With seven children in the house, a wife, and people I work with, it feels like I move from one crucial conversation to another. It feels like I move from one conversation that is important to my relationship with someone to the next one. Certainly I’m no stranger to looking for skills to improve my communication and relationship with others (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, How to Be an Adult in Relationships, The Science of Trust, etc.), however, I felt like Crucial Conversations would offer a different perspective. I felt like it might be a good capstone for some of my research on how to manage difficult conversations. It didn’t disappoint.
Truth and Love
For me the heart of Crucial Conversations is the idea that you need to speak your truth in love. That is you have to be open and share your perception of reality with everyone at the table but you have to do so in a way that recognizes and respects the other people at the table and that their perspectives and values may be different.
I’ve spoken about truth – and the fact that it’s our truth not a universal truth – in my reviews of Beyond Boundaries, How to Be an Adult in Relationships, and Changes that Heal. Nearly every time truth comes up it’s balanced by grace or love. That is truth is a cold harsh reality that we can’t always handle. If we give folks pure truth, their ego defenses are likely to kick in and protect them – because they can’t handle the truth. (See Defensive Routines and my review of Change or Die.) At least most folks can’t handle the truth without love.
Owning Our Problems
Certainly there are situations that we didn’t create and we didn’t control. For me the most obvious example is the death of my brother. I had no control over that event – and no influence. However, most of our general circumstances and most of our problems have some component that we’ve created. If you’ve got a strained relationship with your children you own the times that you made a cutting comment. (I’ve made them too.) If you’re struggling financially it can certainly be that you were burdened with something that was your fault. It’s also possible that you decided that you had to have the latest car, iPhone, or handbag. Even a few of these indulgences or necessary status symbols can create a drain on your financial resources that have left you with challenges.
Consider for a moment what would happen to your finances each month if you didn’t have a house payment or a car payment. Most folks in the US have both a house payment and one or two car payments. These expenses represent a large amount of income. What if you could get to the point you could buy cars with cash and eventually pay off your mortgage. So sometimes our financial problems are problems of our own making.
In the context of relationships rarely are our hands truly clean. We roll our eyes at someone, treat them disrespectfully, or ignore them and later wonder why they treat us with hostility. It’s much more productive for us to realize that the only people that we can change are ourselves. We can’t change others. We can only reliably change our behaviors. If we get a different result from others, great.
We have to sweep our side of the street and get it truly clean before we can look across the street and complain at our neighbor not keeping their side of the street clean. (Here’s a secret we never really finish cleaning our side of the street so we can never get to the point of pointing out how dirty the other side is.)
The north start, Polaris, is a constant reference point for us here on earth. Unlike the other stars in the sky which seem to move constantly, Polaris maintains the appearance of being constant. This fixed point is useful as we’re trying to navigate the world and navigate conversations. Without some fixed point of reference it’s very easy to wander through crucial conversations never knowing where to go next.
For us the north star are the answers to questions like “Who do you want to be?” This question can be expressed multiple ways. Perhaps the most humorous draws from old Tombstone pizza commercials where gunslingers in the old west would ask “What do you want on your tombstone?” – of course, they were talking about pizza but the somewhat morbid question is a great one. Said differently, what do you want someone to say at your eulogy? As morbid as this sounds it’s a fixed question. You know there will be nothing else that you can do. What legacy do you want to leave?
Another slightly less morbid line of thinking is to ask “What do you want?” Though it’s easy enough to answer with platitudes (See Nine Keys to SharePoint Success and The Fifth Discipline) of happiness, wealth, etc. it is a question with merit. It’s a question that when answered can help you know where you’re going and what you want to do with your life – besides live and die.
The Importance of Safety
I’ve spoken before of the importance of feeling safe. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, How Children Succeed, and Discussion and Dialog.) We will ensure our own safety – or at least the feeling of safety – in our communications with others. We’ll draw that safety from our own inner sense of security or from the true sense of safety in the conversation. It’s that safety that will allow you to be vulnerable.
One of the challenges when working with others is being able to see the positive qualities they bring to the conversation. When someone speaks in a language that is different than ours we often struggle to acknowledge their point. In the book Dialogue, we learned about three ways of conversing – about feeling, meaning, and power. When someone is concerned about forward progress (power) and another person is interested in the feelings of the parties, it will be hard to find common ground.
In an old story blind men come upon an elephant and each of them touches a different part and therefore each of them describes the elephant differently. One touched the tail and said it was like a rope, another the leg and said it was like a pillar, another the ear and said it was like a fan, another touched the belly and described it as a wall, and finally one touched the tusk and described it as a solid pipe. None of the descriptions is adequate to describe the elephant, however, each of them has a bit of truth to their description. The different parts of the elephant are like this. The problem is that none of their perspectives is complete.
In some versions of the story the blind men collaborate to build a complete picture of the elephant, in others they’re told that they’re all partially right but also wholly wrong. The point is that you have to maintain respect for others perspectives because they may just be “seeing” something that you’re not.
Look Higher for Common Ground
One way to encourage dialogue is to seek a place where the goals are in alignment and go from there. If you’re in a meeting with a sales team and a delivery team finding common ground may be hard to do. The sales team is looking for something they can sell to the client. The delivery team is looking for something they can deliver. In these specific goals there may not be common ground.
However, both groups want the customer to be happy. Both groups want the organization to make money so that they’ll have the potential to keep their jobs. When viewed at a macro level, there is no common ground but when you move to higher purposes – or look at the perspectives from a longer distance you’ll see that ultimately both groups do want the same thing – even if their paths to the goal are different.
Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories
Much of the way that we experience the world isn’t reality. Just like the blind men and the elephant, we don’t individually see the same perspective. We don’t see the same reality until we get our stories together. Sometimes, however, we don’t tell helpful stories. Sometimes, instead, we tell stories that make it harder for us to move forward (See Mindset for more about how we can get stuck into fixed thinking).
The first story that we tell ourselves is that we’re a victim – or more accurately an innocent victim. We say that the universe has done us wrong and we deserve better – we’re entitled to something better. (See Anatomy of Peace for more about the entitlement box.) In truth we’re rarely a complete victim. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more about not putting ourselves into bad situations.)
The second story is a classic hero and villain story. In our stories we are, of course, the heros but that’s not the focus. The focus is on the dastardly villain. The story lays out why someone else is being mean to us. Fundamental attribution error leads us to believe that our mistakes are based on circumstances but that those of another person are about their character. (For more about fundamental attribution error see The Advantage, Switch, and Beyond Boundaries.)
The final story is the story of the helpless. There’s nothing that little ole me can do about the problem. In The Time Paradox this is a fatalistic perspective. My favorite quote about this is one from Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Of course, you can argue that you’re not a small group – so go find your group.
These stories only serve to destroy dialogue and to make it more difficult to have crucial conversations.
Having several children it’s easy to get a playground to test how to make a conversation go well or go poorly. There’s always an opportunity to test how the startup of a conversation leads to an outcome. (See The Science of Trust for more about soft-startup.)
The truth is that in most cases the startup of the conversation has a significant influence on the outcome. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on the impact of setup.) When I approach one of the children with humility and apologize about something that I’ve done to offend them, we have better results – they’re more interested in being open. I see this in all sorts of conversations. If I open a conversation revealing my true feelings the results are almost universally better.
Consider me telling someone that I’m excited for Christmas – that I’m looking forward to seeing the kids faces as they open gifts. That’s certainly true, however, it’s also not very revealing. It’s something everyone will say about entering Christmas. A deeper response – one that would open up the others I’m speaking with – is that I have trepidations because I don’t know whether all of my family members will behave. I’m anxious because I’m afraid that I’ve forgotten to get a gift for one of my nieces or nephews. Those are not predictable responses and they’re very real.
The more you’re able to prime the conversation with reality – with how you’re really feeling – and with admissions of wrong doing the better the results will be.
Empathy for How Someone Feels
Sometimes it helps to acknowledge how the other person feels – even if you don’t believe that the feeling is justifiable or that you caused it. In truth, you can’t cause a feeling in someone else. They choose to have a feeling. You can create a set of conditions that might reasonably lead to it – but that doesn’t make them feel a certain way. I can feel sympathy for their unpleasant feelings even if I don’t accept that I caused them.
I’m not suggesting that I can abdicate my responsibility to be in relationship with them. Instead, I’m saying that you can empathize with them without accepting guilt. (See Daring Greatly for more on guilt and shame and Boundaries about accepting responsibility.) Consider the pain that my son feels when I have a nurse administer a flu vaccine. Am I sorry that I had the nurse do it? No. Am I sorry that it had some level of pain associated with it? Absolutely.
How Decisions Are Made
Fundamentally there are four ways that decisions are made. They are:
- Command – A proclamation is made by the leader and everyone ostensibly follows the decision.
- Consult – Ultimately the leader makes the decision as in a Command type decision but in this case the leader surveys for opinions.
- Vote – In this case a vote is taken with the stakeholders (however that is defined) and the results of the vote is the decision – even though not everyone agreed with it.
- Consensus – Discussion or dialogue continues until every stakeholder can defend the decision. This is by far the most difficult approach to reaching a decision.
One could easily conclude that the best answer to how to make decisions is to build consensus, however, this isn’t necessarily the best approach. Anyone who has tried to reach a consensus for where to take a group out to lunch will tell you that sometimes getting consensus just isn’t worth the effort. That’s why we often settle for voting – because getting consensus is to lofty a goal to expect in every situation.
The book uses the title conversations but the ultimate goal of conversations is to enter into a dialogue. That is, the goal is to enter into an open and safe conversation that makes allowance for everyone’s perspective, talents, and benefits. You can find more about dialogue in my book review of the book review of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together.
Whether you’re willing and able to have dialogues with everyone you meet, there are some useful skills that you can learn by reading Crucial Conversations.