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Without these skills you may as well have a glass ceiling

Potential. Capacity. Calling. Purpose. There are so many buzz words we use to describe what we feel and hope is in our future; something bigger than ourselves. Something meaningful. But there are a certain set of skills that give some people an advantage over everyone else, skills I’m learning but have far from mastered.

A crucial conversation is when emotions soar, the stakes are high and opinions differ.

Communication is THE key factor

There are various habits of highly effective people and there are all kinds of laws of leadership – but the thing that these best selling books and others always seem to highlight and encourage, is the need for highly developed communication skills. Most people communicate pretty well, but when it matters most we often behave our worst. 

Authors and researchers Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler have produced one of my all time favourite (most useful) books that I’ve read to date and those that know me know that I read quite a few books. Their book, Crucial Conversations – Tools for talking when the stakes are high‘ which has sold over 2 million copies has quickly become one of my the top 5 books that I ‘recommend-and-pray-that-everyone-reads-this-it’s-awesome!’. Everyone should read this book, and I mean everyone!

So let me give you a taste of why this book would be so profoundly helpful for you – for your marriage, for your business, in your workplace, school, church or team.

Dialogue is King

It doesn’t matter what your issue is and what the conversation is about, maybe you need to speak to your boss about him constantly breaking company rules, you’re not happy with your teenagers new group of friends but you’re worried if you say something you could make it worse, your spouse isn’t meeting your needs, your colleague is not pulling their weight but they are related to the CEO, or you have an idea to share that you’re not sure will be well received as some people may get defensive… nothing will move forward or change unless you have open, honest and meaningful dialogue.

Dialogue, as you know, is the constant flow of ideas and opinions between two or more people. If that flow stops, a mutually agreeable and beneficial resolution simply can’t be reached. While somebody may ‘win’ the argument, ultimately you both lose. The only way forward is for dialogue to be restored.

The problem we often run into is that when dialogue breaks down, we don’t really know (a) why it went wrong or (b) how to fix it. People get defensive for all kinds of reasons, we get aggressive because we’re sick of the same thing over and over, some people shut down and just won’t talk, others only seem to speak when they have something sarcastic to say which is never helpful.

Learning the skills for creating and maintaining healthy dialogue is crucial to making relationships not only work, but thrive. And since your calling and purpose in life is always going to be tied and hinged to other people, knowing how to do this well is imperative.

It’s the key to a happy marriage, successfully parenting your kids, having an enjoyable, productive work environment, leading a team or running a large organisation.

The authors give many useful tools but here’s just a quick overview of two of my favourites:

1. Safety First

People, I’ve learned, shut down healthy dialogue and either get violent (aggressive, defensive, irrational, blame) or they get silent (refuse to talk, withhold their opinion, don’t say what they really believe, etc..) and the reason they do this is because they don’t feel safe. They feel unsafe either because of the content of the discussion or the condition of the discussion. They don’t like what they hear, or they don’t like the way it sounds.

People shut down dialogue when they don’t feel that it is safe to engage

Here’s a quick breakdown of how to reestablish safety so that you can continue to have that tough conversation:

Here’s how:

  1. Find a mutual purpose: Does the other person honestly believe that you care about their goals? Differing opinions don’t always mean different goals. Find the common ground. Step outside of the issue for a moment and establish that you’re both on the same team trying to achieve the same thing but you have different ideas.
  2. Consider mutual respect: Does the other person feel and believe that you truly respect them? People simply won’t engage with their heart, soul and mind if they feel disrespected and unappreciated. Even when a person is in the wrong and has behaved or performed poorly, you can still respect them as a person. This comes out in non verbal cues, tone, expressions and the genuineness of your approach. No respect always means no honest pr productive dialogue.
  3. Identify – is mutual respect or purpose are at risk?
    1. Apologise – don’t apologise for wanting to talk, but be quick to admit any fault in causing a loss of safety.
    2. Contrast: a do-don’t statement – e.g., I don’t want to suggest it’s your fault. What I’d like to do is find the cause of the problem and help us find a solution.
  4. With Mutual purpose and respect in place the other person should feel safe enough to enter dialogue, knowing that you’re not out to get them but to work together on finding a solution to whatever problem you’ve encountered.

“If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive” – Kerry Patterson

A quick story of personally using contrasting

The contrasting method works a treat, I’ve started using this as a go-to tool for keeping safety in dialogue. I’ve noticed that people often get defensive when they misinterpret what I am asking or saying. This could be due to me giving a poor description or not paying attention to by body language.

The smallest thing can get a person feeling unsafe.

I once worked with a person who didn’t respond well to me whenever I spoke with my hands. I was a manager and the employee reported directly to me. I’m also a preacher and when I preach on stage I use a headset mic so I am always moving my hands when I speak. However, when talking to this one employee he interpreted my hand gestures as being a “finger pointed right in his face”. Understandably, he didn’t like this, he thought I was being aggressive and so he fought back with sharp words and anger. I quickly realised what was happening. Once I identified this I was able to explain; ‘In no way do I want to be dominant or aggressive towards you, especially with my hands, I don’t mean for them to appear as though they are in your face – it’s just when I talk, I move my hands a lot without really thinking about it. I’m not here to blame you for anything. What I really want to do is have a conversation about…’  Once he realised I genuinely wasn’t trying to provoke him, he was able to calm down, safety returned and we reentered dialogue.

Both fight and flight are motivated by fear. Control and suppress fear and you can maintain dialogue in a critical conversation. Help people do this by making it safe.

When people misinterpret, you need to learn to identify that this has happened (without getting defensive yourself) and gently steer the person back to what you did mean and what you are saying; for this, contrasting works amazingly well.

2. Master your story

The above example shows how we quickly create stories in our minds within nano-seconds of receiving new data. The employee above immediately assumed my motives were aggressive because my hands were moving.

The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we act and react to daily life. Did they leave the house messy just to spite me, or were they really just in a rush? Was I not asked for my opinion because the boss think it’s not valid and that I’m incompetent at my job, or was I simply overlooked because the boss has something bigger on his mind today? Mastering your story is such great tool for avoiding what the authors call, the fools choice. Here’s how it works:

  1. I see and hear: I see something happen or I hear about something happening that I have a strong emotional response to, meaning, I see or hear something that really matters to me.
  2. Then I tell myself a story: Now I tell myself why that person did or said what they did, I create a story in my mind, jumping to conclusions built on assumptions.
  3. Next we feel: These conclusions only reinforce my feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, offence, fear, pride… because our stories almost always paint ourselves as right, pure, good intentioned people while they are almost certainly blind, incompetent, mean, rude, selfish… Now as emotions soar, vision, clarity and sense goes out the window.
  4. Now we act: Fuelled up on emotions and convinced of our story, we now take action! We give them the silent treatment, snide and sarcastic remarks. Or we go for anger and outburst, accusation and heated debate.

Meanwhile, the other person does not see or hear our story (what we’ve told ourselves is happening), they only see and hear our emotionally charged actions. The cycle repeats itself as now they are forming a story all of their own. *sigh*

You need to master your story and not let your story master you

Stories are powerful because stories are subjective interpretations of facts that lead to emotional conclusions. Two people can see and hear the same things, the facts, but draw different conclusions based on the stories they tell themselves.
The stories you tell yourself will define the way you approach the conversations you have.

Three clever stories we tell ourselves

  1. The victim story, it’s not my fault
  2. The villain story, it’s all your fault
  3. The helpless story, there nothing else I can do
Don’t settle for these clever stories – they’re unhelpful, unproductive and untrue. The trick though, is that they are clever stories which makes them hard to spot. What makes these clever stories so… Clever?
  1. Clever stories match reality (they fit the facts)
  2. Clever stories get us off the hook, they excuse us from responsibility.
  3. Clever stories keep us from acknowledging our own faults, helping us justify things we feel need justifying instead of owning up to faults or mistakes.
Instead of clever stories, the authors encourage you to seek to tell a useful story. Clever stories are always incomplete; they’re one sided, with only half the facts, excluding your own contribution to the problem. A useful story is the whole story.

Change your clever story into a useful one

  1. Turn victims into actors – what role did they play? And what role did I play?
  2. Turn villains into humans – ask yourself, why would a rational, reasonable person do what they just did? Humanise the person, don’t demonise them.
  3. Turn the helpless into the able – what do I really want? For me? For others? For the relationship? If I really wanted this what would I be doing right now? Is ‘nothing’ really the answer?
  4. Kill the fools choice, neither violence nor silence is going to help, don’t be a fool, make it safe and return to dialogue.

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What crucial parts of your life could use better conversations?

Your marriage? You parenting? Your ministry? Your team? Your workplace? Your home? Among friends?

I read a lot of books, sometimes I share them with people I think will find them useful or that I know would be interested in it’s content, but occasionally I come across a book that I think are so helpful and so empowering for anyone and everyone that I just wish I could buy a million copies and give them away.  “Accidental Pharisee’s” which I’ve written about here is one of those books, and this, Crucial Conversations is another (I can still count on one hand the books in this category).

Comment below ad tell me what’s on your list of ‘books I wish everyone would read’?

So much more but not here…

There are so many other incredible communication tools in this book! And none of them are things I’ve been taught before – I may have seen them demonstrated, or even used them myself unknowingly, but I’ve never been taught this stuff and I’m guessing that since it’s sold over 2 million copies, most other people haven’t been taught this stuff either. That’s why I think everyone should read this book, it’s not only got great tools but loads of real examples of just how effective the tools are in the lives of everyday people all over the world.

Other tool the book explains,

  • Retrace you PATH – how to figure out how we got here
  • STATE your path – learning how to communicate how you got here in a way that doesn’t trigger a defensive response
  • Explore others’ PATH – learning how to discover how the other person got here and why they do what they do
  • Decide how to Decide – tools for making decisions that lead to actual action, dialogue with action may clear the air but it won’t produce what you really want. Learning to make action steps starts with agreeing and deciding how to decide.
  • Tell the rest of the story – what has been left out? There’s always a bit more to the story, here’s how to find it
  • CRIB: Commit, Recognise, Invent, Brainstorm – when mutual goals are hard to find.

What about you?

Comment below; Have you read it? Did it help? What else do you find works for you in a crucial conversation?

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Andrew Coates

Andrew Coates

Husband, Father, Pastor

Andrew serves as Executive Pastor at C3 Spectrum Church, Port Stephens. He has a background in teaching & prototyping manufacturing. Andrew holds Diploma‘s in Business, as well as in Theology & Christian Ministry. Andrew loves Apple computers and Android devices (weird right?), is mad about systems and making things sync but he’s really passionate about helping people grow and engage in the beautiful life of discipleship. Married at 20 to his high school sweetheart Rachel, they now have two amazing children together - Amity & Roman. Andrew loves spearfishing, a good espresso in the morning & nice glass of red in the evening.

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