Crucial Conversations

Summary Written by Chris Taylor
"Our 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."

- Crucial Conversations, page 9

The Big Idea

Fill the Pool

"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."- Crucial Conversation, page 20w

One of the dominant ideas in Crucial Conversation is that of the “Pool of Shared Meaning.” Effectively, it’s much easier to have a productive conversation when we’re all looking at the issue at hand from a collective understanding. Alas, this is much easier said than done. As human beings, we have our own experiences, our own suspicions, and our own stories that can (and usually do) muddy up the pool. The objective, then, is to constantly look for ways to add as many of the relevant stories, facts, and emotions to the shared pool. It’s the “shared” part that we’re striving for, here. Crucial conversations are only resolved effectively when others in the conversation are made aware of, and understand, our stories, facts, and emotions. (And vice versa!).

Let’s look at a couple factors that can get in the way (and what to do about them).

Insight #1

Vigilantly Watch for Silence and Violence

"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."- Crucial Conversations, page 49

When you find yourself in an uncomfortable conversation, do you clam up? Or do you go on the offensive? As the authors of Crucial Conversations explain, we’re genetically conditioned to enter a “Fight or Flight” mentality when we find ourselves in less-than-safe situations. Our breathing quickens, adrenaline shoots through our bodies, and our blood flows to our limbs, better enabling us to respond physically. While this may be helpful when faced with a real, physical attack, it’s about the least helpful response we could have in a crucial conversation. Think about it – if blood is moving to our limbs, then it’s moving away from our brains, making it harder for us to think and respond rationally.

Thankfully, there are indicators we can watch for and correct, when we enter this “Fight or Flight” mentality. The authors label them “silence” and “violence”.

Indicators of Silence:

  • Masking emotions and true feelings
  • Avoiding the uncomfortable topic
  • Withdrawing from the conversation

Indicators of Violence:

  • Controlling the conversation
  • Labelling the other person or their views
  • Attacking, through sarcasm or insults

Any of those sound familiar? Any of these tactics are virtually guaranteed to take you further from rational conversation and a positive outcome.

So how do we overcome them? The authors suggest refocusing on what you really want to get out of the interaction.

  • What do you want for you?
  • What do you want for the other person?
  • What do you want for this relationship?
  • and (here’s the kicker) How would you be acting if you really wanted that?

It’s called “Making it Safe,” and by focusing on these questions, we redirect our bodies to think – to answer the higher level questions, and restore blood flow to its proper balance. “Making it Safe” is a powerful tool in engaging in rich, meaningful conversation.

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Insight #2

Choose your own adventure (story)

"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."- Crucial Conversations, page 104

Here’s the fascinating path our brains take in processing information:

Input of facts: We see, hear, smell or taste something.

Creation of a story: To make sense of the world, our brains are fantastic at using those facts to create stories. We hear a siren and we see smoke a few blocks over. (These are facts.) “Oh my gosh, a house is on fire!” we say to ourselves. (This is a story). Did we see the fire? No. But our brains connect the dots. A really valuable skill… until it isn’t.

Emotions unfold: As we tell ourselves a story, we automatically begin to judge. We layer emotions onto the story. “Oh my gosh, I hope it’s not Karen’s house that’s on fire!” We get worried, angry, excited, jealous, etc., depending on the story we tell ourselves.

We take action: The emotions guide us to action. We run down the street in our pyjamas, visions of being Karen’s rescuer playing out in our minds… until we turn the corner and see that it’s just someone burning leaves… and we realize the siren is totally unrelated. Then Karen walks by and gives you a funny look.

So here’s the challenge: if we assume the story we tell ourselves is actually a fact, and not just based on facts, we can easily start to validate our emotions and actions as being the only reasonable course of action. Could Karen’s house have been on fire? Sure! But that’s only one possible outcome, and responding to stories as though they are facts can often be the cause of some unnecessarily rough conversations. (Or embarrassing moments.)

You’re not omnipotent. You don’t have all the facts. You may be right, but at least give yourself the opening to hear more information before you jump to conclusions. You can even turn it into a game:

“Ok, that’s one story. What other reasons could there be for those facts?” (How many can you come up with?)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that was as valuable as Crucial Conversations. It is fairly impressive how much content and insight the authors have been able to condense into 228 pages. I was highlighting every other page, and scribbling notes throughout, which is maybe why I laughed out loud at this line: “If you read the previous pages in a short period of time, you probably feel like an anaconda who just swallowed a warthog. It’s a lot to digest.”

Read the book

Get Crucial Conversations on Amazon.

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is a renowned consultant and speaker who has directed training and management initiatives with dozens of Fortune 500 companies worldwide. He is on the faculty of the Executive Development Center at the University of Michigan.

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