Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Rob McMillan is a book about how to ensure that difficult conversations result in a productive, positive result for everyone. The book lays out clear strategies to deal with some of the more difficult challenges around having conversations where tensions are high.
Thoughts on the Book
Overall, I think this is one of the best books I’ve read in 2019, if not the best. The techniques the book calls out are concrete, easy to understand, and easy to see where it applies (although actually applying it is much harder). I now use the crucial conversations framework to rethink all of my conversations, even when they aren’t crucial.
There’s a general theme that comes from this book, which is that it is always possible to achieve a positive result from a conversation. There are some great examples in the book, and even just considering a third path to make all parties happy is a game changer in and of itself.
Defining a Crucial Conversation
Crucial Conversations begins by defining what a crucial conversation is. A crucial conversation is defined as:
- Stakes are high
- Opinions vary
- Emotions running high
The interesting thing about these conversations is that a conversation can turn crucial at any moment. As such, it’s important to ingrain techniques to lead a successful crucial conversation, as oftentimes it will occur without any prior warning, relying on instincts more than processed thoughts.
Avoid the Fools Choice
A common mistake in a crucial conversation is to believe that one must make a choice between providing truthful feedback and keeping the person’s feelings from being hurt. Those who successfully have crucial conversations are able to avoid hurt feelings and relationships, while being able to express their feedback clearly. The rest of the book discusses the strategies that work well to make that happen.
Focus on What you Really Want
When confronted with a situation or demeanor that makes you feel personally attacked, it’s easy to react in kind, such as being defensive or attacking the other person. Unfortunately, that behavior will most likely not achieve the outcome you’re looking for. Make sure to focus on your actions and ask yourself if it will get you closer to the outcome you want to achieve.
Watch for Signs the Conversation is Starting to Go Poorly
It’s a lot easier to reconcile a conversation if it’s only beginning to go poorly, in contrast to a conversation that has already been going poorly for a while. Look for warning signs around people (and yourself) getting defensive or emotional, to try to remedy the situation quickly.
- The moment a conversation becomes crucial
- Signs that someone doesn’t feel safe
Ways to behave in that situation:
- slow down, step back, and re-evaluate the situation
When Someone Doesn’t Feel Safe
There are clear signs where someone doesn’t feel safe in the conversation. These include:
- Forcing their opinion into the conversation
- Withdrawing significantly from the conversation
People often withdraw not because of the feedback, but because they believe you don’t have their best interest in mind.
Don’t Sugar Coat the Message
Those who are good at crucial conversations don’t rely on using statements that reduce the severity of the message. Instead, they focus on stepping back and establishing safety.
Rubric to Ensure a Crucial Conversation
There are two major aspects of a conversation that require alignment, in order for a conversation to be successful:
- mutual respect: do both parties believe the other has their best interest in mind?
- mutual purpose: do both parties have the same goal in mind?
Determine which one is compromised by “stepping out” and evaluating the situation. Then take the appropriate action to remedy one or the other.
Establishing Mutual Respect: Apologizing or Contrasting
If the mutual respect was broken down by someone being offended, an apology can work. The other strategy is to use a “contrast” statement.
Contrasting is the process of using a “do not” and a “do” sentence to clarify your intent and align goals. The “do not” sentence calls out the threatened person’s concerns and clarifies that it is not your intention to threaten or otherwise hurt the other person. The “do” sentence clarifies what you are actually trying to do.
Mutual respect is established once both parties feel that the other party has their best interest in mind.
Establishing Mutual Purpose: CRIB
A conversation will not move forward unless both parties are working toward a common goal. A common purpose is the building block by which one can move the conversation forward, and retreat back if the conversation begins to focus on more superfluous aspects like how that goal is achieved.
There is a four-step process to get there, with the acronym “CRIB”:
- Commit to mutual purpose. Agree to find a mutual purpose to work toward, you have to want to achieve a solution to actually achieve it.
- Recognize the purpose. Why does someone want to achieve that goal? The why is more important than the how.
- Invent a mutual purpose: Sometimes the goals are fundamentally incompatible, at which point a conversation will probably go nowhere. Thus, there is a need to look elsewhere for mutual purpose, probably even more higher-level than the current goal (e.g. the family’s happiness as a purpose over making more money).
- Brainstorm new strategies: once a mutual purpose is established, it’s time to find the right strategy. Participants should keep an open mind and think outside the box.
Master your Emotions via Analyzing the Path to Action
The book calls out for reflection when one encounters an emotional situation. Making decisions while in a bad emotional state can often have poor results, as the decision doesn’t come from a well-reasoned, logical process.
To help yourself calm down and look at the situation logically, the book provides the following process:
- State the facts: help everyone understand how you arrived at that conclusion, by first stating what has explicitly occurred.
- Tell your story: explain your interpretation of the facts. One note here is to not downplay the story: adding apologetic phrases like “call me crazy” or “I’m probably wrong” reduces the confidence in your story being accurate from the get go.
- Ask for other’s paths: at this point, invite others into the conversation to share their story.
- Talk Tentatively: one skill is to build is to make sure that you are keeping an open mind as you hear other’s stories. Keep in mind the goal is to arrive at an amicable solution, and that requires being open to new facts and opinions.
- Encourage testing: again keeping in mind the goal is to arrive at an amicable solution, there needs to be a safe environment where everyone can ask questions and change the current story. Encourage everyone to share different ideas and theories.
Getting Others to Share Their Story
One common scenario is others not sharing their story due to the common deflection strategies of getting violent or getting quiet. Crucial Conversations provides the following workflow to keep the conversation going:
- Ask: before moving toward story sharing strategies, simply ask and see if you can get stories by asking the right questions.
- Mirror and Paraphrase: as you receive replies, make sure the other parties feel heard by paraphrasing to them what you’ve heard.
- Prime: if those techniques still lead to silence or violence, then it’s time to prime the conversation by taking a guess at what the other party is thinking. This is the last choice as it’s always better to get the meaning directly, but this requires a tentative “I think you’re feeling…”.
No Violent Agreement
Sometimes one can get caught up with winning some sort of battle. Those who are really effective at conversations stop discussing a topic they agree on, rather than nitpick in minor small details. If there is a component where there is a disagreement, they first acknowledge the agreement, then build on top of that instead.
To start the conversation around the places you disagree with, compare the differences and views equally.
Differentiate Discussions vs Decision Making
Discussions and getting opinions doesn’t mean that everyone gets control over making the decision. It’s important to determine the right decision making strategy depending on the situation.
Decision Making Strategies
The final chapter of the book with new content discusses different strategies in decision making, and where they’re appropriate.
Voting works well if the decision needs to be made quickly, and everyone agrees to commit to the result.
Consensus is needed if the stakes are high, and strong buy-in of all parties is required. Voting does not necessarily provide strong buy-in to the end result or decision.
Overall, crucial conversations was on the best books I’ve read in 2019, and is definitely on my list of books to read to achieve success overall in life. Oftentimes people take the relationship aspect of living for granted, and having a clear rubric to help achieve positive results in conversations is fantastic.