Book Review: Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High caught my eye as I was starting a new project that I knew would require an elevated level of listening, conflict resolution, and verbal skill. It’s a physically small book that packed a large punch and I’m even considering giving it a second read.

Crucial Conversations coverThe authors, Karry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, define a crucial conversation as one in which opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong. These are the conversations every person has (or, conversely: avoids) in both personal and professional settings. They’re the conversations about a promotion or raise and about whether your ten year old needs a smartphone.

I appreciate the business case the authors make for having healthy crucial conversations. They cite a study in which $1,500 and a full workday were saved for every crucial conversation employees held rather than avoided, a substantial amount given the nonprofit clients I tend to work with.  And, most impressive, a study that found organizations that held crucial conversations was five times faster in responding to financial downturns. Crucial conversations are a competitive advantage.

Crucial Conversations helps readers identify opportunities for these kinds of interactions before they may even need to happen, which if internalized would contribute to employee EQ and improve company-wide meetings, processes, or results.

The book is also practical in giving readers specific ways to speak or engage in dialogue when a crucial conversation is identified as such. For example, saying “I was wondering why…” is one way to dive deeper into a colleague’s stance or opinion. With an open mind, your own stance might be changed with this new info! Or, even better, a deeper level of the project/problem might be found.

Another great aspect of the book is its potential use for developing a more open leadership style. Haven’t we all seen leaders ask for feedback or questions, only to be met by silence or agreement? A lot of the advice in Crucial Conversations will be useful to leaders wanting actual responses, innovative ideas, questions, and even challenges to what they’re saying.

For those who are hesitant to open the (imagined) flood gates of challenging conversations, there’s even a process with an acronym the authors propose: AMPP. In Asking, Mirroring, Paraphrasing, and Priming, one can get an accurate view of the situation while even keeping it at arm’s length. This is a great technique for those of us who tend to take problems personally or get too involved.

Crucial-Conversations pyramid

Toward the end of the book, the authors ask a question I found both funny and incredibly encouraging. In thinking about current conversations, they suggest asking “Are we playing games or are we in dialogue?” as a place to start, to see if a crucial conversation is happening or needed.

As someone who wants to do excellent work, at a deeper level than office politics sometimes allows employees to do, this question summed up my experience of Crucial Conversations. I would prefer to be in dialogue rather than playing games, doing good work rather than navigating superficially. And Crucial Conversations gave me many additional skills and thought-prompts to do this.