“The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place”
That quote by George Bernard Shaw aptly sums up an experience many of us have faced when we try to communicate with others. In fact, research by Vital Smarts suggests that 70% of people choose to avoid difficult conversations and over 50% have held on to these concerns for over a year without speaking up!
We can all appreciate the value of communication. However, outside of a general communications class most of us took as a college course requirement, few of us take the time to learn how to improve our communication skills.
In their book entitled “Crucial Conversations” authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler start by defining crucial conversations as any conversation in which opinions vary, the stakes are high and emotions run strong.
The following are examples of crucial conversations that take place on any given day:
As you can imagine, these types of conversations happen all the time and because of our differing opinions and the high emotional component, the results are often poor.
The authors go on the explain that “when it matters most, we often do our worst”. We either end up in silence, like when our boss surprises us with our annual review and gives us 20 minutes to review it and turn it into HR, or moving toward violence, like when a parent gets so frustrated they resort to yelling and screaming at their child.
Turns out there are several reasons for why we do our worst.
First, we are designed wrong. For example, when someone says something that angers us, our adrenal glands kick into gear and pump our bodies full of adrenaline. And to make matters worse, our body diverts blood away from our brain and toward the muscles in our arms and legs, because biologically we are used to either running or hitting something when we get angry.
Next, crucial conversations often arise unexpectedly, which means we are forced to think about complex issues without being able to call timeout and think things through. And even if we did have time to think about it, most of us haven’t taken a course in personal communications that specifically guides you through dealing with crucial conversations.
And the final reason we perform poorly is that we often act in self-defeating ways. In our adrenaline pumped and blood inhibited brains, we are our own worst enemies.
Here is an example from the book:
Let’s say your significant other has been paying less and less attention to you due to his or her busy job. You would like to spend more time together, so you drop a few hints but your loved one doesn’t respond well. You decide not to add any more pressure, so you clam up, but you continue to get more frustrated with each passing day. Soon you find yourself tossing out the occasional sarcastic remark.
“Another late night, huh? I’ve got Facebook friends I see more often than you.”
Unfortunately, the more you snip, the less your loved one wants to be around you. Your behavior has resulted in the exact opposite of what you wanted and your relationship is now at an all-time low.
The good news is that dialogue skills are learnable. The authors of “Crucial Conversations” have developed a model as well as some simple acronyms to help us become more skilled in the critical dialogue skills essential to navigate our crucial conversations.
Let’s begin by focusing on what is necessary for a crucial conversation to be successful. First, we must have open dialogue between the parties involved. The authors define dialogue as the free flow of meaning between two or more people.
Second, each party must be able to successfully get their ideas, thoughts and other relevant information, into what the author’s call the Pool of Shared Meaning. Now, in order for each person to get their ideas into the pool of shared meaning there is one critical requirement. They must feel safe.
When we communicate in a way that does not create a sense of safety with others we often push others to react in one of two ways. Either with various forms of silence such as verbally withdrawing from the conversation, “the authors refer to this as salute and stay mute” and it often happens when we shut down in the face of authority. Another form of silence is avoiding interacting with the person such as finding excuses to miss dinner or an important meeting and finally, masking, when one withholds their true thoughts (for example, stating something is a brilliant idea, when we think it’s terrible).
The other way people respond is by various forms of violence such as by verbally attacking… “I hate you”, labeling “you are the worst parents ever!” or otherwise trying to control the conversation. For example, by dominating the conversation so the other person can’t get a word in edgewise.
To have successful conversations the authors have created a path to break down these barriers and maintain safety.
During the conversation, you will follow the STATE your path acronym to help guide you. The goal here is to talk persuasively, not abrasively. The first three letters are about WHAT to do,
Now we move into the How to Do it:
In closing, if you want to be able to avoid the illusion of communication and conduct successful, meaningful conversations, then you must “really care about the interests of others, not just our own” and convey that in such a way that they feel safe to add their ideas into the pool of shared meaning.
I strongly recommend reading or listening to the book so that you can master crucial these conversation skills. Learning these skills will improve your career and working relationships, strengthen your personal and family relationships, all of which will also help reduce stress and improve your personal health.
If you would like to order a copy of the book, you can find it on Amazon here. Or go to the Vital Smarts website here.
You can also watch the short video below of me discussing some of the "Crucial Conversation" tools developed by the author's by clicking on the play button below.