Crucial Conversations – A Book I Should Have Read Twenty Years Ago

Crucial Conversations – A Book I Should Have Read Twenty Years Ago

I read a great book recently. I probably should have read it twenty years ago, but they say it’s never too late, right? “Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.” It’s near the top of my recommend list, and here’s why.

It seems the older I get the more I need to apologize. Not necessarily because I’ve done something “wrong” but because I’ve misunderstood people or situations, acted on assumptions and my own understanding. Waged war against the wrong enemy, or when there was no enemy at all. And, why? Someone’s gotta lead the charge, right? Right?!?!

“At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations—ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well.” I underlined that quote (among others) as I read the book. It rings loudly true in my life, and particularly in the workplace.

Our workplaces and our lives are filled with crucial conversations. Conversations of how to spend money, how to spend time, what you did and how it affected other people. Some of these conversations blow up and some blow over. You’ve had them. I’ve had them. And, in retrospect, we think that if we could have just made it through that conversation better, then things would have worked out.

As a leader, and an entrepreneur I tend to be highly emotional inside. I studied theater in college, and so I understand communicating with intensity. I’m a stubborn guy and am pretty in love with my view of the world, so I tend to need a real knock on the head to get me to see what’s really going on. Add to the mix the feeling that a decision needs to be made, and I’m likely to be found pressing my agenda forward.

Because I think that my view of the world is probably right, I also think that if you could see it clearly then you’d agree. So, I spend a good deal of time trying to convince you and everyone else of my viewpoint.

Only, I know deep down that my view of a situation is not the only correct view, and there are times when pushing an agenda when no one agrees is a terribly bad idea. I’ve been married for nearly eighteen years, and I have three children and a few close relationships that are reminders of that. The book Crucial Conversations gave me some language to describe and understand what goes on in pivotal moments of working something through with someone else.

The most important takeaway from the book was the pool of shared meaning. Imagine that the reality of any given situation is held collectively by all parties involved. Perhaps they are individual stakeholders. How do these individuals go about sharing their perceptions, feelings, needs and desires, and come to a resolution, all while preserving relationships?

If you’ve ever tried to do that, you know how hard it is. So, how can we make decisions, based on information, while not getting so emotionally charged that we shut other people down, or cause broken relationships?

The first helpful thing to discovering a path to understanding and a decision is to find out what each viewpoint is and add it to the pool of shared meaning. How can you best understand a situation? Add all the viewpoints. How can you make a decision that meets the most needs? Add all the needs.

It is this adding process that is the magic. When’s the last time you detached yourself enough from your own opinion that you could hear someone else’s’. For me, that has always been a difficult thing to do. I want so desperately to make sure you understand me, that I can’t shut up enough to understand you.

Sound familiar? I think most of us deal with this. And, the longer time you’ve spent in charge of something, or the more decisions that need to be made, the more accustomed we become to charging forward instead of listening first. But the great leaders know how to listen first. Oh, if it were only that easy…

What would happen if we, as a leader, instead of communicating out of our own thoughts first, gathered others’ input? What if we first encouraged those around us, who believe in us, to add their thoughts to the pool. What if then, and only then, we formed our opinion or decision? What would be the risk?

A final decision, the pathway forward, can be found only by first adding each option to the pool of shared meaning, and then crafting a decision by taking from the pool.

It’s an extremely simple and practical explanation for one of life’s greatest challenges – communicating when the stakes are high and emotions run deep.

I’m rather convinced that my listening skills could use some great improvement. I don’t think there’s anyone in my inner circle that would tell me I’m a good listener. And, if I’m not a good listener, I wonder how much meaning I’m hearing from others? And, if I’m not hearing their meaning, how can I truly act for the good of those around me?

I’m reminded of a book I read years ago called “How to Speak, How to Listen” by Mortimer J. Adler. I should probably re-read that, too.