Now and then, we find ourselves in crucial conversations. Whether it’s to save a deal that is going off the rails or to diffuse a snowballing personal crisis – there is a lot at stake, and the other person doesn’t seem to agree with you. Your heart starts racing and your gut churns. Your next words will have a big impact.
Unfortunately, most of us are unprepared for such important conversations but we should be, as most of them are predictable. It was with great pleasure I came across a classic text on the subject – Crucial Conversations by Patterson, McMillan and Roppe. Below is a summary and review of the book, coming from my perspective as a marketing professional and my earlier experience as a personal coach exploring how the heart, head and gut influence communication.
The first step is to recognise when you are entering a crucial conversation and step up your game. The tells are rising emotions, opposing opinions and high stakes. It’s about being emotionally sensitive - to yourself and others. Look for physical signs (churning stomach, clenched jaw/fist etc), look for emotional hints (raised voices, anger, frustration internally) and behavioural changes. Be aware that complete silence is a strong indicator of emotion among certain personality types.
You should be monitoring your own signs as well. There is an aspect of mindfulness here, of being aware of what is going on in a conversation, rather than being absorbed in detail. If you find yourself getting hooked on what was said rather than why, you know you are being drawn into a destructive argument. If you feel there is a loss of mutual purpose or respect, and you feel trust levels dropping then you need to take a step back.
If you have the courage to take that step back, there is a fleeting moment of opportunity that can shape your future dramatically, a tipping point if you like. In that moment a whole world of positive possibilities opens up, averting the inevitable destructiveness of a confrontation.
When you detect a crucial conversation developing, take a deep diaphragmatic breath, focus your attention on your heart and ask "what do I truly want here". You can ask yourself this question in any difficult situation and with practice the answer comes quickly. With the answer should come a new attitude and approach to the conversation – one in which you seek something other than winning. As you improve, you can also ask “what do they truly want?”
In Crucial Conversation, the authors say it is important to shift your attitude from an either/or win/lose approach, to frame situations with AND questions, e.g. “How can I get what I want AND keep the peace?” Identifying the AND in a situation is the real skill, as is understanding what others “truly want.”
The first aim should be to get information out on the table, in a free-flowing way, to find out what is going on. To encourage this, ask questions like, “I can see you’re upset. What do you think is going on here?” This question allows people to calm down and buy into the process of creating a pool of shared understanding.
A critical element for a successful conversion is to make it safe for people to say what they really think and deeply need – only then will you discover what they truly want. Gentle prompting may be required and if you sense emotions rising and the other going into a fight or flight response again, step "out of the conversation" and restore safety. Techniques for restoring safety is by apologising when appropriate and using contrasting statements such as: “I can see your upset by what I said. I want you do know that I did NOT mean X. What I DO mean is Y”.
As the conversation settles, aim to establish mutual purpose by exploring the higher common ground, using the five why’s method. What do you really want? Why do you want that? And (in regards to that answer) why do you want that? If you both do this exercise you will usually find common purpose by the fifth why. Then you can start to brainstorm options for moving forward.
In Crucial Conversations there are several other techniques discussed, summarised below:
Master your own story path: Move from Feel>Act to Notice>Story>Feel>Act. Work backwards from Feel to determine what story you are telling yourself and what triggered it. Brainstorm other stories to explain the trigger. Determine other ways of feeling about it and alternative actions. Watch for stories that distort reality (I victim, They villain, I helpless) and avoid responsibility when our actions go against our heart (belief) i.e. out of congruence. Tell new stories that recast victim/villain/helpless roles.
Persuasion/Assertiveness: Use STATE (Share, Tell, Ask, Talk, Encourage) i.e. Share your facts/observations; Tell what you think those facts mean (your story). In doing so reach for gut courage and use contrasting if necessary); Ask for the other’s interpretation/story explaining the facts; Talk tentatively using qualifiers that soften hard edges (“perhaps”, “in my opinion”, all assuming the best of the other but don’t be wimpy); Encourage other views/interpretation and invite them to be a devil's advocate. Whenever tensions rise, return to safety, diaphragmatic breaths, go to heart (what do I/we really want).
Listening under tension: When others go to fight or flight get them back to dialog by: Going to your heart, think of what they want, be curious, be patient, be sincere. Help the other retrace their story path to the facts and encourage different interpretation. AMPP it up (Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, Prime). Ask what they believe/feel, sensitively surface revealing body language, paraphrase their story. If no response, then prime the conversation by taking your best guess at what is happening and what you think the truly want. If still in dispute over the interpretation of the facts, explore ABCs (Agree, Build, Compare). i.e. Determine what you DO agree on (higher ground), then Build from that i.e. position points of disagreement in the context of what you do agree, then Compare your stories using the STATE method above.
The core premise of Crucial Conversations is that the most influential people in organisations are good at leading conversations using the techniques described above, even if they only do so intuitively. To be a leader, you don’t particularly need better skills or more powerful insights, you just need good skills at handling the most important conversations, which anyone can acquire.