"Crucial Conversations" Shows a Path for Success When Stakes Are Highest
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I read a book recently that addresses a critical aspect of what we all do, all day.  
It’s called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High* and it 
describes how to have more effective communications in both our business and 
personal lives. Specifically, how to prepare for high stakes situations, transfer 
anger and hurt into dialogue, be persuasive rather than abrasive, and perhaps 
most notably, how to make the atmosphere “safe” for everyone to talk about 
virtually anything.

From a sales standpoint, of course, every conversation with a prospect is a 
critical conversation.   And “safety” is never as important as here.  In sales, 
that means asking, first, “is this a good time for you and I to talk?”  
With permission, all else is possible.  The second  tenet is the most effective 
tool we have, that is, effective listening.  This is defined as listening to the 
views of the other, clearly understanding and stating your objective (remember 
Stephen Covey’s Habit #2,  “Begin with the end in mind”) and being respectful.

With mutual respect, and a mutual agreed-to goal (such as to determine if a 
given solution is worth exploring further)  you’re off to the races.  When the 
environment becomes “not safe,” however, the response will become silence, 
or violence.  At that point, participants either withdraw, or verbally pounce.  
Tools for managing those unfortunate, but common developments is another 
part of the book’s mission.

Unfortunately, humans are not designed to get along with each other.  
We are hard-wired for competition, and, at best, cooperate primarily with 
fellow tribe members.  Evolution has not served our 21st century selves 
very well when it comes to creating harmony.   We really have to work at it, 
but those who master it, truly have the power.

So, the first idea is to clarify the objectives – starting with you.  The idea the 
authors advocate is to “start with heart.”  In our situations, ask,  “Is what I’m 
proposing truly right for this situation?  What do I really want out of this?  
How will this impact the other person?”

If you are in this for the right reason, it is to benefit your prospective customer.

With effective listening, comes effective observation –which is a bit like being a 
third party –removed from yourself, aware of the present, and sensitive to the 
contents and condition of the situation.  Effective observation lets you see when 
things are becoming crucial because safety has become an issue, and both you 
and the other person are becoming stressed.

Few of us do these things instinctively, or respond optimally when trouble 
starts to brew.  Effective listening, and effective observation are acquired skills, 
and what is needed to master them are commitment and practice.  The alternative 
is to go through life on the offense or defense, both of which are counterproductive.

One major key to the authors’ shared philosophy is that we communicate, 
and reach decisions, in four essential ways:  we command, we consult, we vote, 
or we build consensus.  Everything in life is decisions.  How these are managed 
determines how successful we will be.

Whether you’re dealing with a boss or a child, the fact is, you are selling your 
ideas to them. You have strong feelings, and in your opinion, strong reasons 
supporting your point of view.  But to make your case, large or small, you must 
first make it safe, with mutual respect the #1  rule.  So,  “I’ll just take 5 minutes 
and we’ll exchange some ideas and if you feel then that you’ like to explore further, 
we can do that.”  Agree that the task at hand is to determine if there is good 
reason to move forward.

The supporting idea is that “I am here to show you our solution because it is 
right for you.  I don’t make money unless you save money.  The purpose behind 
the conversation is mutual benefit.  And if we can’t find a mutual purpose,  
nothing will happen.

As sales professionals, we need to take the lead in showing the way to meaningful
conversations.  In the sales environment, simply state the facts.  Start with the 
easiest first, so you create the “inertia” of yes. Tell your story.  If the person is 
resistant, let them create another path, what the authors call “talking tentatively.“

“If I do this, could we do this?”  Even with a child, it is not about the journey, 
it is, in this case, about the destination.  If you and I agree we have a mutual 
conclusion, to a certain degree, how we get there is somewhat immaterial.

In a sales situation, when the credit card merchant  says, “I have this equipment 
and can’t get out of it,”  you might reply,  “if I could find a way to take the equipment 
back or program it so that your investment is not diminished, could we move forward?”  
After all, the goal is getting the processing business, so if you have to give up the 
equipment,  but you both get to the goal – you both, in the words of another 
famous tome,  “get to yes.”

Some of the concepts in “Crucial Conversations” reminded me of ideas from the 
Sandler Sales System.  Sandler suggests that salespeople state up front:  “I have 
found a process  that helps us reach a logical conclusion quickly – a conclusion 
that’s right for you. Do you mind if we go through this process?”

This may seem formulaic to a few, but it’s highly effective, and if practiced 
and personalized, does not sound like a packaged technique.

This is a good book. Warning:  if you read it fast, you may feel like an anaconda 
that has just swallowed a large mammal.  There’s lots of digesting to do, and lots of 
practice required.  You need to take what’s here, make it personal, and practice.

One final thought, there’s a chapter in the book called “yeah, but”.  Yeah, but, 
my situation is different; yeah, but I made a change just last week; yeah, but, 
I don’t have time for homework.  There are dozens of reasons people come up 
with as to why “crucial conversation” skills won’t work in a particular situation.

Don’t believe it.  When resistance is in the air, good tools are powerful. 
The 17 instances the authors describe cover the gamut of difficult dilemmas.  
None of them are any more dire than the ones we all stare in the face, every day.

* The authors are Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
Copyright McGraw hill.

Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc, the parent company of 
CardWare International.  He is one of 12 founding members of the ETA, 
serving on its board, advisory board and committees.  (740) 522-2150