Book Review – Crucial Conversations

Ever find yourself in high stakes situations where even the slightest miscommunication can bring everything crashing into the ground? If so, Crucial Conversations has you covered. Crucial Conversations is a book about how to better navigate high stakes conversations. Unlike most business books, Crucial Conversations is packed with actionable information.

Why bother?

Why is this an important skill for developers? People think software development as a process where people in a windowless basement turn pizza and caffeine into software. The reality is that software development is more about communication than technology. We build software in teams. We build software for people. We need to figure out what those people want. We need to be able to have honest conversations when things don’t go as planned (which is always). Creating a free flowing dialog is absolutely essential to creating valuable software.

Beyond building software. Developers who want a lucrative career find themselves in high stakes negotiations. These include, project scope discussions, salary negotiations, and job role discussions. Learning how navigate these situations can add thousands of dollars to your lifetime earnings. Not bad for a $10 book and a few hours of reading time.

Main Ideas

Everyone has high stakes conversations. These include high pressure negotiations, impassioned arguments, and delicate interventions. Crucial conversations come in many different flavors. What links them together is that the results of these sorts of conversations have an out-sized impact on your life. Screw up one of these and you could be feeling the pain for years to come.

The key to navigating crucial conversations is to keep a free flowing dialog between the participants. To create free flowing dialog, maintain psychological safety. The primary goal of someone in a crucial conversation is to create and maintain a psychological safe space where both parties can express themselves without fear of anger or retribution. If everyone can get everything onto the table, you can usually figure out the correct path.

To cultivate psychological safety, you need to control your own emotions. Many people cast their own stories into “victim and villain” narratives. Playing the victim causes other people to get defensive. This defensiveness erodes psychological safety. Without psychological safety, people retreat to “silence or violence”. They either shut down or defend themselves with hostility. Usually emotional and verbal hostility, but sometimes physical hostility. Responding to a conversation with silence or aggression is “the fool’s choice”. Avoid the fool’s choice at all costs.

The book describes many techniques to maintain dialog. I’m not going to list them all out here, but a few include:

Shared Purpose
People generally have some shared goal in the conversation. Reminding people of that goal can inspire mutual cooperation.

Contrast and Clarification
Use contrast to clarify what you want. Prevent misinterpretation. Everyone has a plethora of cognitive biases. It’s easy to misinterpret wants and needs in high pressure situations. Contrast what you actually want with what people think you want.

“Start with Heart”
Figure out what you actually want from a situation and take your ego out of the equation.

Related Concepts

Radical Candor
Radical candor is where you are willing to challenge people directly, but with a high degree of empathy. It’s the useful alternative to being a wimp or an asshole.

Find out more about it here: https://www.radicalcandor.com/about-radical-candor/

Cognitive Distortions
People have a variety of intellectual distortions. These are also referred to as cognitive biases. Watch out for cognitive distortions in yourself or others. There are dozens of these, but Psychology Tools has put together handy chart detailing some of the major ones:

Web site – http://psychologytools.com/unhelpful-thinking-styles.html
PDF – http://media.psychologytools.com/worksheets/english_us/unhelpful_thinking_styles_en-us.pdf

Ego is the Enemy
A big part of being a better negotiation is learning how to disarm your ego. Lots of people forget their mutual goal and try to “win” an argument. This is usually waste of time. Focus more on your goal and less on yourself. Ryan Holiday has a fantastic book about this.

Ego is the Enemy (Amazon)

Conclusion

Being able to successfully navigate tough conversations is an essential developer skill. Crucial Conversations has a variety of techniques to better navigate high stakes conversations. For the sake of yourself and everyone who has to work with you, work on your communication skills.

Crucial Conversations (Amazon)

About the Author Dustin Ewers

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