#SundayReview: Crucial Conversations


I find it odd and ironic that my first book review posted to this blog site is going to be for a nonfiction book. Most of you probably don’t know this, but I detest nonfiction literature and I typically will go out of my way to avoid reading it. This particular book has been recommended to me enough times to make me roll my eyes and scoff. Recommended reading outside my genre generally goes onto my “never read” list. I’m incredibly picky about what I read. In fact, in recent history I’ve tried to read stories I would not normally have chosen for myself and I haven’t finished a book in far too long. I like what I like, I suppose.

Let that serve as a laurel for my writing friends. If I’ve complimented your work…it’s because I really meant it.


So I read this book as part of my quest for career development at work. I’ve mastered what I currently do at a technical level. What I’m trying to gain now are managerial aspects of The Biz so that when I’m ready to move up into a higher level position, I’m ready for the responsibility. I’ve sought out business skills such as finance, project management, continuous improvement, statistical analysis, and organization. Where I believe I am most lacking, however, is in interpersonal skills. I’ve been told before, usually unkindly, that I’m brutally honest to a fault, self-righteous, and abrasive. And yes, those were the exact words used.

For those of you who might be reading this and have suffered similar insult, perhaps you don’t see this as a fault. I certainly don’t. I’m, by Meyers-Briggs personality test, an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging). To summarize it for you, it means that I value solitude above socialization, hard facts above feelings, rules above exceptions. I believe everyone, particularly in a business setting, should be held to the same high level of standards and should be compensated justly–bonuses, promotions, and raises for performers, accountability, retraining, or the boot for repetitive problems.

Needless to say, this makes the work environment an awkward place for me to navigate. The workplace is often plagued by at least one individual that just drives everyone crazy, and if you work for anything corporate–ruled by ‘departments’ and possessing of an HR department–you know that this can be unbearable at times. That’s why I sought out a career in laboratory science (and writing). Such a position minimizes my interactions with the aggravators to my serenity: people.

However, if I ever want to advance my way up the ladder, this is something I need to address. I don’t intend to leave my philosophy behind, but I do need to find a healthy way to engage in the uncomfortable conversations I’m sure to have if am gifted with the Crown of Swords (*cough* management *cough*). I’m sure to have to deal with employees I just don’t gel with, and I currently do not handle it well.

Crucial Conversations is a book that addresses this. At the core of its inception, the authors sought to identify the critical component that separated calm, successful individuals from those that struggled. So they literally sat in on a bunch of teams, typically workplaces and their meetings, to determine both who the best-respected individuals were, and why they were so revered.


The heart of the matter is that they discovered that people who remained focused on achieving the results that they cared about were better at getting the result that they wanted. You start by identifying the facts. The cold, hard facts. These are fragments of data that are irrefutable. “You missed this deadline” or “I said hello and welcome home and you didn’t answer.” Then you move onto the ‘story.’

See, it’s this story part that really got me interested, and why I’ve enjoyed the book and the class so much. The story is the interpretation of the facts. We can all look at facts and come up with a different story. Say the facts are, “I just got home. My dog is gone. My mom is gone. I love my dog more than people.” You can conclude a number of different things.

  • My mom took my dog somewhere and my dog may not be returning.
  • My dog ran away and my mom is going to look for her.
  • My dog is severely hurt and my mom had to take her to the vet.
  • My mom went somewhere and merely wanted the company, so she took the dog.

Our brains are wired to automatically solve the puzzle, so we invent stories that may or may not be true. In this case, Mom had only taken the dog to the store. This actually happened. My sister called me in a panic, worried about where her dog had gone. She worked herself up without knowing the actual truth, but because she has such a fierce love for her dog, she feared the worst and reacted to it.

This is often what happens when we approach a situation. We see an incomplete set of facts and draw assumptions as to what the truth is, and we go to any discussion armed with assumptions. And this entire scenario is what Crucial Conversations is all about.

As I said, I much enjoyed the class. As a scientist and a creative writer, I am already naturally doing all of these things. I generally give my negative interactions the benefit of the doubt. I allow that my husband may be cranky due to being exhausted. I figure if someone at work is snappish it’s because they might be dealing with something personal that they can’t talk about. The other thing I naturally do, as an author, is that I can take the same set of facts and spin it several different ways. These different ways are great perspectives for difference characters.

In the book I am currently writing, I do not spend a lot of time living in the perspective of the subject of the story. Instead, we observe her through the eyes of two different characters. There is a very limited set of facts available, but each observer believes a different story about her, and for the time being, I let the reader suffer to determine which is the truth.

This is why I love Crucial Conversations, and why I embrace it so strongly. These exact techniques are tactics I’ve been trying to perfect for my whole life so far. I’m always wondering at what drives the characters of my life. What led them to this moment in time? Why did this incident occur? Why are we at odds now? What’s the next chapter in the story? But more importantly…

…how do I get what I want?

Because that’s what this is all about. Getting what I want. If I’m fighting with my husband about why the house is a total cesspool, what I want is a clean house. But when I initiate the fight, the driving force behind my words is making him feel bad, not achieving a clean house. Crucial Conversations seeks to remind me that what I really want is a clean house, with a bonus prize happy husband. So rather than cornering him and laying out his flaws, what I need to do is communicate how I am feeling and why I want a clean house (which incidentally is how I’ve been handling it anyway).

If you’re in a professional career or can think of anyone you dread talking to but know you need to (I’ve been following this class with my mother in mind, but that’s a deeply personal conversation for another day), I highly recommend this book (and the class, if you have access to it). It’s an honest discussion about the human aspects of being human and how to be stronger than your own neurobiology, which in my opinion, is a powerful skill to have.

S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS.


About oneofthedragons

Samantha K. Balk and F. R. Donaldson met on An Archive of Our Own, one of the many fanfiction sites online, when Sam asked Frankie to illustrate the fanfiction that would one day lead to Sam's first novel. They've been friends ever since! This blog was created as a way to share the oftentimes difficult journey any new author experiences on the uncomfortable quest of an introvert for attention to his or her most personal work. It is meant to remind you that authors don't just appear fully fledged like a George R. R. Martin, that all of us start out unsure and feeling inadequate. Feel free to ask us anything. Sam: sammykaye9@gmail.com Frankie: reluctant.fraggle@gmail.com

Posted on May 22, 2016, in #SundayReview and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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