Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High was recommended to me by my brother, Jay. Like many of us, I have a bad habit of shying away from confrontation and difficult conversations. It’s a natural reaction. Tough conversations are usually unpleasant and have the potential to escalate into full blown conflicts. But the truth is, by avoiding difficult conversations, we suppress disagreement and emotion until they bubble to the surface and blow up. Crucial Conversations provides a toolkit for those of us not naturally gifted at the art of handling difficult conversations.
Biggest Takeaway: Crucial conversations require finding “The Pool of Shared Meaning”
If there’s one thing to take away from this book, it’s the idea of creating a “pool of shared meaning” between key stakeholders. In their research for the book, the authors examined what unique conversational tactics are used by those who are more skilled at dialogue than the average person. Here’s one of their key findings:
People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool – even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.
The pool of shared meaning is essentially where a group’s collective knowledge goes. When the group has more accurate or relevant collective information, they can make a better decision. And when people don’t feel safe or comfortable adding their opinions to the pool of shared meaning, it means people are operating with different information, which of course will lead to differences of opinion and conflicts.
Equally important, since by definition the pool of shared knowledge is shared, people are much more willing to follow through on whatever decision the group makes. As Samuel Butler once said:
He that complies against his will is of his own opinion still.
When a group needs to take an action, you don’t want to be using force or authority to convince them. It’s much better, both for long-term and short-term cohesiveness, for individuals to willingly go along with whatever the group collectively decides.
Start With Heart: The Mindset For Crucial Conversations
The first step to achieving the results we really want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us. It’s our dogmatic conviction that “if we could just fix those losers, all would go better” that keeps us from taking action that could lead to dialogue and progress. Which is why it’s no surprise that those who are best at dialogue tend to turn this logic around. They believe the best way to work on “us” is to start with “me”.
The key framework here is to understand what you really want out of a crucial conversation, what you want for others, and what you want for the relationship moving forward. Once you’re clear on those things, it becomes a lot easier to operate with a cool head and take a skillful approach to crucial conversations.
Part of the reason this technique works so well is it allows you to hijack the normal physiological response to conflict. Normally, when engaging in crucial conversations, our body has difficulty distinguishing between a tough social encounter and a physical threat. Accordingly, blood will be diverted to your muscles and less will flow to your brain, leading your mental facilities t0 decline – at the worst possible moment! But by applying a logical framework and thinking about goals, your body realizes that this is not a physical altercation, and you’ll be able to think clearly.
Apart from the physiological benefit to using this framework, the other advantage is that by working on yourself first, you may find that you are the reason the conflict is happening! Taking this moment to stop and reflect can nip conflicts in the bud before they really escalate.
Getting Others To Share: AMPP Framework
It’s all well and good to understand the concepts above but without getting the other person/people to open up and share, there’s not really a “conversation” happening. The AMPP Framework shared in Crucial Conversations is a useful one in getting others to open up. You may already use some of these techniques but it’s useful to see the entire framework:
Ask to Get Things Rolling
This technique is simple – you just need to be willing to stop sharing your thoughts and step back to invite the other person to talk about their viewpoint. This far easier to say than to actually do in practice.
An example of asking: “I’d really like to hear your opinion on this.”
Mirror to Confirm Feelings
The main purpose of this technique is to convey to the other person that it’s ok to share their feelings. Conveying this doesn’t have much to do with the words coming out of your mouth. Instead, your body language, tone of voice, and attitude are going to give the other person the confidence to share their feelings with you.
An example of mirroring: “You say you’re okay, but by the tone of your voice, you seem upset.”
Paraphrase to Acknowledge the Story
Again, this technique will either work or fall apart based on your body language. Paraphrasing is exactly what it sounds like: repeat what you’ve heard in your own words to confirm you understand correctly. It also helps the other person see that you truly want to understand what they’re saying.
An example of paraphrasing: “Let me see if I understand this correctly. You’re saying….”
Prime When You’re Getting Nowhere
This is mostly a last resort technique but in cases where you’re pretty sure what the problem is, you can share your best guess as to what the other person is thinking. Crucial Conversations recommends you use this technique only when the other party still doesn’t feel comfortable sharing, even after trying all the other tactics. In my experience, priming can be pretty helpful – it shows the other person that you’re aware of what they’re feeling.
An example of priming: “Are you thinking that…”
Resolving Differences of Opinion: The ABC Framework
Differences of opinion are a fact of life. So how do we resolve them? The ABC framework is a good place to start:
This is something I can personally attest to: In many, if not most, disagreements with other people, I agree with 90% of what they’re saying. But in the heat of the moment, that 10% difference escalates into a standoff. The authors of Crucial Conversations are instead suggesting that you first find the places you and the other person agree. Which then sets the stage for…
Instead of looking for trivial differences between your opinion and the other person’s opinion, skilled communicators take the areas of agreement and build from there. For example, when the other person leaves out an element of the argument, an unskilled communicator will say something like: “Wrong. You forgot to include…” while a skilled communicator will say: “I agree. In addition, I noticed that…”. It’s so simple but this little switch takes a conversation from confrontational to friendly.
When there is a difference of opinion, instead of pronouncing the other person’s ideas as wrong or conveying your opinion as if it’s confirmed truth, it’s more effective to treat both opinions as two sides to a story. This can be conveyed through phrases like “I see things a bit differently”. Again, this invites others to share their opinions and test your ideas. While you may not ultimately end up agreeing, communicating in this manner creates a larger pool of shared meaning and a more productive conversation.