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Book Review of: Crucial Conversations

Tools for talking when stakes are high

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Review of Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This book gives you much to think about, and will probably help most readers function better in conversations about touchy topics. The authors are speakers and presenters, and this book shows that. As I read it, the book struck me as one you'd pick up on the back table after a seminar. It's a worthy read, but not a great book.

I think great books about life principles tend to fall into one of two camps:

  1. They reach you emotionally. They provide insight rather than methodology. They are typically based on some profound life experience(s) of the author(s).
  2. They reach you intellectually. They provide methodology based on research. They are clinical and prescriptive.

This book doesn't fall into either camp. The book provides a methodology and says it's based on research, but the book doesn't have the requisite bibliography and other references. There is one page of end notes for the whole book and this covers four of the twelve chapters. In books written by the original researchers, there are still outside references plus there are details about the research methodology and analysis. This book lacks those things.

What we don't know, because the authors don't provide substantiation, is whether their prescription is proven. There are no double-blind studies of students involved in researching the techniques. There are no A/B comparisons. There are no brain scans showing how people respond to this kind of approach versus that one. There are no case studies of going into a dysfunctional corporation and, well, I think I made the point.

It's left to the reader to try the prescribed techniques to see if they are effective. The methodology is based on the authors' theories, experiences, and observations, rather than on research that follows the scientific method. That doesn't mean the authors are wrong; much of what we learn in life doesn't arise from applying the scientific method. At the same time, the authors present their prescription as "based on research." Which, given what they wrote (and didn't write), it's not.

Why they didn't present this as coming from their experience, I don't know. If Warren Buffet came to me and said, "I'm going to share with you a money management tip based on my experience," I can assure you I would not reject him out of hand. In their own field, the authors may not be at the level Mr. Buffet is in his, but still--what they say appears to come from wisdom and experience so why not say so and get on with it?

Now, let's look at what this book does offer. Have you had those surprise moments when you get suckered into a conversation you shouldn't be having and it all turns out wrong? That's the problem this book addresses. It does that in a prescriptive manner, and what the authors say makes sense. This particular problem is pervasive and often devastating. The ability to mitigate such a problem or even turn around a failing conversation is highly valuable. The authors present a methodology for achieving this. And it's one that makes a great deal of sense.

If you're having communication issues (and who isn't?), the small investment in this book is probably going to be worthwhile. You may not solve all of your problems and become an unflappable conversationalist, but you can probably improve enough that you're much happier in your relationships. Shortly after reading this book, I personally tried some of the techniques with someone who is always very difficult to talk with and things went better than normal.

This book is well-structured and well-written. It's become increasingly rare that authors have a passing command of English and increasingly rare that a book undergoes competent copy-editing. I don't recall a single grammatical error in this book. That counts as a minor miracle, these days.

Crucial Conversations consists of twelve chapters, a foreword, a page of endnotes, and a small index.

Stephen R. Covey wrote the foreword. In so doing, he oversold the book. I was dismayed that he overdid the blarney this way.

The chapters are as follows:

Chapter 1. What's a Crucial Conversation. The authors start the book by getting us all clear on what they are talking about. This chapter explains why one conversation is crucial and another isn't.

Chapter 2. Mastering Crucial Conversations. The key is to understand that dialogue is the free flow of meaning between two or more people. When you fill the pool of shared meaning, you have success. The rest of the book concerns itself with how to stay in dialogue.

Chapter 3. Start with the Heart. The basic concept here is to examine your own heart, determine what you really want, and work on improving your dialogue skills to communicate that. In this chapter, the authors also begin to talk about Sucker's Choices, which they'll keep coming back to throughout the book. In the Sucker's Choice, you justify poor behavior by assuming or suggesting you are caught between two distasteful options.

Chapter 4. Learn to Look. To keep the other person on track in a conversation, you need to look for clues that the other person doesn't feel safe and then take action to help that person feel safe. When people don't feel safe, they get defensive and fall back on behavior that derails a conversation. They'll retreat into silence or violence, neither of which is healthy. This chapter contains a self-test for determining your style under stress. After you review your results, you'll know which subsequent chapter most applies to you.

Chapter 5 covers what to do when you find those clues that the other person doesn't feel safe. Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9 each address other areas identified by the self-test.

Chapter 10 is titled "Putting It All Together" and it recaps up the book. Chapter 11 provides advice on specific types of hardcases that defy the techniques in the book. Chapter 12 is titled "How to Turn Ideas Into Habits." The intention of this chapter is to give you something so you don't just read the book and continue as before. Basically, it says to study small parts of the book and practice what you learn.

I think this book makes a good addition to any self-help library. While it falls short of a "must read," it comes awfully close.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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