I recently interviewed Khani Sahebjam, Mn/DOT Deputy Commissioner. We talked about the 9th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson.
Tang: Why did you pick this book?
Sahebjam: Our success as an individual and as an organization depends a great deal on our ability to communication and handle crucial conversations well. You could have done great things and have good intention, but if you don’t know how to convey important messages to other people and how to deal with disagreements on important matters, then you are limited in what you can achieve. This book helps you to learn how to communicate best when it matters most.
Crucial Conversations gives you some tools you need to step up to life’s most difficult and important conversations, say what’s on your mind, and get what you want, in a respectful and effective way.
Tang: For people who haven’t read the book, what is a crucial conversation?
Sahebjam: The authors define crucial conversations as those discussions between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.
Tang: How do we typically handle crucial conversations?
Sahebjam: Basically we are all involved in crucial conversations, both at home and at work. But often times we are not aware of the dynamics at play and we are not skilled at handling crucial conversations.
Typically we do one of the three things when we face crucial conversations: (1) avoid them and walk away, (2) face them and handle them poorly, and (3) face them and handle them well. For the first two choices, you suffer consequences, for the third choice, you can reap positive results – better relationships, career advancement, improved organizations, etc.
Tang: What are some of the principles and skills we need to understand and master so we can respond well when we face crucial conversations?
Sahebjam: In the book the authors talked about seven principles.
- Start with heart. Examine your goals and motives, focus on what you really want for yourself, for others and for the relationships, refuse the either/or, win/lose thinking.
- Learn to look for when the conversation becomes crucial and for your own behaviors.
- Make it safe for everyone to share their opinions and feelings, seek mutual purpose and respect.
- Master our stories. We add meaning, motives and judgment to what we observe, based on the stories we tell ourselves, which create feelings that lead to our actions. So it’s important to tell the right stories.
- STATE your path. Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ take on the facts and stories, Talk tentatively, Encourage testing.
- Explore others’ paths. Understand where others come from. Agree when you can and build on the agreement.
- Move to action. When making decision, ask who cares, who knows, who must agree and how many people need to be involved. To ensure that dialogues and decisions lead to positive action and results, ask who does what by when and how will you follow up.
Tang: What are the most important skills we should remember?
Sahebjam: The two most important things to learn and remember from the book are learn to look and make it safe.
At the core of every successful conversation is the free flow of relevant information and meaning, also known as dialogue. Each of us enters a conversation with different opinions, feelings, experiences, ideas and theories about the topic being discussed. The key is being open and honest in sharing opinions and feelings.
One critical skill required for ensuring the free flow of information and meaning is to make it safe for everyone to bring their inputs out into the open, into a shared pool. As the shared pool grows, people are exposed to more accurate and relevant information, as the result, they make better choices and decisions.
Change doesn’t happen without an awareness of the need for change.
That’s why we need to learn to look for when a conversation becomes crucial and look for safety problems. Becoming aware of the situation (Are you involved in a crucial conversation?) and becoming aware of your behavior (Are you playing the silent or violent games?) is the first step to bring positive change.
Tang: Please share some quotes from the book that are very meaningful for you.
Sahebjam: “The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel, and misrepresentation.” – C. Northcote Parkinson
Tang: I know you are an immigrant from Iran. Tell us a little bit more about your background.
Sahebjam: My parents were both from Iran. They met and got married in Germany while studying there. It was an arranged marriage as it was common in our culture. I was born in Germany. In 1969, when I was 10 years old, my mother and I went back to Iran.
I graduated from high school in 1977. The following year I came to the U.S. to study civil engineering at the South Dakota State University. There I met my wife. We have two kids, a daughter who is a student at St. Thomas and a son who is in high school.
Tang: So you know three languages, German, Persian and English? Which one are you most comfortable with?
Sahebjam: English is more natural for me now, then Persian (Farsi) and German.
Tang: You have quite a cultural diversity in your family background. You experienced different cultures at a young age and have an interracial marriage. How has all this influenced you in your conversation style and handling crucial conversations?
Sahebjam: There are definitely cultural differences. In some cultures or regions, people are generally more quiet and reserved, in other cultures or regions, people are more direct and open.
When I meet with people, I like to use humor, often by making fun of myself, to get conversations going. I know what I want, I become aware of situations. When a conversation goes nowhere or goes in the wrong direction, I step back and assess if I am having the wrong conversation or the wrong presentation. If so, then I will approach the conversation from a different angle. The book validated how I have operated in my life.
Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.
Sahebjam: I like to read books on history – American, European and Iranian history. I think you can learn a lot from history, including leadership skills. I read true stories about American civil wars. They are interesting. I also like Persian literature, especially Persian poetry.
Tang: What do you think of the Commissioner’s Reading Corner?
Sahebjam: I think Commissioner’s Reading Corner is a new, interesting and thought provoking program. I am happy to participate in the book discussion. It gets people involved in learning and gets conversation going which can make Mn/DOT a better place to work.