Reviewed in the United States on March 31, 2013
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
The main premise of this book is that when conversations are most import, we typically perform our worst. Patterson characterizes these situations as those in which opinions vary, stakes are high, emotions run strong, and the outcomes will likely have a significant impact on our life. The tendency may be to either avoid these conversations all together, or when engaged in them, whether premeditatedly or by chance, we may not perform nearly as well as we would like. This is because of a genetic predisposition toward fight or flight, which in situations of stress or conflict, stimulates the production of adrenaline, thereby decreasing the critical reasoning functions of the brain. In order to more effectively deal with situations like these, Patterson lays out several methods for helping to control emotion and adrenaline, and tools for critically evaluating the situation and achieving desired outcomes.
It is no surprise that self-awareness - a concept that is echoed throughout negotiation and mediation strategy - is a central tenant of Patterson's tools for talking. Learn to Look, Patterson's multi-faceted take on self-awareness, plays a role in multiple principles in the book, including: knowing when a crucial conversation is taking place; understanding yourself and the emotional or physical cues that signal you may feel threatened or stressed; and noticing signals from the other party that they do not feel safe.
Another recurring theme in the book is Make It Safe, the idea that productive dialogue is predicated on the free flow of information between parties, which cannot occur if any of the parties feel threatened. The underlying premise is that when people feel safe to have open dialogue without fear of judgment or reproach, conversations become far more productive. This free flow of information contributes to what Patterson terms the Pool of Shared Meaning, which becomes filled with each parties opinions and experiences, which in turn contributes to a more robust, mutually beneficial solution to the issue at hand. Blame, fault, and the idea of "winning" are all part of a zero sum approach to dialogue, and it is only when people feel safe and confident in discussing their true ideas and feelings that dialogue can become integrative.
Among other tools, Patterson provides steps (conveniently packaged in the acronym STATE) to deal with crucial conversations. First, Share your facts. Conversations that are grounded in fact are more persuasive, tend to be less controversial, and provide a foundation for moving into more delicate dialogue. Tell your story. Through honesty, humility, and confidence, you tell the story that needs to be told to get the crucial information across. Ask for others' paths. At this point, we invite the other party to share his/her story in order to better understand his/her point of view. In order to create and maintain safety for both parties, it is important to Talk tentatively; avoiding hyperbole, acknowledging the existence of differing opinions, and generally tempering confidence with humility is the goal of this step. Finally, Encourage testing by honestly inviting and being open to opposing views. This final step results in productive dialogue, as opposed to a lecture or debate.
Patterson presents several useful tools akin to STATE throughout the book that provide a foundation for navigating the myriad crucial conversations encountered in both personal and professional life.
While the techniques in this book are applicable to aspects of mediation, negotiation and cross-cultural communication, there is especial relevance to mediation. In fact, Patterson's tools for successfully dealing with crucial conversations closely mirror the five stages of mediation. According to Friedman and Himmelstein, the five stages of mediation include: 1) Contracting, in which the approach and process is clarified; 2) Defining the Problem; 3) Working Through the Conflict; 4) Developing and Evaluating Options; and 5) Reaching Agreement.
Vis-à-vis Crucial Conversations, Contracting and Defining the Problem are analogous to Patterson's principle, "Start with Heart." During this phase, the problem is both defined through a series of introspective questions aimed at clarifying desired results, as well as the process identified through the beginning stages of the STATE principle, explained above. Working Through Conflict is reflected in Patterson's principles of Look to Learn and Make It Safe, in which mindfulness and self-awareness play an active role in tempering potentially heated conversations, bringing them back to a safe place in order for all parties to contribute their opinions, which in turn leads to a more robust pool of possible solutions. Developing and Evaluating Options is akin to Patterson's Explore Others' Path, during which the other parties are encouraged to explore and share not just their goals, but the purpose behind those goals. In situations where parties are at odds, this step is crucial: moving further up the thought process toward motivations and goals gets away from specific outcomes that may be exclusive of other parties' goals. Finally, Reaching Agreement is analogous to Patterson's Move to Action, during which decisions are finalized as well as expectations agreed upon for how the consensus will be enacted.
Although there are stark similarities between the tools presented in Crucial Conversations and mediation techniques, commonalities are also found in negotiation. In fact, it is Patterson's main contention that crucial conversations are zero-sum, distributive conversations by nature. It is only through conscious effort that they may be turned into integrative dialogue that allows both parties to contribute to the outcome, which has the added benefit of helping preserve the relationship as well.
Additional commonalities are also seen in the idea of mindfulness in cross-cultural communication, as well as self-awareness that increases emotional intelligence. A thorough read of crucial conversations will yield techniques that may be utilized in a number of personal and professional areas.
The methods described herein have incredible utility; these "crucial conversations" occur in all aspects of personal and professional life, and effectively handling and addressing these conversations can yield positive results in all aspects of life. Patterson provides ample real-life examples to illustrate these concepts and takes them out of the abstract. Certainly, it is a lot of information to digest, and putting it into use during circumstances that aren't always foreseen seems even more daunting. But Patterson provides some easy cues for remembering the core principles of the book and suggests that improvement comes incrementally through simple awareness during dialogue.