By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
My economic studies taught me that decision processes focused on the scientific method—objective, dispassionate, well-thought out. Boy, did that ever mislead me! This misconcept left I unprepared for white-knuckle office negotiations and I despaired that I represented my own ideas poorly in discussions. When McGraw-Hill published Crucial Conversations, I immediately ordered a copy.
What is a crucial conversation? 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 (3). They observe that three responses to these white-knock conversations can occur: we can avoid them, handle them badly, or handle them well (4). Their claim is that high-performance professionals earn their pay by telling supervisors discretely what they do not care to hear (10). The more typical response is silence (12). The author further claim that open conversation allows organizations to respond more quicky to crises, have fewer on-the-job injuries, save money, reduce decision costs, and reduce workplace bullying (12-13). Wow!
The authors organize Crucial Conversations into eleven chapters where the details matter less important than to stay in dialog. A dialog is a two-way conversation where both parties contribute to the discussion (pool of information) and no one feels threatened. Honesty and openness are keys to ongoing dialog. Clearly, keeping the lines of communication open is important in avoiding becoming side-tracked. A key starting point is to know what you really want and stay on theme. This is not easy because when tempers flare, people often personalize the discussion (punishing) and bring up unrelated grievances (whining). Not all wrongs can be righted (38-40). Adrenaline poses its own problem. Stay on theme.
The authors provide a large number of handy tips for managing particular problems in crucial conversations. One tip worth the ticket of admission is the author’s breakdown of a dialog into four stages: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting. They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in.
The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action. An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful. Three kinds of bad (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (116-119). Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around. The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things. Avoiding these counter-productive stories lays the groundwork for telling stories that solve organizational problems.
Crucial Conversations is a helpful book. I have recommended this book to family members and close friends undergoing stressful workplace transitions. This book challenges us to commit key debating strategies to memory. White knuckle conversations often cannot always be anticipated and often take place without warning. Consequently, read the book carefully, underline key points, and review these points before walking into stressful meetings.