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The Pool of Shared Meaning

is the birthplace of synergy.

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Not only does a shared pool help individuals make better

choices, but since the meaning is shared, people willingly act on

whatever decisions they make. As people sit through an open

discussion where ideas are shared, they take part in the free flow

of meaning. Eventually they understand why the shared solution is the best solution, and they’re committed to act. For example,

Kevin and the other VPs didn’t buy into their final choice simply

because they were involved; they bought in because they under­ stood.

Conversely, when people aren’t involved, when they sit back

quietly during touchy conversations, they’re rarely committed to

the final decision. Since their ideas remain in their heads and

their opinions never make it into the pool, they end up quietly

criticizing and passively resisting. Worse still, when others force

their ideas into the pool, people have a harder time accepting the

information. They may say they’re on board, but then walk away and follow through halfheartedly. To quote Samuel Butler, “He

that complies against his will is of his own opinion still.”

The time you spend up front establishing a shared pool of

meaning is more than paid for by faster, more committed action

later on. For example, if Kevin and the other leaders had not been

committed to their relocation decision, terrible consequences would have followed. Some people would have agreed to move;

others would have dragged their feet. Some would have held

heated discussions in the hallways. Others would have said noth­ ing and then quietly fought the plan. More likely than not, the team would have been forced to meet again, discuss again, and

decide again-since only one person favored the decision and the

decision affected everyone.




Now, don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that every decision be made by consensus or that the boss shouldn’t take part in or even make the final choice. We’re simply suggesting

that whatever the decision-making method, the greater the shared meaning in the pool, the better the choice-whoever

makes it. Every time we find ourselves arguing, debating, running away,

or otherwise acting in an ineffective way, it’s because we don’t know how to share meaning. Instead of engaging in healthy dia­ logue, we play silly and costly games.

For instance, sometimes we move to silence. We play Salute and Stay Mute. That is, we don’t confront people in positions of authority. Or at home we may play Freeze Your Lover. With this tortured technique we give loved ones the cold shoulder in order to get them to treat us better (what’s the logic in that?).

Sometimes we rely on hints, sarcasm, innuendo, and looks of disgust to make our points. We play the martyr and then pretend we’re actually trying to help. Afraid to confront an individual, we blame an entire team for a problem-hoping the message will hit the right target. Whatever the technique, the overall method is the same. We withhold meaning from the pool. We go to silence.

On other occasions, not knowing how to stay in dialogue, we rely on violence-anything from subtle manipulation to verbal attacks. We act like we know everything, hoping people will

believe our arguments. We discredit others, hoping people won’t believe their arguments. And then we use every manner of force to get our way. We borrow power from the boss; we hit people with biased monologues. The goal, of course, is always the same-to compel others to our point of view.

Now, here’s how the various elements fit together. When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, we’re often at our worst. In order to move to our best, we have to find a way to explain what is in each of our personal pools of meaning-




especially our high-stakes, sensitive, and controversial opinions,

feelings, and ideas-and to get others to share their pools. We have to develop the tools that make it safe for us to discuss these

issues and to come to a shared pool of meaning. And when we do, our lives change.


And now for the really good news. The skills required to master high-stakes interactions are quite easy to spot and moderately easy to learn. First consider the fact that a well-handled crucial conversation all but leaps out at you. In fact, when you see some­ one enter the dangerous waters of a high-stakes, high-emotion, controversial discussion-and the person does a particularly

good job-your natural reaction is to step back in awe. “Wow! ” is generally the first word out of your mouth. What starts as a doomed discussion ends up with a healthy resolution. It can take

your breath away. More importantly, not only are dialogue skills easy to spot, but

they’re also fairly easy to learn. That’s where we’re going next.

We’ve isolated and captured the skills of the dialogue-gifted through twenty-five years of nonstop “Wow! ” research. First we

followed around Kevin and dozens like him. Then, when conver­ sations turned crucial, we took detailed notes. Afterward we compared our observations, tested our hypotheses, and honed

our models until we found the skills that consistently explain the success of brilliant communicators. Finally, we combined our

philosophies, theories, models, and skills into a package of learn­

able tools-tools for talking when stakes are high. Now we’re ready to share what we’ve learned. Stay with us as

we explore how to transform crucial conversations from fright­

ening events into interactions that yield success and results. It’s the mosl important set of ski l ls you’ll ever master.





Here’s what we’ll focus on in the remainder of the book. First, we’ll explore the tools people use to help create the con­

ditions of dialogue. The focus is on how we think about problem situations and what we do to prepare for them. As we work on ourselves, watch for problems, examine our own thought processes, discover our own styles, and then catch problems before they get out of hand, everyone benefits. As you read on,

you will learn how to create conditions in yourself and others

that make dialogue the path of least resistance.

Next, we’ll examine the tools for talking, listening, and acting

together. This is what most people have in mind when they think of crucial conversations. How do I express delicate feedback? How do I speak persuasively, not abrasively? And how about lis­ tening? Or better still, what can we do to get people to talk when they seem nervous? And how do we move from thought to

action? As you read on, you will learn the key skills of talking,

listening, and acting together.

Finally, we’ll tie all of the theories and skills together by pro­

viding both a model and an extended example. Then, to see if you can really do what it takes, we provide seventeen situations that would give most of us fits-even people who are gifted at

dialogue. As you read on, you will master the tools for

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