Ketan Bhatt

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Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

July 03, 2022 productivity

If you don’t talk it out, you WILL act it out.

Is silence really silent, or does it show up somewhere?

Crucial conversation defined by 3 factors:

  1. Stakes are high
  2. Opinions vary
  3. The parties involved have strong emotions

Crucial conversations are not the planned meetings we have at work, performance reviews etc., they are things like ending a relationship, giving your boss critical feedback, confronting a neighbour or collegue etc.

Problem with having a crucial conversation:

  1. we suck at them
  2. we tend to avoid these conversations because we are afraid we will make matters worse
  3. we behave our worst in the most critical moments

When you are under stress, blood is directed away from your brain to your muscles, so your thinking naturally suffers. You are also caught off-guard. And you lack the right tools to have a crucial conversation.

Tools to tackle crucial conversations:

1. Knowing your Heart

Stay focussed on what you really want from the conversation. You don’t want to “win the argument”, but you want to have a better job, or a better relationship etc. In an argument, you might want that’s best for both (arguing about where to go on a holiday trip, or if you should take a high paying job in a different location).

Unlearn what you have grown with: silent treatment, manipluation to “win”. Winning the conversation might mean losing the relationship. Avoid trying to discredit the other person, or “put them in their place”: they move you away from your original purpose.

If the other party says something you disagree with, take a pause and remind yourself of what you really want, reboot and get back into conversation.

Uncomfortable, but better than the knee jerk reaction and making it worse.

2. Ensure Safety

Safety is one of the main requisite of a healthy conversation. You can’t have a constructive conversation if all parties don’t feel safe.

Consider two core elements:

  1. What is being discussed
  2. What is happening in response

Both content and conditions (people’s reaction) are important. People typically become defensive not because of what is being said, the content, but because of how they feel, or if they feel it’s a safe place.

If you know the other person has your best interest in mind and you have no doubt about it, you are going to be much more open to receiving difficult feedback.

How to make conditions safe:

1. Spot the turning point

Notice when the conversation becomes crucial. It can be a physical signal (a person’s shoulders may tensed up), or emotional (someone becomes angry, afraid or hurt) or behaviourl (someone raises their voice or goes silent)

2. Watch for signs of Safety Problems

When people begin to feel unsafe, they may say insulting things, become sarcastic, or make fun of you.

Instead of fighting back, try to see the other person’s agression as a sign that they don’t feel safe. Be curious, rather than angry or hurtful. This is difficult and opposite to how we are used to reacting.

3. See if others are moving to silence or violence

4. Beware of reverting to your style under stress

Pay close attention to what you are doing and the impact it is having. Are you withdrawing yourself, are you masking things up with jokes or sarcasm. Knowing yourself and how you tend to react under pressure and trying to improve on that is crucial to any conversation.

3. Make the content safe

For people to really speak what’s on their mind, two things need to exist:

  1. A common purpose
  2. Mutual respect

Typically, when someone doesn’t feel safe saying something which is potentially negative, but true, it is because of two things:

  1. Either, they don’t trust the mutual purpose (eg: think of a time when you talked to someone where there was a vibe there is an ulterior motive)
  2. The mutual respect is undermined (eg: you rolled your eyes when someone made a statement). The dialogue can not really resume until that respect has been restored.

Start by asking yourself, what do others believe are your goals and if they can trust your motives. If you don’t genuinely care, and are only faking it, others will see through it and that will destroy dialogue.

Then, you need to have respect for the other person as a human being. You don’t have to respect them in every dimension, because there might be some aspects you don’t like, but you can still respect them as a human. Focus on things that make you similar rather than different.

4. Controlling your emotions

By learning to control your emotions, you will be able to use the tools we have learnt so far.

Emotions: The stories we tell ourselves when someone does or says something. They are not forced upon you by others, others don’t make you mad. You make yourself mad by telling yourself a story.

Stories are not facts, which is why they are called a story. We need to ask ourselves, is it a complete story? Is it a true story?

If you can control the story you tell yourself, you can control your emotions.

Trick to control your emotion: Retracing your path to action:

  1. Start with the act. Examine your behaviour. Ask yourself, how am I acting right now?
  2. Move on to the feeling. Identify the feeling. Ask yourself, what are the exact emotions that are driving the above behaviour.
  3. Move on to the story. Ask yourself, what story am I telling myself that is creating these emotions?
  4. Finally, examine the facts. Ask yourself, what is the evidence, things you see or hear, that support your story.

By retracing your path, you can see what exactly is going on and hence, gaining control over it in order to change your emotion if needed.

5. Share your stories

Now that you have controlled your emotions, it is time to share your stories in a way that make others receptive to them in a way that encourages feedback.

Share your facts. Explain what conclusions you are drawing. Encourage the other person to do the same.

Most important: State your story as a story, not as a fact. Use “I believe…” or “I think…” rather than “It is known that…“.

Encourage testing. Proactively seek other views that you can test your theory against.

6. Explore the other’s paths

Carefully listen and try to understand the other person’s viewpoint. This won’t happen if you are not genuine in your effort. You really have to be open to understanding the other person’s viewpoint.

Try to trace their path to action. Express an interest in their views, acknowledge their emotions, restate what you have heard and understood. If the other person is holding back, use the priming technique.

Priming: Offering a guess as to what they might be thinking is a way to get the discussion started.

7. Move from Conversation to Results

Once everybody contributes to the pool of information, the final step is action.

All the conversation effort is wasted unless there is a plan of action. Assign work, who will do what and when. Agree on how and when you will follow up on the agreed assignments. Finally, document. Don’t let your unreliable memory mess everything up. Write things down.

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