Crucial Conversations

Published September 27, 2021 by Toran Billups

This week I started a new role and for the first time I've put team health at the forefront by re-reading Crucial Conversations with the specific purpose of gifting the book and a summary of it to each of my engineers. What follows is my paraphrased summary of the book, excluding the last 2 chapters, for those who might find the topic interesting.

Chapter 1

The ability to talk openly about high stakes, emotional, controversial topics

The key skill of effective teams is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and risky issues

Despite the importance of this skill we often avoid these difficult conversations

When we do engage our default response is often self defeating because

  • We’ve not had great role models to draw from in our personal or professional lives
  • The reasoning capacity of our brain is cut in half as adrenaline starts pumping
  • It’s difficult to step back from the content and manage the flow of conversation

Why study this topic? We only have 3 outcomes when faced with a crucial conversation

  • We can avoid them
  • We can have them and handle them poorly
  • We can have them and handle them well

Chapter 2

The key to crucial conversations is effective dialog

Dialog: the free flow of meaning between 2 or more people

To be effective in dialog we seek to get all relevant information out into the open

Beware: the fools choice may encourage silence -between telling the truth and loosing a friend

At the beginning of a crucial conversation we usually don’t share the same pool of meaning

As the pool of shared meaning grows

  • Better choices can be made because those involved have more relevant information
  • With input from everyone you get increased ownership and unity for actions that follow

Chapter 3

To start, take a long hard look at yourself and recognize the role you play in dialog

As much as others may need to change, the only person we can directly change is ourself

Under fire we naturally resist complexity and stop adding to the pool of meaning

When emotions run high we swap our original motive for "winning" or even "punishing"

As you feel your motives shift ask yourself “what do I really want here?”

Sometimes we choose personal safety over dialog by choosing silence

We accept the certainty of bad results to avoid the possibility of uncomfortable conversation

Chapter 4

Dialog requires safety for all involved

People will not add to the shared pool of meaning when they do not feel safe

Learn to look for safety problems (dual processing) while in the conversation

Beware: watching for conditions (ie: safety) and content at the same time takes practice

People become defensive because of fear (the condition) not the content itself

The problem is not the message, but when we fail to help others feel safe hearing the message

You can absorb threatening feedback when you respect their opinion and trust their motives

When you remove fear the brain can function with full reasoning capacity

Chapter 5

Safety requires commitment to a shared mutual purpose (the entry condition)

To stay in dialog we need to maintain mutual respect (the continuance condition)

When necessary, step out of the content, make it safe, then step back into the conversation

Beware: don’t sugar coat or water down your message

The 4 skills to establish a mutual purpose

  • commit to seek mutual purpose (check your heart)
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy
  • Invent a mutual purpose
  • Brainstorm new strategies that serve all involved

To establish respect when violated

  • apologize if you’ve truly disrespected someone
  • If respect was broken by misunderstanding, use contrasting to clarify the purpose or intent

Chapter 6

Emotions don’t just happen

We feel something because of a thought we ourselves create

We generally tell ourselves a story with partial information

These “stories” help us give meaning so we can justify

Once you’ve created the emotions you have 2 choices

1) You can act on them

2) Or be acted on by them

To challenge the emotional response or story ask “what evidence do I have that supports this?”

Beware: don’t confused stories with facts

We generally tell 3 diff stories

  • Victim stories "not my fault"
  • Villain stories "they have bad motives"
  • Helpless stories "I’m powerless"

Relax your absolute certainty long enough for dialog -the only reliable way to discover motive

Chapter 7

Speak honestly but with confidence, humility and skill

Share the facts, not the conclusions

Invite opposing views

Tell your story (be sure this follows the facts)

Ask for others paths

Talk tentatively

Encourage testing (of your views and opinions)

Chapter 8

The best way to influence is to use your ears

When you invite others to share, you must mean it

Be curious, ask questions to seek understanding

Beware: we often start to insert incorrect motives

When you sense this^ ask “why would a sane, rational person say this?”

Retrace aloud -the other persons path to action (after you hear them explain it)

Work to curb your reaction and return to the facts/story/emotion to seek understanding

4 powerful listening skills

  • Ask them to share their opinion
  • Mirror -when their tone or body language doesn’t match their words mirror it back to them
  • Paraphrase -repeat it back to clarify your own understanding
  • Prime -sometimes we pour into the shared pool to encourage them to do the same

Keep in mind we are trying to understand their point of view -not necessarily agree with it

Beware: its what you say and how you say it (keep your tone top of mind as you repeat back)

Agree when you agree (don’t waste time debating if you don’t disagree)

Build when key pieces of information are left out -grow the pool of shared meaning

Compare when you differ and be open minded

Chapter 9

Decision making should be decided on up front ahead of the dialog itself

To not violate expectations make it clear how the final decision will be made

4 ways to make decisions (increasing degree of involvement)

  • command - no involvement just delegate it
  • Consult -invite others to influence the decision
  • Vote - when several great options are present
  • Consensus -most involved but required when a unanimous decision is necessary

To decide ask a few questions

  • who cares? don’t invite people who aren’t involved
  • Who knows about this information? (to help with the shared pool, and decision making)
  • Who must agree to decide?
  • How many people is it worth involving

You want to avoid violated expectations and inaction (hold people accountable to promises)

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