I once asked someone I respect a great deal, “Do you think you’ve been so successful in your career because you are a good communicator?”
This person replied, “Tiffany, that is the only reason I’ve been successful.”
Now, this person also happens to be a hard worker and whip smart. I’m sure those attributes helped as well. However, the conversation stuck with me through the years. I’ve observed that those who are successful in all realms of life, from their careers to their family relationships, are all excellent communicators.
I recently read “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. The book has become a standard textbook for many graduate-level degrees, from business to education. Really, though, it’s a textbook for all relationships.
The authors define crucial conversations as interactions that happen when “stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions start to run strong.” Sound familiar? If you’re a parent, a teacher, a civic leader, a husband, a daughter, a boss or a human being who makes a point of talking with others, you know that crucial conversations happen with great frequency, often on a daily basis. (Especially if you have a teenager!)
Crucial conversations are not about persuasiveness. This isn’t “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” This is, as the authors write, about coming to a shared pool of meaning, an outcome where both parties feel they’ve been heard and valued.
Most people, when faced with the conditions ripe for a crucial conversation, fall into two patterns. They either lash out in harsh, unfiltered words (the truth!) or they retreat into bitter silence. The authors refer to these two modes as the fool’s choice, and they debunk the idea that these are the only reactions available in tense moments.
Breaking out of the fool’s choice pattern begins with asking yourself a series of questions: What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? What do I really want for this relationship?
Most of us want the same or similar outcomes, even if our method for getting there is different.
Once we’ve homed in on our desired outcome, the next step is to make the conversation safe. You probably know people with whom you can have open, candid conversations. When they sense your frustration, they take a step back. They assure you that they are working toward a common goal.
Thirdly, you own your story. We all have stories we tell ourselves when we’re frustrated or angry. Usually they have to do with how another person made us feel. For example, “He made me angry” or “You broke my heart.”
As the authors point out, we hold the reins to our own feelings. Because of this, we can change the story. We can choose not to get angry, sad or frustrated. When we own our stories, we choose how to react.
Fresh off of reading this book, I found myself having a crucial conversation with one of my sons. He had done something at school that disappointed both his teacher and me. I saw that in order for him to learn from his actions, he needed a fairly severe consequence.
Drawing on what I had learned in “Crucial Conversations,” I thought beforehand about what I wanted out of our exchange. I realized I wanted my son to understand my disappointment and know that the punishment for his actions was motivated by love.
I began our conversation by explaining these things. I told him that respect comes from obedience. As we talked, I dove into deeper issues, fundamental choices my son was making on a daily basis that would set him up for either success or failure.
By the time I laid out the consequence, my son understood. It didn’t make the consequence easy (consequences rarely are), but it certainly made it easier. More importantly, there were no harsh words, no raised voices and no misaligned motives.
We came out of our conversation stronger than before, and we both learned a few things along the way.
Since reading “Crucial Conversations,” I find myself consciously employing the techniques in numerous situations: in a director hire for our charter school, in exchanges about difficult family topics and even in a recent meeting with a real estate agent.
I heard it said once that you only take two things from this mortal life: your relationship with God and your relationship with others.
We practice the first through prayer, study and a lifetime of devoted service.
We practice the latter through practicing meaningful dialogue, drawing upon the tools that bring us together not just at the most crucial times, but always.