#2 How to talk when the stakes are high

In my previous book review, I wrote about winning and influencing people. Carnegie wrote about the risk related to confronting people and create resentment, leading to problems. After reading the first few chapters of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, I was conflicted. As the first thing Patterson suggests is to confront people and talk about issues. Rather than keeping people happy by “not talking” as suggested by Carnegie. This contrast is interesting. Yet, this book provides some good tools for talking when stakes are high. The author characterizes crucial conversations as conversations in which:

  1. 1. Stakes are high
  2. Opinions vary
  3. Emotions run strong

Regardless of conversations being crucial or not, tools given in the following chapters provide a way of dealing with conversations. If, one can take a step back and think as a “strategic conversationalist”.

Creating a Safe environment

People deal with difficult conversations in various ways. The main tendency of people is to resort to silence (moving away from the conversation) or violence (name-calling and being aggressive). Establishing purpose in conversations, making the other people understand why you’re having a conversation in the first place, is a way to counter this tendency.

Establishing a common goal allows for other people to perceive that all are working towards a common outcome in the conversation. This makes others believe that we care about their goals, interests, and values.

However, establishing a common goal is not always as easy as it sounds. People have a “reptile brain” and act according to their instincts. Safety may be damaged in situations where people misinterpret your intent. This safe environment can be recreated by using a conversation technique called contrasting. It allows you to make others understand what your intentions are. Start with clearing up what you don’t mean and then clarify what you mean:

“I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m not happy with your work here. I hope we can continue to work together, and you have valuable skills. I want to let you know that meeting deadlines is important to me and missed deadlines negatively impact the rest of the team, so I need you to do well in this area.”

The shared pool of Meaning

This was a very basic yet very important advice given in the book. If you put smart people in a room but don’t give them enough information and/or reach a common understanding of the problem, there is still a big risk for them to make a bad decision. People with more information are more likely to make better, informed decisions.

Therefore, it is important to create a shared pool of meaning. People skilled in the art of conversation will ask clarifying questions to get the most amount of information out of the participants.

“Not only does a shared pool help individuals make better choices, but since the meaning is shared, people willingly act on whatever decisions they make—with both unity and conviction. As people sit through an open discussion where ideas are shared, they take part in the free flow of meaning. Eventually, they understand why the shared solution is the best solution, and they’re committed to act.”

Don’t confuse stories with facts

Watch out for villain, victim or helpless stories. These are stories or tactics people use during heated conversations to convince others.

During conversations, people will often place others in a villain role, claim they are the victim or claim that they couldn’t have changed the situation (helpless). They base these stories on emotions and they don’t help reach effective results.

Rather than focussing on emotions and looking for excuses, it is much wiser to “retrace your path” (take a step back and understand where you’re coming from) and get back to the facts. If people are using the wrong stories to make a point, the book suggests having a bird’s-eye view and focus on what is important.

“When an unhelpful story is driving you to silence or violence, stop and consider how others would see your actions. For example, if the 60 Minutes camera crew replayed this scene on national television, how would you look? What would they tell about your behavior?

Not only do those who are best at crucial conversations notice when they’re slipping into silence or violence, but they’re also able to admit it. They don’t wallow in self-doubt, of course, but they do recognize the problem and begin to take corrective action. The moment they realize that they’re killing dialogue, they review their own Path to Action.”

State the path to your story

One of the more important concepts: “State your path”. If you ever face a difficult conversation, ensure that you have a clear path to understand others. Don’t go into the conversation without knowing what you want to get out of the conversation.

Nearing the end of the book, they gave an interesting example. In which Carole found a hotel booking (in a hotel very close to their home) and assumed her husband was cheating. In the first story, she went in blaming her husband and assuming he was cheating. You can expect things to escalate and end up bad for both.

In the second example, Carole first tried to think of all explanations for that credit card statement. Then asked her husband carefully about the statement (without creating a “villain or victim story” and by understanding the path in the conversation). Fortunately, this approach led to better results. The owner of the hotel, also the owner of the restaurant, used the same credit card machine for both establishments. So by understanding the path to the story Carole could find out what was going on without accusing her husband of being unfaithful.

My Opinion

The book is easy to read, uses nice and interesting examples. The authors are realistic about their advice, which seems to come from years of experience on the subject.

Especially the “Don’t confuse stories with facts” chapter is interesting as it teaches how to deal with various stories people use to make their point. The book tries to teach how to create safe stories for “crucial conversations” which is a skill that will allow others to speak openly with you.

The authors themselves claim that the concepts provided are difficult to put into practice right after reading the book. They suggest remembering the book from a “high-level” perspective and utility some tactics provided in the book to improve your conversations. I agree with this statement as I found that some advice given in the book seems to be unrealistic when you are in the middle of a difficult conversation. I assume this comes with experience.

Whats next?

The next book I’m reading is “The Ideal Teamplayer” by Patrick M. Lencioni in which he explains how to be the best team player possible.

I hope you’ve liked this summary and my opinion. What do you think of this book? Do you agree with the criticism? Please let me know in the comments. If you have any suggestions for any books to read after I’ve finished the next book, please let me know!

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