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Lessons Learned from Crucial Conversations

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Eric Brun on lessons learned from the book, Crucial Conversations. Eric is a colleague at Microsoft, and he leads a development team.  As you can imagine, there are a lot of high intensity scenarios, with tough deadlines, conflicting opinions, and different communication styles.  I asked Eric to share his insights and actions he learned from applying the Crucial Conversations model to work and life.

It is a few years ago, as I was working on communication and influence that I met J.D. I got to tell you, it was one the most intense and exciting conversations in my life. As I was telling him I was looking for a way to deal with conflict, sometimes finding myself in situations where my emotions were limiting my effectiveness. He mentioned “Crucial Conversations” as a very good reading.

Our Reptile Brain Doesn’t Always Help

One of the ideas that had a lasting impact on me, is that we have two brains: our Sapiens brain and our reptilian brain.   While thinking about it back home, I realized that was the heart of the issue.  The reptilian brain helped us to survive by short-circuiting the low-speed complex Sapiens brain.  It did this by putting us in a “fight-or-flight mode.” This was useful to escape a saber tooth tiger, but in a civilized setting, such as a business meeting or a family dinner, it doesn’t serve us very well.

I could recognize situations where I was not very proud of my achievements. For example, these were some situations where I was entrapped in silence, and could not find my words.   On the other end of the spectrum, I would feel mad and have angry arguments.

Stakes are High, Opinions Vary, and Emotions Run Strong

When I reviewed he situations, they had three things in common:

  1. The subject was important to me.
  2. I was feeling strong emotions.
  3. The heat was intense

In the book Crucial Conversation, the authors define a crucial conversation as a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.

Crucial conversations generally precede “crucial confrontations.”  With a  crucial conversation, the goal is to discover the problem, work through the problem during the conversation, and get to an agreement.  With crucial confrontations, you are dealing with broken promises, such as when the agreement is not honored.

While the scenarios and intensity may vary, both crucial conversations and crucial confrontations are based on the same principles and work in a similar way.

Recognize the Signs

First, you need to recognize the signs. What happens when the reptilian brain takes control? …

In fight mode, you feel heat, and you raise your voice.

In flight mode, you might feel anxious, and retreat in silence.

Even if you try to control or negate your feelings, they are most likely going to act up and probably not at the best moment.

Get Prepared

To get prepared, you need to do your homework.  This includes collecting the facts, defining what you really want, and mastering your stories. Stories are those intentions that we think people have and which alter our perception.

The authors propose a powerful yet simple mental exercise to master your stories.   They suggest, ask yourself why a decent, respectful person would think or do that?  I would add: “question one’s own virtue” as proposed in the excellent Leadership and self-deception.

I have found for myself that these thoughts have a profound impact.   They bring a calm and open mind.

Establish Safety and Create a Shared Pool of Meaning

There are two very important concepts:

  1. Establish Safety — Establish safety by seeking mutual purpose and showing respect. The more respect you can actually, genuinely feel, the easier the conversation. Mutual purpose comes from looking at what is really important (do you care more about “wining the argument” or creating a “win-win” outcome?) and genuine respect makes you really persuasive as well as more resistant to cutting remarks that can burst out – especially before your interlocutor is convinced of your intentions.
  2. Create a “shared pool” of meaning.  The “shared pool” of meaning is the ideas and understandings. This is the material from which solutions will emerge.

Who Does What, and By When

When the crucial conversation comes to an end, it’s important to get to an action-oriented conclusion. This means defining with clarity, “who” does “what” and “by when”. It’s really important to have the discipline to define all three.  Defining all three helps avoid ambiguity and future frustration.

Command, Consult, Vote, or Consensus

The authors identify four ways that require increasing efforts and time:

  1. Command
  2. Consult
  3. Vote
  4. Establish consensus.

Personally, I was almost always seeking consensus, until I understood it was probably more costly and less efficient. Then I started exploring and using vote, consult, and command. These additional options  really made a big difference, both at work and at home.  For example, in some scenarios, I now appreciate the fast decisions and clear instructions as part of a command style.  And I’m often surprised that it makes the situation easier for others, especially when they are looking for direction.

Honesty, Respect, and Courage

What I like in the Crucial Conversations model is that it is based on honesty, respect, and courage (Yes, getting into a Crucial Conversation in a calm and willful way requires courage). In addition, the model is simple, applicable, and highly effective.

I first applied the Crucial Conversations model at home, telling myself I should practice a bit before trying it out at work. That was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I learned that being able to have crucial conversations at home is just as important, if not more important, than on the job.

5 Comments on "Lessons Learned from Crucial Conversations"

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  1. William says:

    I’ve read various books about having crucial conversations, but still find myself avoiding them, putting them off, or reverting to old unhelpful patterns when I’m in them. I feel that it would really help me to practice, in a role-play way, rather than read about them over and over again. Do you know of good coaches or coaching organizations (preferably in the Boston area — I think doing this face-to-face also helps) who work on this approach of active, practice-based coaching?

  2. farouk says:

    i liked how you extracted the lessons and presented them that way JD
    sometimes i learn lots of things when i go through some experiences then write about them. i can relate to you
    keep up the great work :)

  3. JD says:

    @ William — One quick way that might help is to practice role-play with a friend. That said, Vital Smarts offers training on Crucial Conversations.

    @ Farouk — Writing from experience always adds depth and detail that brings it to life. I’ve watched Eric grow and it’s been great seeing him turn insight into action.

  4. Galen Pearl says:

    I’m going to share this with my daughter and her boyfriend. They have such a good relationship…until they have a crucial conversation. Their communication skills break down and they end up mad at each other. Later, when they can come at the topic with a different approach in communication, they do much better. This article will give them some ready to use tools and understanding. Thanks!

  5. JD says:

    @ Galen — I hope they enjoy it. A little skill really can make a difference for life.

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