Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
This book is an excellent book, but its title is somewhat misleading. In order to properly understand what the book is about, one must understand what is meant by a “crucial conversation.” This is, no pun intended, the crucial crux of the whole book. The authors define a crucial conversation as “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong .” Once someone understands what the book is about, its appeal is obvious. In reading this book, I constantly thought of people (people in my family and in my church experience mostly) who really needed to read this book so that they could be better communicators and avoid leading to the conversation traps of silence and violence. However, one of the people I know who needed to read the book was myself, and so I read it, chagrined to see so many bad conversation habits of my own.
The authors, in a book that feels less like a book written by committee than one written by a single person (its forward is from Stephen Covey, who like me originally thought the title a mistake), manage to talk about a crucial and widespread problem in conversations. Many problems that lead to business and personal troubles (including divorce) spring from communication difficulties. We can only have meaningful conversation when we are engaging in dialogue with others. That only happens when everyone in the conversation feels safe. Once safety is threatened either people go on the attack figuring the best defense is a good offense, or they clam up and refuse to talk about issues because they don’t want to ruin the relationship, or a mixture of the two strategies (as I do personally).
Therefore, the book’s most helpful and insightful advice comes on ways to preserve the safety of difficult conversations and examine the threats to having meaningful and polite dialogue with others. The first two chapters introduce the subject of crucial conversations and the power of dialogue. The next seven chapters after that deal with how-to tips on working on one’s own conversational skills to: stay focused on what you really want, notice when safety is at risk, make it safe to talk about almost anything, stay in dialogue when you are angry, scared, or hurt, speak persuasively and not abrasively (!), explore other people’s paths, and turn conversation into action. This is the real “meat” of the book. The last three chapters close with tools for putting all of the book’s information together, giving advice on tough situations, and talking about how to conduct the difficult but essential task of changing one’s approach to conversations.
This book showed me a lot of personally ugly conversation habits. Now, it is easy to point fingers at others (there is a lot of blame to go around), but it is more profitable to focus on the one person you can do something about—yourself. Reading this book, I saw a great deal of bad conversation habits I have that turn many crucial conversations into ugly verbal battles. One of those bad techniques on the silence side is masking, particularly masking with sarcasm. On the side of violence, I tend to use controlling and labeling and a fair bit of attacking. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done.
Most interestingly, I noticed that the book also dealt very well with the question of what makes a conversation unsafe. Conversations become unsafe when mutual purpose or mutual respect are threatened. As someone who tends to feel often disrespected, and tends to mistrust the motivations of others, many conversations start off on the wrong foot because both of these conditions for unsafe conversations are met. And most of the most dangerous and hostile conversations I have been involved in so far in my life have involved the threat of both of these conditions as well. The authors make the essential point that mutual purpose is not a technique but must be genuine concern for the best interests of all involved and not merely selfish interest. We have to really mean what we are saying—we must be people of integrity. Of course, once we mean it, we must also work to show our care and concern and respect as well to others so that they can recognize it.
Fortunately, rather than merely bad news, the book provides some helpful techniques on how to build mutual purpose and respect. Apologies help. Contrasting to fix misunderstandings is one technique I personally like to use and wish to use better. Then there is the CRIB technique: commit to seek mutual purpose, recognize the purpose behind the strategy, invent a mutual purpose, and brainstorm new strategies. Sometimes mutual purposes do not exist, but they can be made if both people (or all people) consider the relationship to be worth doing the hard work of saving. Most of the people I have known have not cared enough about preserving a good relationship to want to work for it, sadly enough. The more important question, though, is do I?
The book also does a very good job at pointing out “clever” stories that tend to stack the deck against one person and for you: victim stories, villain stories, and helpless stories. Personally, I tend to get accused (not unreasonably) for making villain stories particularly often. All three stories err by not telling the whole story, and by making cases selectively. They are lawyerly stories, rather than balanced and fair-minded stories. The book makes the very sound advice of turning victims into actors (showing how one is partly responsible for a situation), turning villains into humans (showing that others can act, if mistakenly, from reasonable and descent motives), and avoiding sucker’s choices and focusing on really discussing problems openly and honestly. This is a lot easier said than done. The way the authors say it should be done, though, is through the STATE strategy: share your facts, tell your story ask for others’ paths, talk tentatively, and encourage testing. To encourage other people to talk, the authors suggest a skill called AMPP: ask to get things rolling, mirror to confirm feelings, paraphrase to acknowledge the story, and prime when you’re getting nowhere. Where there are real and serious differences, we can agree, build, and compare rather than on focusing on battling over small areas of disagreement.
At this stage of my life, I am not a master communicator. I also probably do not make it very easy for others to share their views and facts in a friendly and nonthreatening manner. This book, once I realized what it was talking about, manages to suggest a variety of helpful ways to overcome some of those difficulties, but a lot of work needs to be done. There are a lot of people I recommend this book to (maybe it can be found in your local library), but more than pointing fingers, it is worthwhile to practice some of what the book preaches. All worthwhile books, after all, have painful truths to tell the reader.
 Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Swizler, Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002), 3.