My manager recommended Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High to me, at a time when I felt a loss of status at work, partly related to some conversations I’d had where I said some unwise things due to pressure I felt (or in another situation where I didn’t feel like facing a personal failing and so chose to spend time talking about others’). He liked to state that he’d never seen a problem in the business that couldn’t be solved with the ideas in this book (and The Goal - review coming another day).

The book defines crucial conversations as conversations where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions are strong. “I need you to do your job better,” or “I got the promotion you wanted and now we have to work together,” kind of conversations. The temptation is to avoid those conversations, or turn them into a fight, which will both lead to greater problems. On the other hand, if handled well, all parties can benefit.

The claim of the book is that some people handle difficult conversations really well, and lessons from many of those people are distilled in its pages.

A large and part of the book’s value to me was in self-examination. Crucial to these conversations is asking, “what do I really want”, which may well be different from what I push for in a reflex response to threat. Less helpful responses devolve to silence (grudging or even faked acceptance) or violence (I suppose usually verbal) towards the other party.

As I read the book I was able to identify these unhelpful responses in many interactions I’ve had in personal or professional capacity. An important realisation for me here was that I had no clue that this was happening at the time.

A corollary to this new realisation is to understand that very often other people are equally as unaware of their reactions and what is important to them. The tools in the book are useful for self-reflection and for helping negotiate situations where other people seem unreasonable.

Instead of silence or violence, there is the option to examine my wants and those of the other party and attempt to find a way for everyone to win. They don’t have to lose in order for me to win, and vice versa.

Another important concept was how big a part of communication the non-verbal aspects are. The literal words someone uses may sometimes even be the opposite of what someone is feeling, and it’s important to get to the real heart of the issue; there’s no point trying to argue over the surface level points if something deeper is going on.

This is in contrast to how I understood conversation previously: if I don’t hear words from someone expicitly stating their preference for something other than the status quo (with reasons), then everything is fine. The big problem with this (I realised as I read) is that of course I myself do not always make my preferences known in clear, literal words.

There are many really important lessons I learned from this book, and I recommend it to others frequently. If there is any criticism it may be that much of the advice is formulaic and may therefore come across as manipulative. To be fair to the authors, they do explicitly state that the only way the material can be successfully applied is if you genuinely intend to find the best outcome in the conversation for everyone.

Highly recommended for anyone who has to collaborate with others (so, I suppose, everyone) and especially for those of us who feel threatened when we do.