Crucial Conversations

My book of this week is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. It is coauthored by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. I first browsed this book some years ago, either in the Waterstones branch I frequented or the Imperial College London Central Library. My memory fails me on the exact occasion and why I did not pick it up at the time. This autumn, its appearance on the recommended reading list for Conflict Management finally triggered me to read it. Now having read it properly, it is fair for me to state that any reader regardless of the amount life and work experience you have would find values in it and benefit from applying the techniques during dialogues when they turn crucial.

Over the years, it puzzles me that some people are naturally much better at having delicate and good conversations, while others tend to blow up any critical conversations such that they need help to unwind from the unnecessary mess before moving the dialogue forward. It is trivial for any of us to come up with such examples based on our experience. The wonderful news is that we can all learn to be good at having delicate and critical conversations. We can train ourselves to do so, guided by books like this one.

As a side note, I think that investing in green space in campus helps to improve the quality of collaboration, increase the productivity, prevent and resolve conflicts. When a conversation reaches a deadlock, pause before it causes too much damage, take a break, and walk in nature first. Having reachable natural areas makes this easier.

This book presents the seven principles for crucial conversations and the skills we can develop corresponding to each principle. To make it less abstract and more applicable, the book consists of numerous cases and example sentences to use. It also lists various crucial questions to ask ourselves when we are trying to apply a principle. Here are the set of tools to use, quoting from the book.

  • Start with heart
    • Focus on what you really want: What am I acting like I really want? What do I really want for me, for other, for the relationship? How would I behave if I really did want this?
    • Refuse the Sucker’s Choice: What do I not want? How should I go about getting what I really want and avoiding what I don’t want?
  • Learn to look
    • Look for when the conversation becomes crucial: Am I going to silence or violence? Are others?
    • Look for safety problems.
    • Look for your own style under stress.
  • Make it safe
    • Ask: why is safety at risk? Have I established Mutual purpose? Am I maintaining Mutual Respect? What will I do to rebuild safety?
    • Apologize when appropriate.  
    • Contrast to fix misunderstanding. For example, start with what you do not intend or mean, followed by explaining what you do intend or mean.
    • CRIB to get to mutual purpose. The acronym CRIB summarises the four steps to reach mutual purpose: Commit to seek a mutual purpose, Recognise the purpose or motivation behind the strategy, Invent a purpose that is shared with all participants, Brainstorm new strategies that are mutually shared.
  • Master your stories
    • Retrace your Path to Action: “what is my story?”
    • Separate fact from story.
    • Watch for Three Clever Stories: victim (it is not my fault), villain (it is all your fault), helpless stories (there is nothing I can do).
    • Tell the rest of the story: 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 towards what I really want?
  • STATE your path
    • Ask: Am I really open to others’ views? Am I talking about the real issue? Am I confidently expressing my own views?
    • STATE: Share your facts; Tell your stories; Ask for others’ paths; Talk tentatively; Encourage testing.
  • Explore others’ paths
    • Ask: Am I actively exploring others’ views? Am I avoiding unnecessary disagreement?
    • AMPP: Ask; Mirror; Paraphrase; Prime.
    • ABC skill: Agree (find areas that you agree with each other); Build (try “yes, and”, build upon the mutually shared view and extend from there); Compare (discuss about the difference of views rather than labeling differing views as being wrong).
  • Move to action
    • Ask: How will we make decisions? Who will do what by when? How will we follow up?
    • Decide how you’ll decide. There are four approaches of decision making: command, consult, vote and consensus. When choosing which method to use, ask the questions: Who cares? Who knows or has the relevant expertise to make a high quality decision? Who must agree, in other words, whose support must we have to implement the decision? How many people must be involved?
    • Document decisions and follow up. For example, who does what by when?

The summary above might seem dry. The book itself is not, thanks to the great examples and suggested approaches. For this reason, there is extra value to read this book as a non-native English speaker, not only for the purpose of better handling crucial conversations, but also for gaining language skills and cultural perspectives.

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