September 28th, 2017

Kerry Patterson on Tackling Crucial Conversations

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Crucial conversations happen when the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. These conversations can happen anywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom and can happen between any two people.

Crucial conversations are sensitive for everyone involved, and people usually respond to them in one of three ways:

  1. We avoid the problem
  2. Face it head-on but handle it poorly
  3. Face it head-on and handle it with compassion and care.

The more crucial the conversation, however, the less likely we are to handle it well. We often hold in our frustrations until we can’t take them anymore, then explode. In other words, we shift between silence and violence. Crucial conversations can shape the outcome of our relationships, careers, and even our health; learning how to deal with them effectively is a must.

Open, honest dialogue is the key to a healthy crucial conversation

The authors explain that at the center of every conversation is a Pool of Shared Meaning, which holds all the openly shared ideas, feelings, and thoughts of people. The larger this pool is, the easier it is to make decisions and achieve results of which everyone will approve.

To keep this pool as large as possible, everyone needs to contribute openly and honestly to the dialogue. This most importantly includes ourselves! We can’t control the thoughts, feelings, or actions of other people. We can, however, control how we’ll behave during a dialogue. Examining our own role in a conversation, and whether we’re adding to the pool or shrinking it, keeps the lines of communication open. That makes it easier for everyone to feel they can contribute safely.

It’s equally important to focus on the thoughts and feelings of other people involved. Everyone should feel safe to contribute honestly to a dialogue. We can achieve this by making sure the other person knows that we care about their best interests, goals, and them as a person, but also by speaking honestly without offending. The authors provide the acronym STATE for guidance: Share the facts, Tell your story (or your interpretation of the facts), Ask for the other person’s story, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing to reach a shared meaning to the facts, which in turn forms a solid base on which actions can be taken.

Once shared meaning has been achieved, the next step is to take meaningful action to improve the situation at hand. There are many ways to decide how to act, but to pick the best route, be sure to involve only those who can help make better quality decisions, or those who are most affected by those decisions, and leave out people who either don’t care or have nothing of value to add. Following up afterward is also vital; action demands accountability.

The Takeaway

Crucial conversations are unavoidable and difficult, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive. Time spent upfront gaining clarity and coming to an agreement will save time later while also avoiding the silence and violence “games” people play when tensions are running high.