When the stakes are high and strong emotions are involved, crucial conversations are difficult, awkward, and frustrating. This is why they are often avoided. When crucial conversations are avoided, issues grow insidiously, eroding trust and cohesion. In the book Crucial Conversations, the authors reveal 25 years of research on what makes a successful communicator in group settings where the steaks are high.
Here are the key elements of successful communication during crucial conversations: contribution, focus, awareness of others, respect, empathy, state control, curiosity, and practicality.
Contribution consists of sharing one’s thoughts, ideas, or feelings in a way that builds mutual understanding. The alternatives to contribution include silence or violence. Silence allows grievances to fester and grow whereas violence destroys trust and mutual understanding.
Focus consists of keeping on task in the conversation by remembering what you really want. The purpose of a crucial conversation can easily become derailed when it becomes more about ego gratification than mutual understanding.
Awareness of others’ reactions within a crucial conversation is key to knowing when someone is starting to clam up or blow up. When we are aware of these subtle cues, we can adjust our approach accordingly.
Respect is another necessary ingredient in a crucial conversation. You can talk about any subject so long as you enter the discussion with genuine respect for those involved. When others feel respected, they show respect back.
Empathy allows us to show respect when tensions run high. When we strongly disagree with someone’s thoughts or actions, we can reduce our sense of hostility toward them by putting ourselves in their shoes, trying to understand why they may hold these beliefs or why they chose to act in a particular way.
State control requires us to take responsibility for our own mental stories we tell ourselves. These mental stories may be conscious or unconscious and they fundamentally shape how we interpret the actions of others. If our mental story tells us we are inadequate, we will be on high alert for subtle cues in other individuals that reinforce this belief. When we take responsibility for our own mental stories, we can take control over our emotional state, allowing us to communicate from a place of positive intention rather than reactivity and defensiveness.
Curiosity is one of the most useful mental states when seeking mutual understanding. When we become curious about others, we explore their own reasons for their thoughts or actions. This leads to a sense of safety since the other person feels heard rather than interrogated, leading to potential silence or violence. This is also the best place to start when you want to be understood. As stated by Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Practicality is important because crucial conversations should not stop at mutual understanding. Rather, mutual understanding is the first step to generating a set of practical actions that will follow. Whether this means a new institutional practice, new goals, or new form of conduct, there should be clear ways to enact the commitments formed during the crucial conversation.
Practicing these key skills for crucial conversations can help us build new habits that contribute to a culture of safety and productivity. They help us build an environment free of silence and violence where individuals clam up or blow up, caged by stories that keep our egos in a state of fight or flight, perpetuating a culture of reactivity and mutual distrust. Strong cultures start with strong communication.