Crucial Conversations and Emotional Intelligence

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crucial conversations

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
Peter Drucker

Some years ago, I wanted to create some videos. After a lot of hunting, I found a great videographer who was in my budget. He committed to shooting and editing several short videos for $1,000. After the videos were done, I was really excited and began working on a plan for more videos. Then, I got the bill: $1,500. I knew better than to respond immediately because I was annoyed to receive a bill 50% higher than what we agreed to. 


The next day, I sent him an email asking him to explain the bill versus what we’d discussed.  He explained that the quote was for the videos, not the fancy stuff that he added at the beginning and end of the video, the music, or the text (called “lower thirds”). Although I understood the bill, that wasn’t what he’d quoted to me, nor did he check in with me before running up the bill, and it wasn’t fair of him to expect a non-video expert to just know that these costs were customary.  By the same token, I had a dog in the fight: I wanted more videos and had no interest in restarting my search for another videographer or potentially winding up in small claims court!


I took another day to think before responding. Rather than telling him that I thought he was trying to hustle me, I spoke to what was likely his story: this woman got a great deal already and now she’s trying to skip out on paying me!!!  Literally, I told him this was how I imagined his perspective. I also told him that I could totally and completely understand how he could come to that conclusion. Then, I asked him if he could see my side as clearly as I could see his. I also explained to him that my objective was to make sure the situation was resolved fairly and to preserve the relationship because I recognized his talent.  


As we went back and forth, the thick tension thinned out. Although neither of us said so, we realized that both of us had something to lose. We could’ve decided to fight to the death over our principles and righteous indignation, but time is money! Then, neither of us wanted to fork out cash for court fees to fight each other. There was another factor at work, which applies in every context: was it worth setting a bridge on fire? Besides not knowing when you’ll encounter one another again, Philadelphia is a small town and people talk. Who wants to risk their reputation over $500?


We were able to work out a solution that we both considered fair! Because I wanted more videos, he could re-use the same “extras” he’d created on those videos, which would spread out the cost. By the same token, I had to commit to a number of future videos and additional fees if I wanted to change the bumpers (the fancy stuff on the beginning and end). 


We were able to move forward because we redefined what it meant to win. Perhaps we were also motivated because we knew that both of us would most certainly lose otherwise.  


If this story gave you heartburn and you sometimes struggle with communication, especially difficult conversation, Crucial Conversations (also available on audiobook) is a great resource for you. I love it because it gives the reader language to describe their communication-related behavior. Intellectualizing one’s behavior helps to reduce one’s likelihood of regrettable emotional responses when situations make you feel like you are under attack. This book is even more worthwhile when you pair its lessons with the lessons of Smart Trust, which focuses on using communication to repair broken trust. 

Crucial Conversations focuses on four key areas of self-awareness and self-control that will help make communicating more effective. First, it addresses what derails most uncomfortable conversations, the sense of feeling trapped. Feeling trapped (aka The Fool’s Choice) occurs when a person feels like there is no good or safe way to engage. The person feels like they can either argue (attack back), say nothing, or lie to keep the peace. Often a person feels trapped because of the life/experiential stories they’ve accumulated surrounding conflict, and those feelings often kick in instantaneously. Immediately, these stories send the person into “victim vs villain” mode. By seeing oneself as a victim and the other person as a villain, one is able to justify retaliatory behavior as a function of being an innocent fighting an aggressive enemy. This is the recipe for a fiery fight!

While the recipe for the fire is solid, nobody wants the charred relationship that will be left in its wake: somebody has to have the presence of mind to pull up! The next two areas are fire escapes. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of fire-fighting is noticing and caring about the other person. The authors of the book don’t call it that, but that’s precisely what it is. They call it managing your emotions and keeping your mind in the conversation so that you can look for signs of lost safety, fill the pool of shared meaning, and contrast if necessary. Lost safety refers to the ability to notice the other party’s behavior, including body language, tone of voice, etc., in order to make it safe for the other person to continue to participate in the conversation.

The reality is, if the other party checks out, no progress will be made; thus, the goal is to fill the pool of shared meaning. Simply, this is asking the other person questions to keep them engaged and to better understand their story and the outcome they want from the crucial conversation. 


Sometimes, filling the pool of shared meaning is not enough to restore safety. One party perceives that s/he is being misunderstood. Further, the misunderstood party is saying something that is really hard to hear by the other party. However, the misunderstood party doesn’t want to water down the message just because the other person is upset (watering down destroys trust and lacks integrity). The speaker wants to be adequately understood, neither coming on too strong or too weak; thus, a tactic to try is contrasting. Essentially, the speaker accepts that the message may hurt, but the speaker doesn’t want it hurt more than it should. Therefore, the speaker reiterates to the other party what was meant and clearly states what not meant in the same breath, so to speak. 


If you can get a good pool of shared meaning, you’re ready to advance the agenda or conversation. This step also requires you to care about the other party by investigating what looks like opposed interests to look for an outcome that works, a win-win. In reality, you’re trying to keep the doors of communication open to avoid an impasse and preserve the relationship. You might need to find or create mutual purpose. This means being willing to consider outcomes that satisfy your primary needs, even if the manner in which you get there isn’t what you initially expected. This means giving up a win/lose or winner takes all approach.  


Overall, moving and talking through conflict is about how you manage your feelings, how perceptive you are so that you notice when things are going south, and your willingness to respect the other party and their needs. While mastery takes time and practice, deciding that you want to be better at conflict management is a great starting place. 


Communication is power. Those who have mastered its effective use can change their own experience of the world and the world’s experience of them. All behavior and feelings find their original roots in some form of communication.

Tony Robbins

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