I recently attended a professional development training titled Crucial Conversations, in an effort to expand my knowledge. I was hesitant at first; change is getting harder as I get older. However, after the introduction I was fully dedicated to gaining as much information as I possibly could. The course was very interactive and the overall environment allowed for easy participation and group discussion. In fact, some of my fellow participants encouraged me to share my learnings in this Women in STEM group by writing a blog.
I found five areas of the course most valuable and have outlined them below. Personally, I have already started applying the skills learned during the training and know they will continue to help me build stronger relationships both in my career and in my personal life.
Taking this course taught me how to recognize when I am “stuck” in my relationships. In this usage case, “stuck” refers to being at an impasse because conversations about the topic are too difficult for you or others to have. A great example of this is when you and a co-worker disagree on a decision and can’t come to terms with the best path forward. In my case, this can cause me to get irritated and has created some tension in my relationships in the past. These conversations can happen at work or at home and can take place in a face-to-face setting or remotely such as through email or phone. Learning to recognize a potential situation ahead of time can help defuse the tension and resolve the issue while building trust in the relationship.
This class provided a tool to help recognize what is causing the issue in the relationship. It is referred to as CPR. C (content) refers to a single instance of a problem, P (pattern) refers to a recurring problem or a pattern of behavior over time and R (relationship) refers to how the problem is affecting your relationship about trust, competence or respect. These can happen all at once, but it is best to try to tackle one issue at a time.
Controlling yourself and getting what you want out of a conversation is important, but how can you do that if you aren’t able to prepare? One of the keys to focus on throughout a difficult conversation is to ask what is to be gained from having the conversation in the first place? What is your goal? Prior to this training, this seemed obvious to me; I want my way. But most of the time I also want to come to an understanding with the other person to achieve a common goal. If you can take a step back from the conversation for a second (or better yet) go into a difficult conversation with a goal in mind, the conversation will go smoother.
The real issue is when a difficult conversation begins without preparation and suddenly emotions come into play. This can cause tensions to rise. Recently, I had someone come into my office early on a Monday morning after a long vacation frantically explaining that a decision I had made a few months prior was causing an issue on the manufacturing floor. My reaction wasn’t the best and instead of taking a moment to evaluate the situation, I escalated the tension by mirroring the physical emotion of the other party. You'll learn more about this in section three below. I was unprepared and let it get the best of me. I became interested in how to handle these conversations differently. This course taught me some great ways to take a moment and outline my thought process and responses before reacting. Sometimes the issue is that there isn’t trust in the relationship. In this case, it’s helpful to look outside of the context of the conversation and reiterate that the idea is to find common ground together and that all opinions are of equal importance.
If you are in a difficult conversation and you hear someone say something that isn’t to your liking, you probably immediately build a story in your head about that other person and the situation you are in. Generally, that story is a negative one and begins a spiral of negative feelings. This doesn’t help the situation and in most cases, compounds the problem. Your emotions can turn sour and body language can turn negative. The downward spiral continues as the other person often mirrors these negative emotions and behaviors.
How to control your story is one of the most important set of skills that I learned. I realized that, in general, people don’t want to argue. However, they might have a different perspective. It can be easy to develop a negative view of an interaction, but trying to understand why the negative view is occurring and getting to the heart of the issue can allow for a positive resolution and limit the damage to a relationship. Can you imagine how beneficial it would be to fully understand another’s point of view in a conversation before responding?
When I am in a difficult conversation and things escalate, I tend to behave in this manner: I talk faster, I get warm, and if it is hard for me to understand, I shake a little. Now that I recognize these physical behaviors, I can use them as a warning system to let me know that my mind is doing the talking instead of my heart.
Speaking through your heart (using a filter to say to things in a way that is not offensive) presents a big learning curve for me. We, as engineers, are taught to think logically about most problems and respond accordingly. What we don’t realize is that some of the things we say can come off as harsh when they aren’t meant to be that way. Speaking through my heart prevents me from saying things in a way that might detract from the actual meaning of my words. It allows me to portray both my feelings and my “logical response” in a way that is not aggressive or insensitive.
Listening intently has always been a huge problem for me. I have always listened to speak rather than to hear what someone is saying. It’s like I've always been on edge of my seat waiting to get a word in (my word). It’s a bad habit that often leads to unproductive conversations and can damage a relationship.
To prevent myself from doing this, I am developing the skill of repeating what I hear back to the other person. This forces me to listen to what the other person is saying with intent. It also gives me time to think about my response and reduces my negative physical reactions. If you too are learning to put this into practice, here’s an article on intent or active listening.
Even if you think you are great at difficult conversations, I guarantee that you that you will take something meaningful away from a course such as Crucial Conversations. I’d like to say a BIG THANK YOU to all of my classmates; without their open participation my experience wouldn’t have been as impactful. The skills I’m learning to put into practice are helping me improve interactions in both my professional life and my personal life. Behavioral change isn’t the easiest thing in the world and sometimes it takes a long time to see the effects, but with hard work and dedication I know it is possible.