Quality eLine Newsletter
April 2004
Vol. 6, No. 4

Six Sigma and More: 
Crucial conversations and gut reactions

by David R. Schwinn

Crucial conversations: Your guts are tight. Your head aches. You are feeling nervous. You have prepared for and/or replayed this conversation endlessly. It feels more like a battle than a conversation. These are but a few of the signs of a crucial conversation.

A couple of weeks ago, my bright, somewhat unconventional colleague, Scottie Putman, gave me a book that our dean, Judi Berry, is handing out around campus. The title is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2002). Although a quick scan led me to believe it to be just another book on dialogue, I decided that if the dean liked it, maybe I should give it a closer look.

The definition of a crucial conversation is “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.” The book also points out that, in these situations, we are frequently on our worst behavior, we are under pressure, we are stupid, and we act in self-defeating ways. As I considered the relevance of these descriptions to me, I recalled ruefully those times when the conversation bothered me and the results were less than ideal. Checking out this book might improve both my own wellbeing and the quality of my interactions with others.

So, what do we do about these less than ideal, no, lousy discussions? Well, as I had suspected, it is dialogue. But these authors have added some useful twists to the tools and techniques I have been studying and practicing for the last 15 years or so. Before we get to the twists, let’s review the basics. Their definition of dialogue is “The free flow of meaning between two or more people.” I would add to that a phrase I picked up I know not where, “Seek first to understand.” But what do meaning and understanding have to do with action? We don’t get paid to understand, we get paid to act. Although we won’t find that last sentiment written in many places, it seems to reflect the reality of most of our corporate cultures. On the other hand, we all know, when we think about it, that actions that lack shared understanding usually fall short of our intentions…unless, of course, we gave up on taking effective action long ago. But if we think effective dialogue might be useful, let’s look at the twists.

The first twist is to remember to focus on what you really want. The book contrasts this focus with wanting to win, seeking revenge, or simply hoping to stay safe. I can remember plenty of times when I’ve fallen unintentionally into one of those last three desires. The book provides a nice set of questions to keep us focused:

1. What do I really want for myself?
2. What do I really want for others?
3. What do I really want for the relationship?

Those three questions brought to me another; what do we really want for the community, the organization, the world, and the universe? Our culture has led us to believe that this kind of inquiry will bring multiple, perhaps irreconcilable responses. Well, maybe. But the book’s admonition and my experience suggest that it ain’t necessarily so. Using dialogue to seek common ground frequently works. Finding the both/and instead of the either/or solution usually works. Unfortunately it often requires either skills or time that we don’t seem to have. If you are a Six Sigma practitioner, I recommend you find both. Your own wellbeing and professional results will improve significantly.

The second twist is to “learn to look.” When we engage in these types of conversations, a natural, but unconscious result is fear. I am again reminded of W. Edward Deming’s brilliance as he required that we “eliminate fear.” As we all know, fear drives us into our reptilian brain from which we can only choose fight or flight. It is a knee-jerk response for most of us to go there in a “crucial conversation.” The book uses slightly different, but useful, language to describe this phenomenon. Silence and violence are the words used by the book.

Here are a few manifestations of this behavior. Conversation stops or slows to a trickle. Sarcasm increases. People withdraw either physically, emotionally, or intellectually. Overstatement and exaggeration become common. People who can become dictatorial do so. Name calling erupts. Personal attacks break out. Although these symptoms may not be obvious in others, the hardest part of this “learning to look” is the requirement to “...First take the log out of your own eye…” (Matthew. 7:3-5). But even before you take the log out, you’ve got to recognize that it’s there. After all that, it’s time to look at the behavior of others in the group.

The final twist is to “make it safe.” When you notice that the conversation is going poorly, try to rebuild both respect and purpose. Having worked on your own log, you will find it easier to apologize. You will also find it easier to interpret how you might have been misunderstood. Clarify your message by both stating what you did not mean and what you did mean. Finally, recommit to seeking a common purpose. Explore the larger purpose that you all have in common. Then try to find new strategies for achieving that larger purpose.

Crucial conversations are part of our Six Sigma efforts just as they are part of our everyday lives. Maybe some of these basics and twists will make those conversations a little more pleasant and a little more productive.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. I’m at support@ pqsystems.com


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