Mastering Crucial Conversations: Why It Works

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Crucial Conversations" by Kerry Patterson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Why should you work on mastering crucial conversations? What can mastering the art of crucial conversations do for you in your life and relationships?

Mastering crucial conversations can help you in all areas of your life. Of course, crucial conversations can take place at work, in your personal life, and in other areas. Mastering the art of crucial conversations will make you a healthier, happier person. Keep reading to find out how.

The Value of Mastering Crucial Conversations

Despite the challenges and risks, anyone can learn to effectively hold tough conversations about virtually any topic. Mastering the art of crucial conversations isn’t easy, but it is possible to learn if you have dedication and patience.

Mastering crucial conversations can:

1. Boost Your Career

When you can address difficult topics effectively, you’ll be influential and effective at getting things done, and you’ll build strong relationships.

For example, you’ll be able to stand up to the boss without committing career suicide, or debate controversial issues without going overboard and creating enemies. You don’t have to choose between honesty and your career. Mastering crucial conversations means you can get people at all levels to listen without getting angry or defensive.

2. Improve Your Organization

Having leaders and employees who skillfully handle crucial conversations can improve an organization’s performance, while poorly handled conversations and interactions can undercut it.

When employees have good conversation skills

On the positive side, the authors’ research shows that companies whose employees are skilled at crucial conversations:

  • Respond faster to financial downturns. 
  • Are less likely to be injured due to unsafe conditions.
  • Increase the productivity of virtual (remote) work teams.
  • Influence misbehaving or incompetent colleagues to do better.

Most leaders think that organizational productivity and performance are driven by policies, processes, or systems. When there are problems they adjust these things, but it often doesn’t work because the problem is behavior, not systems.

Solving behavior problems requires crucial conversation skills.

When employees have poor conversation skills

On the negative side, when organizations have performance problems such as snowballing costs, late delivery times, and poor morale, the biggest reason is employees’ unwillingness or inability to speak up (have crucial conversations) at key moments.

For example, employees see others take shortcuts or make mistakes, and don’t say anything, which impacts safety, turnover, and productivity. Also projects can fail when employees stay silent about problems — for instance, when goals are unrealistic, team members perform badly, or leadership stumbles. Mastering crucial conversations personally benefits the whole company.

3. Improve Your Relationships

Failed crucial conversations can cause relationships to fail. Mastering crucial conversations is vital for a relationship’s survival.

When people break up they often blame it on differences of opinion on important issues. But while everyone argues about important issues, clearly not every relationship ends in turmoil — it’s how you argue that matters.

From the authors’ research observing couples, they found that people handle difficult conversations in one of three ways:

  • They resort to threats and name-calling.
  • They retreat into angry silence.
  • They speak honestly and effectively.

The researchers found that helping couples hold crucial conversations more effectively reduced their chances for unhappiness or breakup by more than half. 

4. Improve Your Health

The ability to master high-stakes crucial conversations contributes to a healthier and longer life.

On the other hand, communication problems can exacerbate health problems:

  • Immune system weakness: A study showed that couples who argued more had weaker immune systems than those who resolved difficult conversations well (a weak immune system results in poor health). 
  • Life-threatening diseases: In a study of people with life-threatening cancer, researchers taught a group of them effective communication. Five years later, this group had a higher survival rate than the group that didn’t get the training. Improvement in the ability to talk with others corresponded to a two-thirds decrease in the death rate. 
  • Repressing negative emotions: The negative feelings we hold in and the emotional pain from unhealthy conversations slowly erode our health. It can lead to both minor and major health problems. 

Mastering Crucial Conversations: Putting it Together

Mastering crucial conversations can be hard, especially when you’re emotional. When you’re involved in a heated crucial conversation, it can be hard to remember and apply the dialogue skills and principles. It takes practice and preparation. In the meantime, however, you can improve your handling of crucial conversations by simply focusing on two key principles:

  • Pay attention to what’s happening: Constantly ask yourself whether you and others are in or out of dialogue. Even if you don’t know exactly how to fix a problem, you can try something, which is always better than doing nothing.
  • Ensure safety: When you notice that you and others have moved away from dialogue, do something to make it safer — for instance, asking a question and showing interest in others’ views. 

Meanwhile, study and practice the seven dialogue principles. Despite the challenges and risks of crucial conversations, anyone can learn the skills to effectively hold tough conversations about virtually any topic. Don’t worry about being perfect — even a little effort can lead to dramatic improvement.

Mastering crucial conversations takes work and practice. You can learn about mastering the art of crucial conversations through study and practice, and becoming a better communicator benefits your life all around.

Mastering Crucial Conversations: Why It Works

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  • How to approach an argument without getting mad
  • The mistakes most people make when trying to listen to someone else
  • How to come up with win-win solutions that make everyone happy

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