Crucial Conversations; (2002); Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; (McGraw Hill)

I’ve just finished a reading a book called “Crucial Conversations“. I’m not a big fan of self-help books, but this one did provide quite a number of useful and practical insights. Crucial conversations refer to those conversations we have – with family members, friends, work colleagues, bosses, anyone – that have a high potential to end in acrimony and bitterness.

A number of concepts jumped out at me, but I’ll mention just two: safety and stories.

Safety

A core message of the book is that progress can only happen when people are in dialogue with each other. When one or more parties feel threatened, dialogue ceases immediately. Threatened people usually adopt one of two modes of behaviour – a mental withdrawal from the conversation (silence) or some sort of verbal attack (violence). Both responses are easily recognised and when they occur, further progress is impossible. A sense of safety must be reinstated first of all. People have to feel safe to continue in dialogue. If you are holding a discussion with someone and the other person’s expressions or actions indicate a strong degree of insecurity, then you need to restore safety before you can proceed.

Stories

When people display aggressive or passive aggressive behaviours, what we are seeing is the end result of a process: usually initiated by a factual occurrence, then by a story used to interpret these facts, then by emotion, and finally a response. The story is the most critical piece in this process. It is the amplifier that takes a tiny signal of information (often mis-information), and turns it instantly into a blisteringly hot, out of control, current. Because different people can display a wide range of responses to the same occurrence, the conclusion must be that very often, stories are just that: works of fiction. Merely saying to oneself “this may be a story” when getting riled up is sometimes enough to blunt the edge off one’s anger. Distinguishing facts from the stories that result, helps to ease pent-up emotions.

That’s all very well..

Sure, sure, there are books and then there’s the real world. I’m not expecting any hugely dramatic changes in my behaviour overnight, but I have to say the book has given me a lot of room for thought. Already I have tried to use some of these skills during interactions with my kids, while also observing more carefully how other people manage potentially difficult conversations.

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