because of their expert ability to remove unproductive friction from human interactions.

One of the best books on the subject of how to master this alchemy is, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, published in 2002 by the team at Vital Smarts.

I encourage you to read the book and apply its lessons so you can learn how to talk when it matters most.

Here are some key insights from the book that I’ve found tremendously useful:

1. Conflict represents an opportunity to create a deeper understanding—embrace it!

Master communicators don’t necessarily relish entering into crucial conversations, but they don’t hesitate to do so if it can lead to a deeper, more meaningful understanding with a person or group. They know that deferring such conversations is risky and can lead to poor outcomes later. Bad feelings can fester and erupt with disastrous consequences. Also, when conflicts arise it’s usually a sign that there has been a violation of values, promises, expectations, rules, standards, etc. and the sooner this is addressed the better it is for all involved. Whether it’s an angry customer, vendor, boss or colleague, master communicators are quick to react and address the problem.

2. It’s OK to Attack ideas or behavior but not people!

Master communicators are decidedly willing to enter the ring to attack ideas, but they would never (ever) labor to harm trust or attack people at a personal level. Ad hominem attacks, in fact, are the bludgeon of truly bad communicators, not great ones. Even when dealing with a person’s misbehavior, great communicators are clear and methodical in the way they separate questionable behavior from the actual person. In other words, they don’t make it personal and this helps in defusing tension.

3. “Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I”

Quick question: Can you communicate effectively with a person you don’t even like? Of course you can! You don’t have to like or even approve of the person with whom you need to communicate.

Master communicators remain humble and acknowledge that we all have faults that may irritate others or drive them crazy. Furthermore, the world looks very different to each of us and none of us is omniscient so as to begin to even consider judging another person.

Master communicators don’t judge. They’re humble. They personify grace.

When you enter into a crucial conversation with humility, empathy and eschewing judgments, people stop seeming like simplistic caricatures and you can appreciate something more akin to reality: two imperfect people trying to come together to reach a deeper understanding and reconnecting with a Mutual Purpose. In this way, master communicators always leave a channel open for honest communication with anyone.

They never shut the door on dialogue.

4. Biology can work against you if you let it

Crucial conversations can often catch us by complete surprise as they can arise at a moment’s notice. For this reason we may be confused, or at a loss for words since this was not something we were expecting or had rehearsed. And as if that wasn’t challenging enough, crucial conversations tend to be highly emotionally charged. This can lead to a fight, flight or freeze response from our bodies. Your heart may race as you feel a surge of adrenaline as blood flows to your muscles, while blood flow to your brain is seriously reduced. You start to sweat, your heart pounds, and your mouth goes dry!

For all these reasons, crucial conversations can break bad real fast and it’s important to practice noticing our physical reactions; acknowledging them and preventing them from short-circuiting our response. With practice we can learn to listen to what our body is telling us and control our actions.

Yes, it is possible for Dr. Jekyll to keep Mr. Hyde in check. It doesn’t have to end badly.

5. Start with Heart

So you’re in a conflict situation or crucial conversation—what’s the next step?

Simply to get clear on what you really want, and don’t want.

  • Do you merely want to win the argument and prove how smart you are?
  • Do you want to get your revenge?
  • Are you out to simply protect or defend yourself?

These are called Sucker’s Choices in the Crucial Conversations framework and these games prevent you from entering into meaningful dialogue with another person.

The work that’s required is understanding how to solve the real problem while at the same time building the relationship. This means dropping simple-minded either/or thinking and embracing a more complex and ambitious view of what’s possible.

6. You’re either adding to the Pool Of Shared Meaning, or you’re not

The authors of Crucial Conversations use the metaphor of a pool of shared meaning to describe effective dialogue between two people trying to get to the root of a problem. Staying in productive dialogue is the result of not allowing oneself to be sabotaged by strong feelings or emotions, or choosing the silence or violence approach.

When we withhold information, mask what we are really thinking, avoid addressing the real issue or withdraw from the conversation all together, we are choosing silence over shared meaning.

When we try more aggressive methods like trying to control, label or attack others, we are out of productive dialogue and moving away from shared meaning towards really turbulent waters.

Crucial Conversations helps you to see what you and the other person are doing. Are you adding to the pool of shared meaning or using silence or violence tactics to block progress?

7. Establish Safety by re-establishing Mutual Purpose and Respect

You can’t have productive dialogue if people feel threatened or disrespected. Sometimes you have to exit the content of the conversation in order to address safety issues and establish Mutual Purpose and Respect. This is necessary when people are choosing silence or violence over productive dialogue. “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.”

Crucial Conversation lays out some very clear guidelines for how to apologize, contrast to fix misunderstandings and CRIB to get to Mutual Purpose. This reestablishes an environment where people feel safe to share their views and ideas and return to productive dialogue.

This is highly useful and practical information and I encourage you to dig deeper since this will require considerable practice.

8. Get curious before you get angry

You may think that other people make you mad but the truth is that we make ourselves mad.

We do so by telling ourselves a story. It’s actually a clear storytelling process that controls your actions:

1. You see or hear something;
2. Then you tell a story about what you just saw or heard;
3. That story you just told yourself makes you feel a certain way;
4. Based on how you now feel, you decide to act (often with silence or violence)

To illustrate this powerful lesson, let’s say you’re a manager and one of your team members shows up late to your weekly meeting. This is the third time in a row that this has happened and the second time after you spoke to him about it. You feel totally disrespected and get angry. Not wanting to express that anger openly, you act by say something really sarcastic and unnecessary to him in front of the whole team.

You’ve just blown a crucial conversation, not only with your tardy team member but with the rest of the team as well.

That’s why taking control of your stories is so vital.

You can stop the vicious cycle by getting curious about why this person is coming late. Maybe there’s a deeper reason why he isn’t able to attend on time. Get curious instead of judging.

Stop to consider that:

– Maybe his child is sick.
– Maybe his wife is on a business trip and he has to be both mom and dad to the kids every morning.
– Maybe his car is giving him serious mechanical trouble and he can’t afford to have it fixed right now.

How do you feel now? All of a sudden you calm down. By getting curious and contemplating different stories, you no longer see his tardiness as an existential threat to your authority.

Now we can communicate and add to the shared pool of meaning.
Now we are ready to enter into productive dialogue with this person.

You see the power of these skills? Do you see the payoff?

I truly encourage to get this book and study it diligently because I’ve only skimmed the surface in this post. This book needs to be in the Success Library of every executive, manager and professional.

Crucial conversation skills: don’t leave home without them.