Crucial Conversations

“Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer. New York: McGraw Hill : 2012. 244 pp. Available as an ACPL Book Club Kit in January 2021.

What is a crucial conversation? The authors define it as a discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, there are opposing opinions, and strong emotions. This definition can encompass everything from having to give a difficult performance review to arguments with your spouse over whose turn it is to buy milk. What makes the conversation crucial is the emotion – not necessarily the subject.

Do you have a crucial conversation you have been avoiding? Or have you ever been blindsided by a family member or supervisor at work with one? The tools given in this book will help you navigate a path through these situations. The first step is examining your own motives. Do you want to be right or do you want to be understood? Are you really interested in hearing what the other person has to say, or do you just want to make a pronouncement? By stepping back and asking yourself if what you really want from the conversation is to increase understanding between all parties involved, you can use these tools to open up opportunities for that to happen.

The information and techniques in this book can truly be life changing. The authors utilize stories, both fictional and from participants in workshops and counseling sessions, to illustrate how the techniques work. They illustrate relatable situations where individuals move to violence (attacking the other person verbally) or silence when they feel unsafe, and recommend that people recognize this and act to reestablish safety for both parties when a conversation becomes crucial. Tips for how to do this are outlined thoroughly.

What about when you are feeling unsafe? The authors talk about the ability we all have to create a story to explain facts that are unusual or unsettling. These stories can lead to highly-charged emotions which can derail any attempts to understand the other person. The authors believe that learning to recognize when one is caught in the grip of these stories can help, and going back to the facts and addressing those without the story attached can keep understanding flowing. This is a powerful tool for stepping out of your emotion and engaging in dialogue with another.

The book covers more ground, giving advice for how to speak persuasively, how to listen to what others are saying when they have gone to silence or violence, and how to deal with people who you feel will never change. The chapter titled “Move to Action“ is particularly useful for supervisors and managers, who often have to have crucial conversations with their direct reports.

The accessible writing style and numerous stories illustrate the concepts of the book clearly and effectively. Anyone who values communication and wishes to both understand and be understood when the stakes are high will benefit from reading this book. Highly recommended for organizational development reading.

Deana Cunningham is the Associate Director of Operations at ACPL. She can be reached at dcunningham@alamancelibraries.org.