Difficult conversations are, well, difficult. When the buck stops with you, though, you can’t really delegate those tough conversations to someone else. A book that has really helped me is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, et al.
Crucial Conversations presents seven key points to be aware of, consider, and do when you have to have a tough discussion. I took a previous conversation as an example to lead myself through the book, applying each step as I went along. It made me think about how that past conversation maybe didn’t go so well, and I was able to apply the seven key points to imagine how it could have gone better. This made the book more concrete for me, and easier to apply the steps in future conversations.
- Start with Heart – Focus on what you really want from the conversation, whether it’s for yourself, for them, for your organization. Take a step outside of yourself and examine your actions–do they convey what you want, and if not, think about how someone would behave if they really wanted that thing, and alter your actions so that your actions reflect your heart. Think ahead about how can you ensure that everyone in the conversation feels “safe,” that is, not threatened or stressed (fight-or-flight).
- Learn to Look – Pay attention to the point where the conversation turns crucial. What are your physical, mental, and emotional signs that you are getting stressed? What are the signs in the other person–body language, breathing, expressions, tone, words–that indicate that they are feeling threatened, challenged, or otherwise not safe in the conversation?
- Make It Safe – When tempers flare, when people’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, a leader has to regain composure and model behaviors to bring everyone back to a safe place. Apologize when it is appropriate (“I’m sorry that my comment has upset you”). Use contrasting statements to clear up misunderstandings; start with what you don’t want (“I don’t want you to think that I dismiss your value to the library”), say what you do think (“I think your ideas on improving our shelving process are very good”), and then pivot back to the topic (“However, putting those changes in place without checking with me is an issue I’d like us to talk about”). The authors also use a strategy called “CRIB” to get mutual agreement, mutual respect, and return to a sense of “safety”–you’ll have to read the book!
- Master Your Stories – Ask yourself what your story is, and what your role in the solution could be. Think about what a reasonable, rational person would do to help you figure out what to do right now, in the conversation, to move toward what you really want. Then tell that story.
- State Your Path – STATE stands for a) Share your facts, b) Tell your story, c) Ask for others’ paths, d) Talk tentatively, and e) Encourage testing. This method helps you stay focused on the real issue, and test whether you truly are open to other people’s views and ideas.
- Explore Others’ Paths – Actively engage in a discussion of other people’s ideas. Ask them questions; mirror their responses and gestures back to them to establish commonality; paraphrase their statements and ideas; prime them to think about consequences, next steps, and actions; and review points of agreement.
- Move to Action – Once you know what you agree on, don’t leave the meeting without assigning actions. Even if you don’t have all of the decisions made, review who will do what next, who will follow up, and when you will meet again.
I have used the techniques from this book in both my personal life and at work. When I had to take up a collection among my siblings for my father’s retirement party, Crucial Conversations helped me frame my “You are notorious for leaving me in the lurch! Pay up in advance or else” concern into a talk that left us all feeling respected (the party was lovely, thank you for asking). I’ve told a smelly patron that he had to leave the building and could only come back after he’d addressed his body odor. He came back in the following week, girlfriend(!) in tow, and they both thanked me–she thanked me because I was able to get him to shower when her pleas were ignored, and he thanked me for giving him a wake-up call while still treating him with respect (No kidding, he actually said “You treated me with respect when you kicked me out”).
I am the kind of librarian who considers all the libraries everywhere to be my library, so I don’t own a lot of books. But I found myself referring to Crucial Conversations so often that I bought my own copy–that is how valuable I find it. I hope that you will find it valuable, too.