There are times when your ability to be heard by others, get your point across and truly communicate can change your life. Sometimes it can be a key presentation at a business gathering, where your organization's goals hang in the balance; a speech at a turning point in a political campaign; a meeting with a boss about a promotion; or a personal conversation that ends with a plan to get married, have children or buy a house. In each case, being able to speak coherently, passionately and meaningfully about a topic is critical. So why are so many otherwise intelligent people so bad at it?
I recently came across the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, which is about learning how to navigate these high-stakes communications. The authors-Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler-believe that preparation, not winging it, is the key. They give the reader a list of tools that can be used in planning and executing important conversations. Too often many of us aren't really prepared emotionally or with the necessary data to successfully navigate a tough topic, be it personal or professional. There is a discipline to it, even though the actual conversation might seem on the surface to be effortless, even casual.
The authors-each with impressive business, research and teaching credentials-define a crucial conversation as a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. These are the very talks that most of us try to avoid. No one likes to enter a conversation feeling uncomfortable and insecure. It's easier to put off such discussions or even to avoid situations where they will crop up.
It's why e-mail has become so popular in office settings. What a great way to avoid talking to someone face-to-face and telling him or her that their work is unsatisfactory. Or telling someone that his or her promised promotion isn't going to happen. Or telling the boss you disagree with him or her on a pet project. These are not only cowardly ways out of tough moments, they are far less effective means of getting what you want or need. How much easier is it to say no to someone who uses e-mail to make an important request? Life is tough, and it is those individuals who want to learn how to cope and deal with crucial face-to-face conversations effectively that will benefit most from reading this book.
The authors have studied the habits of many successful people who've achieved important goals largely through their communications skills. These men and women can speak with such assurance not because they are necessarily better or brighter than others are, but because they have done their homework. That means finding out exactly what needs communicating, including knowing what the goals are, then rehearsing the communication out loud alone or with others. Once the real speaking begins, it isn't a monologue but a dialogue, defined by the authors as "the free flow of ideas between two or more people."
Of course, for dialogue to take place there has to be some measure of acceptance on the part of two or more people that a discussion is warranted and beneficial. The authors discuss what they call a "shared pool of meaning" among multiple parties. They use the example of a group of executives who feel their company should relocate. There are a variety of opinions among the executives as to where that location should be. Now if the CEO simply determines where the new location would be without consulting his or her colleagues, there could be disagreements and a lack of buy-in, which may sink the whole plan. The authors offer this advice: "The time you spend upfront establishing a shared pool of meaning is more than paid for by faster, more committed action later on."
Shallowness of shared-pool discussions can have disastrous outcomes, particularly in healthcare. Here's one example the authors use: "A woman checked into the hospital to have a tonsillectomy and the surgical team erroneously removed a portion of her foot. How could this tragedy happen? In fact, why is it that 98,000 hospital deaths each year stem from human error? In part because many healthcare professionals are afraid to speak their minds. In this case, no less than seven people wondered why the surgeon was working on the foot, but said nothing. Meaning didn't freely flow because people were afraid to speak up."
The authors note that "hospitals don't have a monopoly on fear. In every instance where bosses are smart, highly paid, confident, and outspoken (i.e., most of the world), people tend to hold back their opinions rather than risk angering someone in a position of power."
Everyone experiences such fear. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator to keep quiet. But there are times when doing so means compromising one's principles, failing to achieve long-cherished goals or even protecting a human life.
For those reasons, reading Crucial Conversations could be a life-changing event. It gives sound and practical advice on how to carry on effective and productive conversations that move our personal and professional lives forward.