Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are HIgh is a book co-authored by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillian, & Al Switzler. It was originally published in 2001. In total, it has sold over 2 million copies.
Last week I did something that is unthinkable by 2020 standards. I had a close friend over for dinner at my apartment who I had not seen in 6 months. He joined my girlfriend and I in eating homemade pizza, drinking alcohol, telling stories and “hanging out.” To our knowledge no Covid-19 was spread, just laughs, smiles and the joy of human connection. At one point (multiple points really), the topic of his recent ex-girlfriend who is a mutual friend came up. This girl, whom we will call Vanessa is known for being quite outspoken and boisterous, among other things.
"Outspoken by whom?!" - Dorothy Parker (when told she was "outspoken")
After a couple glasses of unmixed, “good” Alabama whiskey on ice, I began to explain the concept of this book to my friend.
“Crucial Conversations is a book about the stories we tell ourselves.” I began. “And the way we handle…”
“Crucial conversations.” My friend interjected.
“Yes” I said as I realized it is in fact that simple. My attempt at making a profound point out of a simple one had failed.
In that moment I realized how easily understandable the main concept of the book was to a non-reader. As we discussed the relationship between Vanessa and my friend, I shared an observation on Vanessa’s behavior that I was not able to fully understand until this moment, thanks in large part to reading Crucial Conversations.
I had long observed that Vanessa would often find herself upset and anxious about perceived criticism, threats to her relationship and many other things. The anxiety she felt often fueled the escalation of the stories she would tell herself. Once formed, she would convince herself that the stories were factual. They became her truth and when she communicated with her then boyfriend, and others, she could be quite abrasive. Often fights, laughs, or eye rolls would ensue but usually not a whole lot of convincing. Frankly, I can relate on a personal level to Vanessa’s tendencies, and I suspect I am not alone.
Crucial Conversations is a straightforward, empowering, and actionable book. Completing this reading was actually aligned with my annual goal for professional development in my job. Since my job requires me to have multiple daily, in-depth conversations about personal and career topics with higher ed students from diverse backgrounds, these skills are vital. The ability to build trust, credibility, and what salespeople call “rapport” is greatly aided by awareness and practice of the concepts in this book.
For me, what I learned from Crucial Conversations is significant for at least two reasons. First, I believe the concepts are self-evident to any human being who reads them. We know that crucial conversations emerge periodically, no matter your occupation or lifestyle. Second, when these conversations take place, the outcome has an impact on our career, our relationships, and family dynamics. If we can master our ability to relate to others when it matters most, our relationships improve along with our outcomes. Mastery or even progress toward the implementation of the skills in the book, will lead to a classic, win-win scenario for the reader, and for all who interact with the reader in the future.
Book Overview & Highlights
It is imperative that we build effective relationships with people in our personal and professional orbits. As explained in Crucial Conversations, to do so, one must be, “100% honest and 100% respectful.” Many individuals believe that honesty and respect cannot both be conveyed in conversation at the same time. You may be one of these people. Due to this belief, people will either avoid speaking up or choose between being honest or respectful. This behavior is rational since fear of reprimand or losing esteem with colleagues, friends, and family is very real. This belief is referred to by the authors as the “fool’s choice.”
As we all know, it is not what you say, it is how you say it that counts. Crucial Conversations accepts this premise but goes much further by providing numerous examples and step by step outlines of what happens in a conversation as it becomes crucial. It turns out that the way we speak can be persuasive, inclusive, assertive, candid, and respectful all at the same time if we employ certain mindsets and develop our skills with practice.
One challenge that all of us have undoubtedly faced is our tendency to become more influenced by our emotions as we sense the importance of an interaction rising. Like my friend’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa, if we remain unaware of this phenomenon, these natural forces infringe on our ability to relate to others when we need them most. One useful perspective to approach conversations with is the mindset that you are “testing” the stories in your mind and in conversation. This is far preferable to what must people do, which is either pushing their ideas or trying to convince others that they are right.
The human mind tends to let the various reasons why we think things happened a certain way build and fester. Sometimes when this happens, we come up with extreme explanations, especially when our fears are driving our thought process. Even if we control this unhealthy habit, we cannot eliminate it and we would not want to eliminate it. The stories that we tell ourselves help us interpret meaning, and this is part of the fuel that we use to make decisions.
When push comes to shove in conversation, we will likely have to reverse our urge to state our story in an offensive, abrasive, or disconnected way. If we allow our emotions to dominate and our stories take precedent over what we genuinely want out of the interaction, we will unwittingly resort to the classic debate tactics that strain relationships.
No Safety? No Positive Dialogue
A conversation should gain contributions from its participants into what is called the shared “pool of meaning.” If safety cannot exist in the interaction, dialogue cannot occur. If there is no dialogue, there is no way to get to substance. When we begin by stating our story before it has been tested in dialogue, it could undermine the existence of trust or “safety,” discouraging others from speaking out. Listening to the stories of others is also a must. This is how we test our stories against other perspectives and new information; when appropriate, we should also be willing to change them.
“...starting with our ugly stories is the most controversial, least influential, and most insulting way we could begin."
When people do not feel that enough safety exists in an important interaction, they will usually turn to “silence” or “violence.” When people get silent, they withhold their contributions to the shared “pool of meaning,” often for fear of intimidation or other factors. Violence means that they become the aggressor by using tactics of debate, denigration, or manipulation. Assumptions can be dangerous. One example from the book below illustrates an important point about how to be persuasive. Which of these below statements is more persuasive?
“I want you to stop sexually harassing me!”
“When you talk to me, your eyes move up and down rather than look at my face. And sometimes you put your hand on my shoulder.”
Each of these statements would likely occur at different points in the interaction. The woman in this example may be a victim of sexual harassment. We do not know for sure, however the accusatory nature of the claim will likely cause controversy, create an awkward situation in the workplace, and cause ill will. If she can find a way to initiate the conversation, engage in safe dialogue, and state her observations, rather than leading with her accusation, the chances of bringing attention to this issue and reaching a positive outcome is much higher.
In the process, by stating observations, rather than her (possibly very real and correct) story, she will command more trust and respect from her co-worker. Despite the contentious nature of this topic, by stating her observations in these terms, her relationship with her co-worker could even grow. What a powerful concept in the face of a difficult circumstance.
One useful tip which is mentioned several times by the authors is to ask: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person say this?” When it comes to creating safety, the worst at dialogue ignore or are oblivious to the need for more safety. The good at dialogue sugarcoat what they have to say, water things down, or play games. The best at dialogue recognize the need for safety and disengage from making statements until safety is re-established. When there is no mutual purpose, respect, or trust, any dialogue that takes place will likely be negative. Further, if a resolution is reached, it will have been contaminated by its participants’ silence or violence.
The Big Picture
Once an outcome is reached, expectations for next steps must be determined. The framework for this depends upon circumstances and a whole chapter in the book addresses this. There are also mindsets and detailed tactics with examples to explain how to take initiative and identify when safety is compromised. Steps are then outlined to establish or re-establish credibility and trust when necessary.
Several disclaimers and examples are provided to manage general expectations of the effectiveness of these methods as well as how to handle exceptions, or especially difficult situations. For example, we know that communication is a two-way street and sometimes the other party or parties are unwilling to create a safe environment with you. When this happens, the wisest can recognize this and patiently wait. Pushing or forcing your way to a resolution, especially if you are in a position of power or authority is not advisable.
"He who complies against his will, is of the same opinion still." - Samuel Butler
One powerful example in the book illustrates how a figure who is higher in the power dynamic can easily abuse their status. The situation involves a disgruntled teenage daughter and her mother. The mother feels embarrassed and concerned about how her most recent boyfriend has changed her daughter’s behavior, particularly when it comes to the clothes she wears. After a few “holier than thou,” “I’m wiser than you” statements by the mother, her daughter expresses embarrassment and retreats into her room to seek silence. An ugly scenario like this will happen to all of us sometimes, especially when emotions like love for our children take over. Thankfully, the mother was wise enough to recognize that she ruined safety on the topic and needed to change course.
Rather than continuing to nag or force her way into influencing her daughter, she recognized the damage she had done, reminded herself of her purpose which was to have a positive, nurturing relationship with her daughter. The mother knocked on her door, cleared the air, apologized, and made peace. Obviously, her only goal from the start was to help. After the initial interaction, she thought about it, and realized that she needs to understand what her daughter is feeling. The result was a discussion that allowed each individual to share what they were going through, including one that might be obvious to an experienced parent – the unfortunate state of the daughter’s self-esteem.
"Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person say this?"
My Take on the Book:
It is highly advisable to read the words from the author’s themselves as the rhetorical build up to their main points develop the flow and framing of the persuasive argument that they make. I believe that the material is digestible, immediately actionable, and relevant to any human being, at any time that they may have the opportunity to read it. The writing provides adequate, thought-provoking examples so the reader can apply the principles immediately in their next interaction, use their imagination, and integrate their own perspective. If you are open-minded and serious about improving your life and your career, Crucial Conversations is a gift to all of your future human communication.
There are a few parts in the book where my attention waned but much of this was due to how enthralled I was at the highest points of the book. Towards the end, I remember sensing that I already knew all I needed to know so studying the series of examples in the last couple chapters was not of interest to me. I fought through reading the chapter but admittedly, did not get much out of it.
If the whole book were to be condensed into a long article, Chapter 7 would be a good place to start the editing process. The below quote provides a bit of inspiration for where I believe we all should strive to be. To me, this is the foundational and most important point made in the whole book.
“The best at dialogue speak their minds completely and do it in a way that makes it safe for others to hear what they have to say and respond to it as well. They are both totally frank and completely respectful.”
No book like this is an immutable, magical solution to all problems that it attempts to address. There are a few sections that could be condensed, but most books in this genre contain much more fluff. Overall I would describe the book as reasonably concise. If we add even a little bit of this insight into our lives, relationships should improve, and we will be better prepared for the high-stakes and meaningful interactions when they arise. It is up to you to make the best of it, but this book gets you prepared for the game.
It could be said that businesses would make better decisions if leaders possessed these skills and used them more often. The same would hold true for our politicians. Families would do a better job sticking together, leading to better childcare, more well-rounded adults, and ultimately, a better world. Due to this book’s popularity, it is not an exaggeration to say that these principles have already had a transformational impact on human lives and maybe the world. The principles are as relevant now as they will be for as long as humans are in existence.
Read on, enjoy the stories, and learn as you go. Most importantly, enjoy putting what you learn into action immediately. In each chapter you will find nuggets of wisdom to use in your next conversation.
My Score: 93/100
Some of the examples toward the end of the book, in the last few chapters did not seem to connect as well as the examples provided within the context of the chapters. I found my mind wandering while reading these. The rest of the book is highly engaging.
Due to the nature of the topic, making this actionable is easy since most of us talk to people every day, even during global pandemics. Summaries are provided after each chapter that tie the most important concepts together. It does take a bit of creative imagination to determine what to implement but it is more than possible and not difficult if you have the will to improve.
There are few, if any of the grandiose claims that many books on topics like this make. The language is as simple as I believe it can be. One thing that I especially respect about the authors is how little self-promotion they do. If you have read similar books, you may have noticed how unfortunately common this is. I sensed that the authors had pride in what they have done, but I did not sense any humble bragging which is one of my biggest pet peeves when reading a book.
The authors do a good job of providing a mix of personal and professional examples and blending 1:1 conversation with group conversations in formal and non-formal settings. This makes the book credible and applicable to all these different scenarios and many walks of life.