Reading Group: Crucial Conversations

It’s hard to help people develop, especially when it comes to the soft skills involved in management. You can give them new responsibilities, push them with concrete tasks in areas in which they’re weak, or discuss issues and possible solutions… but this presupposes that you know what the problems are, and that you know how to address them. Which is problematic, since in many cases (whether you realize it or not) you have the same issues.

So, I recently started a reading group, composed of managers and leads, to read about and discuss issues related to management-related tasks. This is analogous to the technical reading groups we hold (with books like Effective Java and JavaScript: The Good Parts), but with books that address specific management challenges.

Our first book was What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, which dealt mostly with common interpersonal anti-patterns (and which got mixed reviews from the group). We’re currently reading through Crucial Conversations, which has had a much better reception.

“Crucial conversations” are defined as conversations in which opinions differ, emotions run high, and something important is at stake. This refers less to high-stakes negotiations, and more to the kinds of conversations with co-workers, friends, or family that quickly and disastrously spiral out of control. These happen all the time, and can throw you for a loop, especially when they spring up out of nowhere.

The thing I like most about this book is that, far from being theoretical or abstract, it’s more of a how-to that gives concrete tools for dealing with these situations, without resorting to tricks or manipulation. As we’ve gotten deeper into the book, I find myself discussing the points with my managers as we consider upcoming crucial conversations. Perhaps there’s an employee who’s underperforming, or a business partner who’s becoming difficult – how do you have the conversation respectfully, firmly, truthfully, and without causing bad feelings? How do you keep sight of your true objectives in the heat of the moment?

Another strong point is its discussion of common reactions to crucial conversations – avoidance and violence. Some people retreat into silence when faced with conflict, others come out swinging. It’s easy to water down a critique to try to avoid hurting feelings (avoidance), but then you aren’t really addressing the issue. Alternatively, some people can be very harsh when providing feedback (violence), but then the content of the critique becomes secondary to the feelings of resentment and anger at the way in which it was communicated. Most workplaces I’ve known have tended toward avoidance, though I’ve certainly seem my share of yelling bosses – the point is, the book does an excellent job of describing both problems, and discussing how you can create an environment in which it’s possible to discuss difficult topics without either sugar-coating or causing damage.

It’s a little humbling to read a book that pegs you so accurately, but it’s also gratifying to know that there’s something you can do about it. I strongly recommend the book, and am looking forward to discussing the next sections.

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