This past week I read Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.  Immediately after I finished reading, I did something that I’ve never done before: I flipped the book over and started reading it again.  I actually read the complete book twice.  The verdict: holy crap, what an amazingly useful read.

In one sense, the title of the book says it all.  Crucial Conversations is about the art of dialogue and how to handle important, high-pressure discourse.  Whether it’s asking your boss for a raise, discussing finances with a family member, or addressing performance issues with an employee, important conversations are all around us.  Unfortunately, if you’re like me, no one has ever taught us anything about how to handle these situations.  It’s something we all face, and very few people are really good at it.

To start, it’s important to understand the core problem, which is that humans are fundamentally wired in a way that makes it difficult to have honest dialogue. Thousands of years of evolution have programmed us to respond to difficult conversations with our “fight or flight” reflex, leading most important conversations to end in silence (one or both parties avoiding the conversation) or violence (one or both parties lashing out with hurtful or aggressive statements).

Silence or violence: those two words represented an important revelation for me.  How many conversations can you recall that have ended in silence or violence?

Throughout the book, the authors present something that I found truly great: a framework for dealing with important dialogue.

Here’s roughly how it goes:

1) Start with Heart
Ask yourself the question: what do I really want out of this conversation?  Don’t focus on winning the debate; focus on the outcome you want.  A surprising amount of the time, both parties in the conversation actually want the same thing: a deeply trusting, respectful relationship and satisfaction on both sides.  Also, just taking a second to ask yourself what you really want will help counteract your fight or flight reflex, calm your emotions, and send blood-flow back to your brain.

2) Make it Safe
Always be aware of the tone of the conversation.  If you see the conversation going to silence or violence, step out of the conversation and restore safety.  The authors offer two primary tools to make the other person feel safe:

a) Apologize for things that you’ve done to hurt others, and mean it.

b) Use “shading:” a no/yes contrasting statement that clarifies your intentions.  For example, “I’m not trying to call out your error, I’m only trying to figure out what went wrong so I can help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

3) Start with Facts, Not Stories
It’s important to separate facts from stories and start by just laying out the facts.  For example: a spouse could see a charge for a motel room on the family credit card statement (a fact) and conclude that their spouse is cheating on them (a story).  When starting a difficult conversation, first explain the facts as objectively as possible, and then suggest a possible story rather than assuming one.  “I saw this charge appear on the credit card statement and it made me really worried, it made me think that perhaps you are being unfaithful.”

4) Use Mirroring
Before responding to the other person’s statements, paraphrase what the other person is saying and ask if you understand them correctly.  It’s important to make sure you really know what’s being said before you respond or jump to any conclusions.

5) Genuinely Try to Understand the Viewpoint of Others
Ask yourself: why would a reasonable, rational person be acting the way this person is acting?  There are two sides to every story and most often the actions of other people can be explained in a logical way.  If you really try to understand the viewpoint of the other person and see the world through their eyes, you will have a much better chance of achieving a positive outcome.

When using these strategies, think of your discussion as if it were a body of water.  As each person speaks, your words flow together into a pool of shared meaning.  The key to successful dialogue is a pool that’s filled with shared meaning and shared understanding.  When both parties truly understand each other, it is much easier to find common ground and a solution that will make everyone happy.

One of the things that I liked most about the book (and this was made perfectly clear), is that Crucial Conversations isn’t about sugar coating, softening, or avoiding candor.  Many people believe that they have to choose between being honest and being respectful.  However, this is not true.  The authors refer to this conundrum as “the fool’s choice.”  Given the right tools, you don’t have to lie, avoid, or sugar coat anything.  With the help of this book, and the right practice, you can be both honest and respectful.

It’s a really incredible book, and in my opinion, an absolute must read.

Crucial Conversations
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