Throughout my career, I have come across many books on improving executive performance. Most have been informative, many can be described as eye-opening, and a precious few must be hailed as awe-inspiring. However, the one that stands out to me as a transformative read is Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high, emotions run strong, and opinions vary (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler). Lessons I have learned from this book have extended past my professional dealings into my personal life.
The authors of Crucial Conversations followed hundreds of top performing executives in attempt to ascertain why they were excelling beyond their peers. What is that indefinable interpersonal quality that makes someone a great leader?
The book details their findings and translates them into simple tools that can be used to enhance your conversational acuity. When I first read the book, I was astonished at how much these tools focused on emotions: it seems that emotional awareness is the key to business success.
While it is no substitute for reading the book, here is a brief overview of the lessons I learned from Crucial Conversations and how they transformed my life:
1. The Missing Emotional Link
Crucial Conversations opened my eyes to the fact that there is a link in the chain of human emotions which flies under the radar. Most people assume that their emotional reactions are the result of situations, with the situation acting as the causal mechanism. This assumption overlooks the missing link: the story.
When we react to a situation, we tell ourselves a story, which in turn generates our emotional state. Every person’s story will be different, and is almost always defined by their past experiences. The story we tell defines our emotions by presuming the intentions of the other person, which may not reflect the reality of the situation. Therefore, by becoming aware of this missing link and striving to examine and rewrite our own personal stories, we can become stronger and more compassionate conversationalists.
This link between human emotions and individual stories frequently goes unnoticed, unappreciated and unexamined, and as a result our conversations and relationships suffer. Understanding this invisible link between human emotions has changed my life and transformed my relationships, personal and professional, for the better.
2. Breaking Bad News
The time will come when every business leader has to break some unwelcome news, and it is inevitably a painful task. As heart wrenching as it may be, a true leader will strive to approach these difficult conversations with honesty, kindness and positivity.
It is not uncommon for leaders who are faced with difficult conversations, for example informing staff of redundancies, to retreat into a hardened emotional state in order to try and safeguard their own emotional wellbeing.
However, this can be a costly mistake, and will likely do both parties a disservice in the long run.
3. Repairing A Broken Dialogue
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of both parties, a working relationship will deteriorate to the point where it is no longer functional. There are many reasons that this can come about, and the first step towards reparation is acknowledging what went wrong.
The most difficult part of repairing a broken relationship can be offering a sincere apology for your own mistakes. It is never easy to admit that you have been wrong, but you will inevitably grow from the experience.
Following on from apologising for past mistakes, it is important to find common ground with the other party. Where this is a struggle, it is often beneficial to talk about the big picture, as you will more often than not be able to identify a broad mutual purpose.