Updated: Apr 25
Each month as part of our Intentional Growth Club, we read a book and hold a discussion night to talk about our takeaways from the book.
This month, as part of our theme of “Getting Outside of Your Comfort Zone,” we read Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Emily Gregory.
Crucial Conversations is a guide to having difficult and emotional conversations in all types of settings. Many of us avoid and put off having these important talks or get angry when things start to go off the rails. As the book says, we are at our worst when we really need to bring our best communication skills.
The authors define a crucial conversation as “a discussion between two or more people in which they hold 1) opposing opinions about a 2) high stakes issues and where 3) emotions run strong.”
Whether it’s at work or within our families, being able to skillfully navigate the minefield of a crucial conversation can increase productivity and improve your relationships. Being unable to successfully talk about problems only leads to an atmosphere of resentment and frustration.
While the book goes into great depth about the skills you can use to improve your dialogue, here are three takeaways that will help you start on the path to mastering crucial conversations.
1) Make The Conversation Safe
The biggest point the book makes is how important it is for everyone feels safe in the conversation. The authors say that people resort to “silence or violence” when they feel threatened, meaning they either refuse to continue the conversation or lash out.
Whether we mean to or not, our words and actions in these situations can make others think we have bad intentions and are trying to hurt them. In order to move forward, we have to assure them that we are trying to help resolve the problem in a way that’s best for everyone.
For example, if you need to bring up a mistake a colleague made at work, you can start out by saying “Hey, I know how hard you’ve been working on that presentation and we both want to make sure it’s as good as possible to impress the boss, so I wanted to let you know that this slide has some outdated information…”
By assuring the other person of your good intentions, they won’t get defensive and will be more open to what you have to say. And if things get heated, offer a sincere apology when necessary to get back to a place of respect.
It’s also critical to pay attention during conversation for signs that the other person is no longer feeling safe. When they start to shut down or get angry, it means you need to back up and find a place of safety again before carrying on.
2) Manage Your Emotions
Often when a crucial conversation comes up, our emotions take over. In the book, the authors describe how we interpret a tense conversation the same way as a physical threat and our bodies shift into “fight or flight” mode. This means blood is diverted from the critical thinking areas of our brain and more into preparing to protect our survival. In an emotional conversation, we literally have less brain power to focus on creating a respectful and effective dialogue.
So how can we stop our emotions from taking over and ruining relationships? The first step is self-awareness. When you realize that your “lizard brain” has grabbed the steering wheel, you can take back control. Look out for signs like tense muscles, your tone of voice, or other gestures like shaking your head or rolling your eyes. All of those indicate you aren’t carrying on a respectful conversation.
Once you recognize what’s happening, you can step back and start to assess the situation in a more rational manner. The book suggests refocusing on what you originally wanted from the conversation.
None of this is easy to learn and it takes a lot of practice. The book goes into much greater detail about the steps to overcoming your fight or flight instincts to have more rational and considerate dialogue, even in heated situations.
“The best at dialogue…aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors that create better results.” Crucial Conversations
3) What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?
Related to the emotional aspect of crucial conversations is the stories we tell ourselves. This part especially stuck out to me from an emotional intelligence standpoint. There is a whole quadrant of emotional intelligence dedicated to Self-Awareness, the skills necessary to recognize and understand those stories we tell.
We pass judgment on the actions of others and ourselves, and then emotions are brought forth based on those judgements. You may think, “This person is out to get me,” when in reality, it’s just a misunderstanding. However, once you’ve told yourself a story of how they planned to ruin your reputation, you can hardly go into a conversation about it without strong emotions.
The authors addressed the different roles we can play in the story - Victim, Villain, Helpless. Paying attention to the role we may instantly adopt will help us be able to pause and re-work what we are telling ourselves that is closer to reality and to one that can resemble ownership and be a productive conversation enabling a solution or resolution.
This ties into understanding how important Self-Awareness is to be able to have Crucial Conversations. Being able to name our own emotion is needed so that we can pick up on how we're feeling and how that is affecting our reaction and/or how we react when emotions are high. Being aware when we are adopting the role of Victim, Villain or Helpless in the story we are telling is essential to be able to re-work the story.
When it comes to crucial conversations and telling stories, we must focus on working on ourselves. We can’t control how the other person may act during these situations, but when we have mastered our own emotions and are aware of how we are thinking, feeling, and acting, we can steer the conversation in a safer and more productive direction for everyone.
No one is going to magically become a perfectly skilled navigator of difficult conversations after reading this book, but each of us can now take at least one action step toward that goal.
If you enjoyed this post or want to learn more about Crucial Conversations, join us on March 29th at 6:30 CST for our monthly book club discussion.
Next month, our book will be Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown.