Book Review - Crucial Conversations - February 2008


Book: Crucial Conversations
Authors: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer
Publisher: McGraw-Hill
Length: 228 pages
Price: $16.95
Reviewer: Dale Deardorff

If you have ever wondered how to have that "tough" conversation, talk, and dialog or purposely create the perfect opportunity to discuss something critical with others, then this is the book for you. A leadership tool required for everyone is the skill to have productive conversations that are crucial at specific times. All of us have experienced that situation where you walk away knowing something went wrong there because emotions got triggered or the silence was deafening. As the authors remind us, "Nothing Fails like Success." In other words, when a challenge in life is met by a response that is equal to it, you have success. But, when the challenge moves to a higher level, the old, once successful response no longer works - it fails; thus, "nothing fails like success." You must take your conversations to a higher level to be successful...they must become a blend of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotion Quotient) to become Crucial Conversations.

The book's team of authors have created a handbook for the reader which will allow you and others to engage in purposeful dialogue that constructively moves towards mastering what it calls Crucial Conversations. These can be any day-to-day conversations that have an impact or can affect your life. Typically, we have three choices:
1) We are afraid of them
2) We face them and handle them poorly
3) We face them and handle them well

This book allows you to improve all three areas by establishing a firm understanding of the conversation objectives, but, as stated ,we can still screw up! "Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect" - in other words no, matter how skilled we think we are, there is always room for improvement and the repeated searching for Mutual Purpose is the key. Page 81 allows you some practice exercises to formulate a contrasting statement based upon a situational fact pattern. It also lets you document what you "don't want" and what you "do want" in the communication. This diagnostic unveiling of a dialog allows you to move towards creating Mutual Purpose and Shared Meaning.

The authors focus on what they call the "One Thing" at the core of every successful conversation - a free flow of relevant information. To accomplish this, we must help create the environment where people can;
Openly and honestly express opinions
Share their feelings
Articulate their theories
Share their views...even when their views are controversial and unpopular

Everyone enters a conversation with unique and individual opinions, feelings and theories which help contribute to the "pool of shared meaning". As the sharing increases, the diversity of thought and opinion grows to allow stronger dialogue and decision making. The book points out that decision's are made using one of 4 methods:
Command - means we are turning decisions over to others. We decide either that this is such a low stakes issue that we don't care or we completely trust the ability of the delegate to make the right decision.

Consult - means you invite others to influence them before they make their choice. You can use experts, a representative population or even everyone who wants to offer an opinion.

Vote - means you have several decent options. It is a time saver but should never be used when team members don't agree to support what ever decision is made.

Consensus - means you talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision.

Chapter 4 contains a participant survey which can allow you to identify and understand your crucial communication style strengths and weaknesses. The 33 question instrument provides a scoring for Silence versus Violence.

Silence is any act to purposely withhold information from the pool of meaning. It restricts the flow of meaning and the three most common forms are:
Masking - understating or selectively showing our true opinions
Avoiding - involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects
Withdrawing -pulling out of a conversation altogether.

Violence is any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, compel or control others to your point of view. The three most common forms are:
Controlling - consists of coercing others to your way of thinking.
Labeling - putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category.
Attacking - you move from winning the argument to making a person sufferthrough belittling or threatening.

[My only criticism against the book is that the term violence comes with cognitive baggage, individual paradigms and mental models which may be distractive.]

Additionally, the book provides an assessment against the communication skill sets explored in chapters 3-9. These process steps are called Start with the Heart, Learn to Look, Make it Safe, Master my Stories, State my Path, Explore other Paths and Move into Action. These provide a great starting point to understand yourself from where your starting...the next series of steps will require you to take action and refine the "Paths to Action" included in the Dialogue Model. If this book's Dialogue Model is used, you can clearly see a path, and a goal in the conversations which will be based upon the seven dialogue principles, measured against the skills required and quantified with what crucial questions must be explored.

Chapter 11 contains the author's advice for tough cases. They have taught the material and used it consistently enough to understand the typical areas that are pushed back against by stating "Yeah, but". These are broken into what is called the Danger Point and then The Solution. What you actually have is almost 20 examples of how to use the skills of Crucial Conversations productively in the hard situations that all Leaders would be challenged to conduct. If you determine that you and others are working towards cross-purposes or different agendas, you may need to refocus the mutual purpose. To accomplish this, there are a series of communication exploration tools provided with acronyms such as:

ABC's (Agree, Build, Compare) which can be used for when you want to respond to a statement or perceived facts that others have that are incorrect or partially true.

AMPP (Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, Prime) which can be used as power listening tools to make it safe for others to speak safely and frankly.

CRIB (Commit, Recognize, Invent, Brainstorm) which can be used to step out of the content of conflict and start to re-establish a mutual purpose.

Ultimately, what we have created upon completion of the book is a handbook for communicating more effectively which will help you develop more constructive dialogue habits to identify crucial situations, diffuse tension and establish action plans that are extremely practical and insightful. The proposed hallmark of Crucial Conversations is disagreement. When different people have different opinions and don't know how to work through their difference, this can spiral or digress into silence or violence, and kill the free flow of ideas or conversations. Disagreement poorly handled leads to poor decisions being made and negative relationships by all team members.