This week we focus on Chapter 4 of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler. The chapter is titled, Learn to Look: How To Notice When Safety Is At Risk.

Chapter 4 begins with an example of a crucial conversation gone wrong. The protagonist in the example does not see the turning point, nor does he understand how things went so wrong so quickly. Later two of his colleagues clue him in. The goal of the story is to point out that recognizing inflection points in dialogs and how you react to them is important in not ending up with a mess. 

People that are good with crucial conversations observe both the content and conditions of the dialog they are participating in. The book calls this “dual-processing.” This is something I occasionally have difficulty doing; it takes continuous practice and a process. The book provides the process.  

The process begins with learning to spot when dialog begins to go off track. The physical indicators include pointing fingers, loud talking, withdrawing, and other forms of body language. In order to notice this, you need to pay attention to tone and body language even while you participate in the dialog. Dual-processing is no mean feat, requiring concentration and practice. Hence the title of the chapter, Learn To Look, and my earlier comment about the need for practice.

The second level of observation is looking for safety problems – this is really emotional safety or psychological safety. In scenarios where safety is an issue participants will shut down or become aggressive. In order to be good at crucial conversations, you need to be able to watch and recognize signs that not everyone feels that they can freely put information into a common pool (definition of a dialog from Chapter 2). Lack of safety generates fear, which shuts a dialog down.  The book suggests that in situations where people feel safe they can say anything (and infers the opposite).

When safety is an issue, silence is a common outcome.  The authors use the term silence to mean “the act of purposely withholding information from a dialogue.” Silence is more than the lack of sound and can be accomplished by obscuring information and meaning via word games or just avoiding a topic entirely.  The most common forms of silence are masking, avoiding, and withdrawing. The book provides examples of each. Of the three, masking which includes the use of sugar coating and sarcasm, is a common problem I observe in meetings when all the participants do not feel psychologically safe.

Another outcome of scenarios that are not safe is violence. The authors define violence as consisting “of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view.”  As with silence, violence comes in three flavors; controlling, labeling and attacking. Labeling was the least immediately clear to me, but like many things once understood it can be seen everywhere. Labeling is putting a name or tag on an idea that then allows it to be dismissed. Last year in a discussion an executive described Scrum as a nice “theory” which was then followed by the suggestion that a more “pragmatic” course of action be adopted (which ended up being strict command and control mixed with winging it).

Crucial conversations require observing what is happening around you and within you while participating. The book provides a  33 question self-assessment to help the reader develop an understanding of their personal approach to crucial conversations under stress,

One of the pieces of advice in Chapter 4 is that the longer you take to notice things are going awry, the longer (time and effort) it will take to get things back on track. Work on dual-processing during crucial conversations. Recently, I have adopted a quick personal retrospective after crucial conversations to evaluate how I can be more mindful of conditions and content.

Catch up — 

Week 1 – Logistics, Forewards, and Preface 

Week 2 – Chapter 1: What’s a crucial conversation? And who cares? 

Week 3 – Chapter 2: The Power of Dialogue  

Week 4 – Chapter 3: Start With Heart 

If you do not have a copy or have tossed it at someone during a crucial conversation, it is time to buy a copy. Please use the link (using the link helps support the blog and podcast).