I'm back from a two day corporate class on VitalSmarts Crucial Conversations (see also: Amazon reviews of the book). I'm going to summarize here what was new to me, and what I'm going to do differently in my personal and corporate life. This is how I process new material, please feel free to skip this post if this material isn't your tea cup.
I'm not going to review or recap the original book by Paterson et al. I skimmed the book and I wasn't impressed. I was, however, pleased with the VitalSmarts "Participant Toolkit", with their educational materials, and with our instructor.
I'm also not going to recapitulate the course. This is a summary of my personal interpretation and transformation of the course material including my own experience and readings. I particularly recommend the complementary book Bidell's Three Steps to Yes. In some respects this post may contradict the course work, in others it extends the material.
Before I begin, I can't resist some cultural context. It's impossible to read this book, with its model of "silence" and "violence" as two styles of aggressive conversation, without thinking of "female" and "male". Among other things, this material can be read as a guide to communication in a multi-gender corporate hierarchy. There are limits to this interpretation of course. Like many geeks of either gender my "style" score was silence/violence balanced, with a bias to "silence". (Important note: "violence" in this context is verbal - sarcasm (attack), verbal control, and verbal labeling. It's an interesting choice of label.)
The concept of a "crucial" conversation is novel and meaningful. There are three ingredients, but one is particularly critical. The first two ingredients are high stakes and conflict. The third and most critical ingredient is (negative) emotion. The primary focus and value of the "Crucial Conversation" (CC) methodology is managing the emotional component of important conversations. The goal is to transform a high-emotion interaction to a low emotion "dialog".
A CC, therefore, is not a good thing (I think the course materials are confused about this). The "good thing" is a productive and positive dialogue. A "CC" is, at best, a means to getting to dialogue. At worst, it's the result of a botched interaction, and a means to get things back on track.
The first goal of the training is to be able to recognize when a Conversation goes Crucial (think Plutonium going Critical). The most important response, at that point, is to give up on the topic of conversation and focus on managing the emotional component. That's a big idea for me. Especially on a phone conference I've planned, I'll miss or disregard the emotional component and try to power through my original agenda.
Speaking of a phones, this is where the course is partly obsolete. It was written for the 1990s world of person-to-person communication. In the post-Great Recession world our corporate interactions are by telephone conference. No, not telepresence or videoconference -- 1970s style teleconference. Person-to-person emotion management is hard enough, but after years of being beaten and pummeled I can just about manage it. Managing emotions on a multi-person half-the-team-is-muted conference call takes things to a whole 'nother level.
So how can we modify the approach of the course to a setting where emotions can rise fast on a teleconference with people we may see every few years? The approach I'm going to test goes like this:
- Identify signs of emotional intensity. Conspicuous silence or tone of voice are the best remote cues. I can monitor my own responses, such as rapid heart rate, sweating or increasingly slow speech -- but those are late arrivals. I think an early sign of emotional content, for me, is narrowing of my eyes. I'm training myself to detect that and even to forcibly relax my eye muscles.
- Manage the immediate emotion. This may mean using techniques that CC considers dysfunctional -- such as avoiding and withdrawing. The goal is to get out of the call without an escalation.
- Schedule a managed one-on-one "CC" -- by phone usually (alas). (Telepresence is better, and with advance planning may be available). Scheduling the one-on-one "CC" gives time to work on the "path" script of Fact definition, scripted Story, and Ask questions. The goal of the scheduled "criticality" is to get through emotion and back to "dialogue".
The training and course materials don't discriminate between a "planned" and "emergent" CC. That's a big distinction. It's the difference between running up hill and running through a mine field. Given where I am now, my personal goals are to recognize an "emergent" CC, calm it as much as possible (abandon agenda, get out of Dodge alive), and then plan a managed CC.
My outline of a managed CC borrows from CC and Bidell. It starts with a planning phase that's largely Bidell ...
- What is my goal for me and others? What is the true goal of the other person -- even though they may not know it themselves? (In Bidell's world, it's usually personal success in one form or another. That seems to work.)
- What is it I want to avoid?
- How can I achieve #1 and avoid #2?
Knowing the other person's true goal, and how that can be achieved, is the key to both Bidell's "Persuasion" and to creating CC's "shared purpose". That "shared purpose" may be to achieve success for the other person, even if their original conversation goal is not met. In Bidell's terms, find a way for my "Prospect" to "Win" -- while making the sale.
CC next focuses on the "do/don't" statement as a way to express my conversational goals. "I do want to get paid, I don't expect to get paid this week." It's not a bad place to start, but I can see how it might need modification.
The next phase in this structured high-emotion conversation is Fact/Story -- avoiding the dreaded "why" (the other banned word is "but"). Fact is supposed to be an enumeration of verifiable statements that will considered "true" by all participants. The Story comes next -- it's where the emotion and opinions come in. The Story is the statement of personal impressions, carefully refactored to avoid "violence" (sarcasm, control, labeling, etc), to avoid identifying a villain or a victim, and to avoid expressing helplessness.
For me, both the Facts and "the Story" are best written out beforehand and practiced aloud.
The Facts and Story are to be presented in an "tentative" and "testing" fashion (What have I left out? Does this sound right? What are your thoughts/feelings?).
The Story is followed by the "Ask". The goal here is to encourage the "Prospect" (Bidell's term) to follow a similar "Path" by asking framing questions and using classic conversational strategies such as mirroring (I hear you say you're good, but as I imagine your face I think it's .... ok, so this doesn't work so well over the phone) and "paraphrasing".
At that point, if all (miraculously) has gone relatively well, the "Crucial Conversation" is done, and the action conversation (decisions, dialog, discussion) begins.
Or so the theory has it.
I'll be testing that out.