As we start off 2012, we all have a list of New Year’s resolutions
we will work to achieve.
you to add one more to that list – facing difficult conversations head-on
rather than avoiding them. Conflict is a
natural part of working in a team environment, and how you handle it determines
whether it is healthy or destructive conflict.
Too often, we think we are keeping the peace by remaining silent when
the topic becomes controversial. What
we’re really doing is compounding the problem.
Ill feelings fester, negative attitudes spread like wildfire and the
important conversation essential to getting the team on board never happens. And,
thus problems escalate.
"Crucial Conversations – Tools for
Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan
& Al Switzler offers an excellent blueprint to constructive, difficult
discussions. I’ve seen its resolution
strategies work firsthand. Here is a top
line summary of the valuable lessons.
What is a Crucial Conversation and Why are They Important?
First off, according to Patterson,
Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, a "crucial conversation” is one that involves
opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes.
These conversations define our
relationships and relationships, in turn, define our lives. Whether it’s with co-workers, family or
friends, improving your skills to successfully navigate these tough talks will
make you and everyone around you more successful (and happier).
Set Out to Create Dialogue
When approaching a conversation you
know will be particularly delicate, enter with the goal of creating dialogue. Aim to facilitate the exchange of facts, ideas
and thoughts, all of which build a shared meaning or pool of information that
can lead to an outcome all parties feel good about. In order for this dialogue to take place
though, everyone has to feel safe to add to the shared meaning. The tricky part is training yourself to step
back from the heated discussion and assess the situation while you are in the
midst of it. You must be self-aware and,
at the same time, watch for verbal and physical cues that things are headed
down a negative path. That’s not always
easy when you’re also thinking about what to say next in the conversation.
Look for Signs that Safety is at Risk
The most common reasons people
feel unsafe are because they don’t feel like you’re both working toward a
mutual purpose or there is a lack of mutual respect. So how can you identify when others don’t
feel safe (or when you don’t feel safe)?
Look for the signs. They usually
come in one of two forms – "silence” behaviors or "violence” behaviors.
- "Silence” behaviors
– any act to intentionally withhold information from the pool of meaning. It’s almost always done to avoid conflict and
typically takes one of three forms.·
"Violence” behaviors – any verbal strategy aimed at convincing, controlling or compelling other to your point of view. It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool and also usually appears in one of three forms.
– consists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating and couching are some
of the popular forms
- Avoiding – involves
steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real
– pulling out of a conversation altogether, either by exiting the conversation or
exiting the room.
- Controlling – consists of coercing others to your way of thinking by either forcing your views or by dominating the conversation. Common forms include cutting others off, overstating facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects or using directive questions to control the discussion.
- Labeling – putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under general stereotype or category.
- Attacking – this is pretty straightforward – it’s a verbal attack that can take the form of belittling or threatening. All with the purpose of making the other person suffer.
Make it Safe
So once you identify these
tell-tales signs of safety issues, how can you restore the safety? When safety is at risk, you need to first
recognize what is going on and why and then step out of the content
temporarily. You can then build safety
by getting back to the facts and eventually get back into dialogue. Some specific techniques for rebuilding
- If you are at fault, apologize.
- When your intentions have been misunderstood, contrast.
- When you have conflicting goals, find a mutual purpose.
Apologizing is pretty
straightforward but you’re apology must be genuine. People can see through an insincere apology
pretty quickly and this will further emphasize their feeling that you don’t
Contrasting is a skill that helps
you clarify your intentions so that the other person feels safe. You start by stating what you are NOT talking
about and then follow that with what you are talking about.
Creating a mutual purpose requires
a little more work. First you need to
explore the purpose of all parties involved.
What you see on the surface is the person’s behavior or strategy for
getting what they want. The interest is
what lies underneath so you need to ask "why” questions respectfully to drive
out any hidden or buried agendas. Once
you’ve clarified each person’s goal, the next step is to find a solution that
satisfies both goals. If that’s not
possible, build a goal you both like just as well or better. This is not always easy and takes some
creative thinking and the ability to be patient and think outside the box. It also requires that we are invested enough
in the other person to put in the work.
Control Your Emotions
Controlling emotions can be very
difficult during a crucial conversation, especially when we’re hard-wired to
react when our safety is threatened – often referred to as "fight or
flight.” Stepping back and analyzing the
root cause of our emotions can be a very powerful skill.
Have you ever blamed someone for
making you mad?” Did they? Or did you make yourself mad? If you really think about it honestly, you
were the one that caused the emotion.
When we see or hear something, the little voice in our head quickly
develops a story to provide meaning to the event. Over time, our mind fills in blanks and adds
details (often exaggerated and ugly) and they are most often based on
assumptions. This story is what really
caused the emotion and our subsequent action.
Often, what we believe is reality (the story in our mind) is much
different from what actually occurred.
Recognizing this is what is really happening is the first step to
controlling our emotions so we can use healthy dialogue to explore the facts
and determine what actually occurred.
Crucial conversations aren’t
easy. They are very challenging. As we often say at Boomer Consulting, Inc.,
it’s about progress not perfection. If
you can work on one or two skills from this book at a time, you’ll drastically
improve your communication skills during difficult conversations. Start off 2012 by committing to conquering
crucial conversations. The first step is
to read the book!