This is my review of Crucial Conversations. It’s a relationships book with a lot of applicability in the workplace. It’s a nice read for managers, hence it got on my reading list.

I found the book easy to read, like these things tend to be. However, I also found it packed with information. Whereas many other books just recycle the message chapter after chapter, or at most bring small additions, I felt each chapter here brought something valuable. On the other hand, this is what makes the book quite hard to apply in real life. Each chapter is jam packed with a lot of ideas and tools, and practicing and mastering them takes a lot of time. My plan, and the one the authors also recommend, is to acknowledge the big outline of there being crucial conversations and they being important, and then practicing one or two techniques ‘till I’m comfortable with them. Only after that I’ll revisit and try something new.

In these reviews I usually go chapter by chapter. I’ll roughly do the same here, but I’ll rather organise the thoughts in the form I’ve synthesised them for my own reference materials. Makes it easier to write both at the same time.

First, crucial conversations are tricky conversations that happen between people, where the stakes are high, there is a difference of opinions, and emotions run strong. This is what differentiates these from a regular negotiation. And that usually people handle badly. But there’s an art and a skill to getting better here, which will increase the chances of the conversation going well, with very good life outcomes.

The basic idea is that you should:

  • Recognise you’re in a crucial conversation. You can either think of it in advance or realise it in the moment
  • Recognise when the conversation is going off the rails, and spirits are high, and you are headed towards a bad outcome
  • The bad outcome occurs when you’re not talking about the issue at hand and how to solve it, but rather start arguing and either go down the aggressive path (fights, shouts, etc) or down the silence path (no communication, avoiding the topic, etc.)
  • Acknowledge that the solution is to bring the discussion back on track, establish safety, and focus on shared goals, rather than arguing for the sake of arguing or just “winning”

Authors claim that many ills in families, work groups, societies stem from badly handling these things. But tackling these things will help. And it is a learnable skill. One that needs to be practiced though.

It’s important to avoid the Fool’s Choice : the initial set of choices presented, with various bad outcomes, from these conversations. This is a result of not having a big enough pool of meaning in the conversation. This is the totality of understandings, opinions, choices, etc all participants agree on could be used. A good first step is to try to make this set as large as possible via properly handling the conversation. The book then focuses on various ways of doing this.

Unfortunately in any conversation, you can only work on yourself, not the other. Still, that’s enough to unblock many crucial conversations. Know what you want to achieve in the whole conversation. Not winning the conversation, but the goals you have, of which the conversation is a part of. You should focus on what you want for yourself, for the others, and for the relationship as a whole. It’s important to be holistic, because it’s rarely the case that a crucial conversation is the single interaction you’re having with someone.

If you’ve noticed the conversation has turned unsafe, how to turn it back to a safe one? Here are some tips and tricks:

  • You need to step out of the conversation. Stop talking about the particular topic, and talk about the conversation itself.
  • Establish that the others know you care about them and about the mutual purpose of the conversation
  • Use contrasting: explicitly state what you don’t mean or what you won’t want to happen
  • Try to get back to a mutual purpose: try to agree with the group on what the purpose of the convo is

A key element in your dealing with the conversation is your understanding of other’s motives and the stories you tell about them. This is things can definitely get messy.

  • If you’re in a situation where you’ve gone to the bad mode - either violence or silence
  • We tend to speak of others who we’re having a disagreement with as villains. Or at least we paint ourselves as victims. Or that we don’t have any other choice.
  • They are nice explanations, often matching the facts, which justify why we are acting a certain way (usually angry) in these situations.
  • They’re not helpful though, and it’s a good idea to recognise these things and try to get out of them.
  • Ask yourself again what would a reasonable person want here, what would you want here, and whether whatever it is you’re doing matches those thing?

How to state what you want to get out of the conversation in an effective manner?

  • Start by sharing your facts - these aren’t controversial in themselves.
  • Then tell your story - what conclusions you are drawing based on these facts.
  • But share this as a story - not a fact. See if others agree with it tentatively
  • Ask them to share their own stories

How to help others state what they want to get out of the conversation in an effective manner?

  • Ask them to share their story - what facts they see, and what conclusions they are drawing
  • Mirror and paraphrase - standard conversation and negociation “tactics”, to let the others know you understand them

How to get from the decision to action? There is a very nice chapter, which could very well be the seed of a stand-alone book on effective decision-making in groups. I found it quite the treat. Summarised:

  • There are four common ways to make a decision: command, consult, vote, consensus.
  • Command is when someone makes the decision and it’s done
  • Consult is when someone makes the decision, but first asks around to form the best decision
  • Vote is the majority vote, usually all options are decent here, but some notion of agreement is needed
  • Consensus is when you need to get everyone to agree
  • Up/down the criticallity of the decision increases. Some things are urgent and need to be decided pronto, usually on CoC, but for some other things you need buy in, and context propagation, etc
  • Four questions:
    • Who cares? who cares about the decision, who will be affected, who wants to be informed/involved
    • Who knows? who has the domain expertise to contribute
    • Who must agree? Who ware the stakeholders, or people who need to cooperate on the decision
    • How many people to involve? As few as possible keeping in mind all constraints
  • After a decision is made, you must put it in action
    • Who, does what, by when, (and how), and who will follow up?
  • Document the decision somehow so that there’s an artefact left from this.

There you go. This is how much I was able to extract from the book. Quite impressive!

There’s some things I didn’t like about the book. Chiefly I didn’t care for all the acronyms, backronyms and mnemonic devices the book used - start with heart, STATE my path, ABCs, AMPP, etc. It’s a side-effect of having so many things to share. But it felt like the book was “trying too much”. A small thing in the end and I’d definitely recommend giving it a try!