For our January Book club session we read Crucial Conversations. I was first exposed to this book over a decade ago as part of a training session on communication skills at Synopsys, but it was good to revisit it since I find what you take away from this book often depends on what you are dealing with when you are reading it. Since I already had the book from my previous session, I re-read the first edition, which has mostly US-based examples, and a lot of recommendations about in-person communication for the most important discussions. My understanding is that they have added content around different cultural backgrounds and remote work conditions in subsequent editions, so I’d highly recommend editions 3+. That being said, fundamentally the skills are the same: recognize when you are being triggered, ask yourself questions to help transition into an intellectual place vs. a reactionary one, and don’t get caught in a silence or violence cycle. To stay in dialogue you need to maintain psychological safety: you have to focus on what you want to get out of the discussion and use techniques to get back on track (if you see negative reactions, try apologizing for making the other person feel unsafe, use contrasting techniques to help them understand what you were trying to say vs. what they seem to have reacted to, establish mutual purpose for the discussion, etc.) I think the value of the newer editions is really around sensitizing yourself to reading queues of others who are not the same as you. Obviously techniques differ based on the medium of interactions as well as cultural backgrounds, so keeping that in mind is incredibly helpful.
On the Crucial Conversations website there are seminars as well, and of course experiencing this as a class with a cohort is probably the most ideal methodology to practice the teachings. Reading is great, but we learn through application, so especially if this is one’s first exposure to these approaches, a class would be great.
My biggest personal takeaways from the book were:
- Beware the stories you tell yourself. Start with “why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act in this way?” This question helps me understand what stories I am telling myself vs. focusing on the facts. We often observe an action and assume a meaning, but in reality there are other interpretations of a person’s actions. Rather than reacting to my story, start by questioning why a person has entered an agitated state, or why you yourself are getting agitated. If you figure out how things went off track, then you can try to reset. If you get caught up in your own reaction, you cannot reestablish trust and safety.
- Engage in active listening–make sure I am hearing their words vs. thinking of my response. If you were clear on the goal of the meeting before the session, then the most important part of the discussion is listening to the questions, concerns, data and insights from the other parties. If you are thinking through your response or rebuttal, you are not actually listening. Never forget the goal is connection and dialogue, not a pithy response.
- Seek input. Especially in positions of authority, don’t speak in absolutes, which will hinder those who are more hierarchical in their disposition/culture to engage and lead to withdrawal from dialogue. As a leader, offering your opinion first almost inevitably sends the message that the decision is made, and really why are you coming to the team if that is the case? Sometimes tops-down decisions have to be made (and if that is the case, then document why the decision was made that way and don’t waste folks’ time), but if the goal is to get alignment with other stakeholders or solve a tricky problem where you do not know all of the challenges or risks, then seek input first and foremost.
I highly recommend this book, as much for discussions at home with your family as with your coworkers. When I first read this book, I was not yet a parent, and this time around I found many of the examples I thought through in my head were with respect to negotiations with my children than with my coworkers. Ultimately, when we assume the good intentions of the people around us, and show up with an open mind, we all can accomplish so much more. Happy Reading!
Our next book for book club is Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry, which really is an acknowledgement of the times we are in, and how we manage ourselves, inspire others, and keep moving forward in times of uncertainty. I hope you will join us.