“Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking when Stakes are High” by Kerry Patterson delves into a world of high stakes conversations bringing to the readers attention assumptions and narratives that often drive not only our engagement into situations but also our reactions within situations.
A conversation tips into the crucial when two or more people are engaged in high stake, opinionated and emotionally taxing conversation. According to Patterson people respond to these critical situations in one of three ways: avoidance, face the issue and handle it poorly, or face the issue and handle it well. Throughout the remainder of the post I will discuss influences, areas of focus and ways to combat our hardwired reactions.
One of the first steps in reducing the negative impact crucial conversations can have on our relationships is create a shared understanding of the context definition rooted in the act of conversation… dialogue. Patterson defines dialogue as the free flow meaning between two or more individuals (Patterson, p.44) and within this dialogue there lies the potential for conflict. More often than not people tend to avoid stressful conversations, however; no solutions nor growth can be derived from a lack of conversation. In chapter 3 Patterson posits that individuals who excel during high stakes conversations are those who start with heart (Patterson, p.54). Starting with heart requires an individual to be self reflective and examine the motivations they bring to the conversation as they work to remain focused on the facts of the conversation no matter the emerging increases to stress levels. Within this reflection and focused approach participants in the conversation must stay clear from making a suckers choice (Patterson, p. 54).
A Suckers Choice is a limitation of action as imposed upon by the individual narrowing one’s thoughts to winning or losing, or the either or choice. In order to avoid the suckers choice one must clarify what one wants and does not want to be able to find the pathway back to dialogue. More often than not individuals make a suckers choice when a quick easy descison with high emotional connections is made. When all parties needs are not taken into consideration the intellectual and emotional safety of the participants is compromised. If during a conversation a person believes their safety has been compromised their reactions may manifest in several ways with the first being silence. “Silence consists of any act to purposefully withhold information from the pool of meaning. It’s almost always done as a means of avoiding potential problems, and it always restricts the flow of meaning” (Patterson p. 75). The second tactic a person may employ is masking. “Masking consists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions” (Patterson p. 75). Masking can be delivered via sarcasm, sugarcoating or couching. Thirdly a person may simply avoid the situation or other party altogether thereby never having to address the issue. Finally a person may opt out of the conversation and exit the conversation or the room itself.
One can see that feelings of safety are essential to discussions, however; as safety is compromised and people move to silence others are compelled to cognitive violence. “Violence consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view. It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool” (Patterson p. 77). Individuals may engage in conversational violence via actions of controlling the tempo and flow of the conversation, labelling the other party as a means of dismissal, or a person will approach others by attacking with the intent to belittle and/or threaten the other person into agreement.
Becoming a vigilant self-monitor is key to breaking the silence or violence reaction in crucial conversations. Individuals are pre loaded with emotional reactions and unless one takes the time to reflect on what triggers this default reaction one may never be able to restructure their response. Pausing during the conversation and taking a moment to be aware of one’s emotional state is essential as it can allow a person time to refocus and scan the conversation for mutual purpose in an attempt to further dialogue. Mutual purpose is simply the common goal of all parties involved and the investment they carry into the outcome of the decision. Through sharing a mutual purpose tension in dialogue may be reduced as all parties are invested in success. While engaged in establishing or reestablishing mutual purpose one should always make sure that the other party knows that their concerns are being acknowledged and no hidden motives underlie the decision. Patterson suggests employing the CRIB strategy: Commit to seek mutual purpose, Recognize the purpose behind the strategy, Invent a mutual purpose if one is not currently present in the dialogue, and Brainstorm new strategies.
Patterson also suggests to utilize in concurrence with CRIB a listening strategy of Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, and Prime or AMPP to ensure individuals stories, a person’s narrative which drives their reactions, do not break down dialogue. When individuals Ask they should be looking to see if they understand the context of the other person as it has been presented as this is where mirroring comes in to help a person truly understand the other’s point of view or concern. As a means to further the dialogue within the mutual purpose framework paraphrasing is essential as it allows for the generation of continuity in the conversation. Finally with all other connectivity elements in place it is time to prime the conversation with mutual purpose as an endpoint to achieve the shared goal of all parties.
It is also important to establish clear decision making policies. Patterson cites four ways decisions can be made: command, consult, vote and consensus. All of these pathways reflect the level of involvement of parties connected to the issue or concern in discussion. Each of the decision making approaches carry with them benefits and detriments to the decision making process. It is important to choose which individual or combination of approaches best suits the situation. Command in decision making reflects the least amount of contribution from third party stakeholders and has its place in the deployment of initiative or problem solving. One must take into account the greater the pool of contributions via consultation or voting the longer the decision making process may take and comprises from both sides are an essential element. Consensus contains the most involved dynamics in crucial conversation. Consensus is going to be more laborious in time dedicated to sharing concerns and establishing mutual purpose and the possibility that this in turn may generate more crucial conversations is an element to be aware of.
We all have the ability to keep our emotions in check when stakes are high and chemicals start to run our thoughts as it takes effort and commitment to understanding roles, purpose, expected outcomes and group dynamics that work in times of easier decisions and especially during more difficult decision events. Always remember you have the ability to effect any discussion in a positive way and help stakeholders reach mutually beneficial results.