By James A. Barham
An organizational manager like me should presumably have mastered the material in a training seminar titled “Crucial Conversations.” Why, then, did I take this seminar, and voluntarily at that?
Earlier in my business career, I had taken many such seminars—involuntarily. This one came touted as the best out there. As the general editor of TheBestSchools.org, I therefore wanted to see how these seminars had evolved over time and what they, in their present state of the art, really offer to their participants.
Disclaimer: I paid full price for taking this seminar and no one associated with TheBestSchools.org receives any financial kickback from the Crucial Conversations organization (i.e., VitalSmarts) for advertising the seminar or sending it customers or anything else for that matter.
Note: The Crucial Conversations training seminar is based on a book by that title, depicted at the start of this article.
So, there I was, facing two grueling days of back-to-back, eight-hour sessions. And what was the point of it all? I would soon find out: to improve my ability to conduct a “crucial conservation.” Such a conversation, I learned, is characterized by three things: “opposing opinions, high stakes, and high emotions.”
The basic idea was this: When faced with conflict, whether at work or in our personal lives, most of us have a tendency to react in one of two ways, both bad:
In behavioral biology, it’s known as “flight” or “fight”—meaning either we clam up (change the subject; leave the room) or we get angry (start shouting; try to intimidate or threaten the other person).
The purpose of the seminar was to get us “unstuck” from these self-defeating behavior patterns by teaching us how to hold a successful “crucial conversation,” instead.
There was a relatively small group of us present (about 20). Mostly middle managers, representing all types of business organizations—from online colleges to banks to public utilities. And mostly youngish, up-and-coming, junior executive types. At 64, I was by far the oldest person in attendance.
There was only a single “facilitator,” whom I judged to be a man of about 50. His name was Murray.
Murray obviously loved what he was doing. At any rate, he was very good at it. He also clearly enjoyed the benefit of long experience. He brought off the twin sessions—which were exhausting and potentially deadly-boring—without a hitch. There was no mutiny; no one even went AWOL. Murray established an instant rapport with the group, which helped us all to endure the 16-hour mental marathon we were running without murmuring.
The multi-media techniques Murray used were just as important to the success of the sessions as his winning personality. Each participant received a package containing name tags, a regular printed textbook, a “toolkit” (a kind of PowerPoint presentation reduced to pages in a spiral-bound notebook), a blank notebook, pencils and pens, and a set of audio disks (presumably for refreshing one’s recollection in the weeks and months ahead while driving to and from work—I never made any use of them myself).
The bulk of the presentation was in the form of PPT slides which corresponded to the pages in our “toolkit.” These slides were augmented by brief video clips employing actors depicting situations described in the PPT slides. They dramatized for us how the concepts we were learning were intended to be put into action—and what the ill effects might be of acting in other ways.
Since the training was designed to help organizational managers develop more effective communication skills, various scenarios depicting workplace conflict were dramatized in the slides and videos. Some theorizing surrounding these re-creations of hypothetical, highly fraught workplace situations, but these situations clearly constituted the beating heart of the course.
That being so, there was a certain amount of role-playing required of us participants, as well. That is, from time to time we were asked to work with partners in order to brainstorm different ways of handling various types of situations involving managers and their employees. Some of the situations were to be taken from our own personal experience, while others were given to us as a set of fictional premises. The idea was to practice the theoretical lessons we were supposed to have absorbed during Murray’s slide shows.
So much for the presentation of the material; what about the actual content?
The seminar was divided into eight modules, presented two each morning and two each afternoon:
- Getting Unstuck
- Start with Heart
- Master My Stories
- STATE My Path
- Learn to Look
- Make It Safe!
- Explore Others’ Paths
- Move to Action
The core content of the course was eminently sensible. It basically boiled down to the admonition to rise above the silence or violence (flight or fight) syndrome, and by changing our own behavior make it possible for other persons to change theirs—resulting in the possibility of more productive communication.
To achieve this goal, the eight modules presented various concepts, maxims, and bits of practical advice, complete with buzzwords and acronyms, to help us break the overall task down into a series of less challenging steps. This analytical structure was the intellectual core of the course.
The first module (“Getting Unstuck”) was focused on getting us to become more self-aware. First, we should try to determine the negative behavior pattern we were “stuck” in (silence or violence). This would involve trying to determine the nature of the problem, whether it fit into a pattern, and how it was affecting relationships with our co-workers (bosses, other managers, direct reports).
The second module (“Start with Heart”) presented an interesting premise: All of us already know what we think other people are doing wrong. But if we want to change a “stuck” situation, we ought to focus first on what we are doing wrong. That is, we should ask: “How is my own behavior contributing to the problem?” The idea was that we should begin by “changing our own hearts.” I found it interesting how that advice, though presented in scrupulously secular garb, echoed traditional religious precepts.
The third module (“Master My Stories”) presented a useful distinction between the publicly verifiable, objective facts describing a situation and the subjective interpretations of those facts by the parties involved, which might be very different from each other. This module challenged us to become aware of the spin we all place on the situations we find ourselves in, including the categories we use to make sense of the world around us—especially the other human beings in it. For example, we discussed how we often slot others into pigeon-holes with labels like “know-it-all,” “unprofessional,” “Bitter Bob,” “Chatty Cathy,” “Debbie Downer,” and other similar monikers. We were encouraged to let go of our “stories” (interpretations), in favor of “just the facts, ma’am!” While this advice might not pass muster as a piece of philosophizing, I think it was useful in the context of helping us to gain some distance from our own emotions.
The fourth module (“STATE My Path”) presented a set of specific recommendations for conducting crucial conversations. As so often during the course, we were offered an acronym to help us remember the individual recommendations, namely:
- Share your facts (state the publicly verifiable facts)
- Tell your story (give your own interpretation, presented as your own)
- Ask for others’ paths (ask the other person to give his or her own interpretation)
- Talk tentatively (tone down the positive assertion; imply that you could be wrong)
- Encourage testing (present your interpretations as hypotheses, not facts)
The fifth module (“Learn to Look”) was about what insight into a situation might be gained from other people’s nonverbal cues (facial expression, posture, etc.), as well as our own.
The sixth module (“Make It Safe!”) encouraged us to put ourselves in the other person’s position with respect to how he or she might feel threatened—what they might feel that they stood to lose in the situation. Then, we should express ourselves in as non-threatening a way as possible in order to calm those fears.
The seventh module (“Explore Others’ Paths”) taught us ways to draw the other person out, once they had been made to feel safe. That is, our goal in this unit was to help the other person to escape from the silence/violence dilemma in order to enter a crucial conversation with us. The most helpful hint here was to focus not on proving our own point of view correct (and the other person’s wrong), but rather on a mutual search for the truth.
The eighth and final module (“Move to Action”) concentrated on suggestions for devising plans of action in order to implement mutually arrived-at decisions, once the crucial conversation was completed.
To summarize, I would say that the Crucial Conversations seminar was designed to work on two levels.
On the cognitive or thinking level, we were presented with a list of specific concepts, maxims, and formulas designed to clarify for us the psychological factors hampering us in our interactions with others, on the theory that bringing these factors to conscious awareness would help us to modify our own behavior.
On the affective or emotional level, the filmed reconstructions of emotional workplace encounters, as well as the role-playing we ourselves engaged in, were designed to help us to recognize our own behavior and that of others in a more empathetic way.
How successful were these two fundamental approaches?
First, while the cognitive content of the course was indeed interesting, there was simply too much of it, presented in too little time, for us to be able to take it all in. For example, during our role-playing sessions, many of us (most of us, in fact) were reduced to scratching our heads or sneaking peeks back at the “toolkit,” to come up with the “right” answer. In other words, all the bullet points, buzzwords, and acronyms simply did not work very well as effective memory aids for the heat of the moment.
Second, however, it must be said that the dramatizations and the role-playing were far more effective at accomplishing the ultimate goal—which was not, after all, to make us memorize the content of the Crucial Conversations “toolkit,” but rather to help us to become better listeners, more effective managers, and more insightful and empathetic human beings.
Whenever we were challenged to really put ourselves into the positions of others (employees being interviewed by their manager; employees in conflict with one another), and to react to the real or fictional situations on a more intuitive level, we were often rewarded with flashes of authentic insight. These experiences could be unexpectedly moving—on more than one occasion, I noticed some teary eyes among my fellow participants. I could not swear that they never noticed any in me.
Above all, we learned a very valuable lesson: It was easy to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses in the dilemmas confronting the characters in the situations we watched and discussed. In short, the course was useful because it was real—it dealt in genuine, recognizable human realities. And such recognition of ourselves in others, and of others in ourselves, is always beneficial to us human beings, whatever the circumstances may be.
A couple of months have gone by now. Can I say that Crucial Conversations made a real difference in my life? Am I a better—a more caring and empathetic—person for having survived this seminar?
I certainly could not recite much of the content of the course from memory. I have had to consult the “toolkit” constantly in order to write up the report above. So, considered as an exercise in purely cognitive learning of a specific intellectual content, the seminar was largely a waste of time.
But, of course, that was not the point of the course.
The point of the course was to change my behavior. Or, better yet, to change my way of being—to make me a better manager, if not a better person (and perhaps it is necessary to become the latter in order to become the former).
How did it perform on that score?
I would like to think that, on the practical level of making me a better manager within my organization, my time in the Crucial Conversations course was well spent.
At any rate, I think that, while I am probably still no great shakes as a manager, I am at least a better one than I was before—a better listener, quicker to intervene when necessary, and slower to blow my top.
If I am right about that, then the course really was a success, and no doubt about it. But my co-workers would know better about that than I would.
Better ask them.