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Poorly handling crucial conversations — discussions with high stakes, different opinions, and strong emotions — is the cause of many of our most painful problems in work and home life. These stressful conversations can rapidly go awry, with people behaving at their worst - yelling at each other and sniping sarcastically, or on the other side going silent and withdrawing. When this happens, little progress is made, and resentment builds. Moreover, we often deliberately avoid having these conversations because we’re afraid we’ll make matters worse.

Crucial Conversations teaches you an array of dialogue principles and practical skills, explained and demonstrated through numerous examples. After this book, you’ll be able to talk to anyone about virtually any topic, no matter how sensitive. When you learn to handle crucial conversations effectively, the quality of your relationships and your effectiveness in your career will improve dramatically, and you’ll be able to help get everybody what they want.

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You need to clarify or rebuild mutual purpose if your motives and goals, or someone else’s, seem to be suspect. Use CRIB skills:

  • Commit to seek a mutual purpose (commit to stay in dialogue until finding something that satisfies everyone)
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy (ask people why they want what they’re pushing for)
  • Invent a mutual purpose (if you’re still at odds)
  • Brainstorm new strategies (with a clear mutual purpose)

When you need to repair a misunderstanding to restore respect, you can use the skill of contrasting. Contrasting is a don’t/do statement that:

  • Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose.
  • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part).

An example of contrasting in a couple’s conversation: “I don’t want to suggest that this problem is yours. I think it’s ours. I don’t want to put the burden on you. What I do want is to be able to talk so we understand each other better.”

Control Your Emotions

Our emotions are generated by “stories” we tell ourselves when someone does or says something. These stories are our interpretations of what we saw and/or heard. Negative interpretations lead to negative feelings and then to unproductive actions.

But we can change our emotions by rethinking our stories, or retracing our path from our feelings and actions back to the incident that prompted them: notice your behavior, identify your feelings, analyze the story creating your feelings, and go back to facts (ask yourself, what evidence you have to support your story, and whether the facts might support a different story or conclusion). Also, make sure you’re telling yourself the full story, and haven’t omitted any facts to justify your reaction.

Share Your Stories

Express your views (tell your story) in such a way that others will be receptive, encourage feedback, and be willing to alter your views or story when additional facts warrant. When caught up in unproductive emotions and actions, retrace them to the facts to test their accuracy.

This process can be broken down as follows, remembering the acronym STATE:

  • Share your facts: Start with the least controversial.
  • Tell your story: Explain what you’re beginning to conclude.
  • Ask for others’ paths: Encourage others to share both their facts and their stories.
  • Talk tentatively. State your story as a story (your opinion), not a fact.
  • Encourage testing: Proactively seek opposing views, so you can test your theory against additional information.

Explore Others’ Paths

To have a constructive conversation, you need to encourage, listen to, and understand others’ views. Start with an attitude of curiosity and patience. Use four listening skills to trace the other person’s path to action (AMPP).

  • Ask: Express interest in the others’ views.
  • Mirror: Acknowledge the emotions people appear to be feeling.
  • Paraphrase: Restate what you’ve heard.
  • Prime: If others hold back, offer a guess as to what they may be thinking and feeling to get the discussion started.

As you begin to share your views, remember ABC:

  • Agree: Agree when you share views for the most part, rather than arguing over minor points of disagreement.
  • Build: Agree where you can, then build. (“I agree completely. In addition, I noticed that…”)
  • Compare: When you differ substantially, compare your two views. (“I think I see things differently. Let me explain.”)

Move From Conversation to Results

Once everyone contributes his or her information to a crucial conversation, the final step is action. All the conversational effort is moot unless there’s an action plan and follow-through to achieve results.

Groups often fail to convert the ideas into action and results for two reasons:

  • They aren’t clear on how decisions will be made.
  • They fail to act on the decisions they do make.

To move from ideas to action, first choose the decision-making method:

  • Command: With command decisions, it’s not our job to decide what to do, only how to make it work. Decisions are made with no involvement whatsoever.
  • Consult: Decision makers invite others to influence them before they make their choice. They consult with experts, a representative population, or even anyone who wants to offer an opinion.
  • Vote: Voting is appropriate where efficiency is the highest goal, and you’re selecting from a number of good options.
  • Consensus: You talk until everyone agrees to one decision. This method can produce unity and high-quality decisions, or it can be a big waste of time.

Additional steps are:

  • Make assignments: Determine who will do what, by when. Assign a name and a deadline to every responsibility.
  • Follow-through: Agree on how often and by what method you’ll follow up on an assignment.
  • Document: After all your hard work in crucial conversation, don’t depend on memory to ensure follow-through. Write it down, keep tabs, and hold people accountable.

Putting it Together

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, your 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.

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Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 1: Recognizing a Crucial Conversation

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When we do have crucial conversations, we handle them badly. We behave our worst at the most critical moments. We yell, withdraw, or say things we later regret. This happens because:

  • Nature works against us. When under stress, whether physically or emotionally, we’re genetically programmed to respond with fight or flight. We get an adrenaline surge and blood is diverted from the brain to muscles so that our thinking ability suffers.
  • We get caught off guard. Crucial conversations often catch us by surprise — someone blurts out something and we have little time to think. We have a knee-jerk reaction and later end up wondering, what was I thinking?
  • We lack the right skills. We don’t know where to start in terms of responding to or initiating a crucial conversation, so we just plunge in. You can sometimes practice for crucial conversations, but you have to know what to practice — and even with practice you can still screw up.
  • We act in self-defeating ways. We act in ways that keep us from getting what we want. We’re our own worst enemies. For example, when one partner is neglecting the other, the injured partner may respond with sarcasm and...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 2: Dialogue is Powerful

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When people engage in a crucial conversation, they add their unique information to a shared pool of meaning. It’s important that all opinions be reflected in the shared pool so the best quality decisions can be made. Everyone should feel comfortable contributing their information — even if it’s unpopular or controversial.

As people contribute, the shared pool of meaning expands to encompass more useful and more accurate information, and collectively they make better decisions. Another way to look at it is, pool of information reflects the group’s IQ — the higher the IQ, the better the decisions.

A quality decision is the payoff for the time invested in sharing and discussion.

When People Hold Back

When people withhold what they know either intentionally or because they don’t know how to present it, the shared pool of information is shallow. This results in several problems:

  • With incomplete information, groups can collectively do stupid things. For example, a woman entered the hospital for a tonsillectomy, but instead the surgeon removed her foot. Others on the surgical team wondered why, but no one said anything for fear of angering the surgeon (a...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 3: Know Your Heart

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When you come under pressure in a discussion, if you’re not alert to our emotions, you may forget your original purpose (understanding and solving a problem by creating a shared pool of information) and switch to winning, punishing, or keeping the peace.

  • Winning: Winning is praised in sports, movies, and TV. We learn at an early age that we have to outdo/beat our fellow students, and get the teacher’s attention with the right answer. But the desire to win short-circuits dialogue. You start with the goal of resolving a problem, but as soon as someone challenges you, you switch your purpose to winning.
  • Punishing. As your anger at being challenged builds, you may want to discredit the other person or put them in their place, again straying from your original purpose.
  • Keeping the peace: When a conversation gets uncomfortable, you may withdraw or go quiet, choosing peace over further conflict. But you likely won’t avoid a negative result in the end. For example, had no one spoken up at Greta’s meeting for fear of conflict, the results would have been negative nonetheless: She wouldn’t have learned the real issue, and her managers would have continued to...

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Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 4: Make the Conditions Safe

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The steps for keeping conditions safe are:

  1. Spot the turning point: Notice when the conversation becomes crucial.
  2. Watch signs of a safety problem.
  3. See if others are moving toward silence or violence.
  4. Beware of reverting to your style under stress.

1. Spot the Turning Point

Stay alert for the moment a conversation turns from harmless to crucial so you can avoid getting sidetracked by emotions and can intervene if others go off track. Reprogram your mind to pay attention to signs — physical, emotional, and behavioral — that suggest you’re in a crucial conversation.

  • Physical: Your body sends signals — for instance, your face may flush or your shoulders may tense up. These are your cues to step back and remember your original purpose.
  • Emotional: You or others start to feel afraid, angry, or hurt. You begin to react to or suppress these feelings. These are cues to slow down.
  • Behavioral: People raise their voices or become quiet.

2. Watch for Signs of a Safety Problem

Once you see that a conversation is starting to turn crucial, pay attention to safety: Watch for signs people are becoming fearful. When this happens they...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 5: Make the Content Safe

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Mutual Purpose: The Prerequisite for Dialogue

To have a successful crucial conversation, the participants must agree on a mutual purpose for having the conversation in the first place. Members believe everyone is working toward a common outcome and cares about others’ goals and interests.

Mutual purpose is the first requirement of dialogue. When you have a shared goal, everyone is motivated to participate, and there’s a positive atmosphere for talking.

Crucial conversations can go wrong when others don’t believe you’re contributing to a common goal, but instead have a hidden agenda (for instance, winning or punishing). Everything you say is suspect, even if you put it mildly. The problem isn’t the content of the conversation, it’s distrust of your motives. Signs that mutual purpose is in doubt include arguing, aggressiveness, and defensiveness.

To assess mutual purpose, ask yourself whether others believe you care about their goals and whether they trust your motives. In crucial conversations you must genuinely care about the interests of others. If your goal is to get your way or manipulate, others will quickly realize it.

**Example: A Couple’s Argument...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 6: Control Your Emotions

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You Can Change Your Emotions

When you have strong feelings, you can influence and often change them by thinking through them. Choosing different emotions makes it possible to then choose behaviors that lead to better results.

When you’re in an emotional state, it’s not easy to mentally reboot to regain control. To do it, you need to understand how feelings develop.

First there’s a trigger (often something someone else says or does) to which we respond emotionally, with worry or by feeling hurt, etc. Our feelings then drive us to action (for instance, to silence or cheap shots). We go from trigger to feelings to action.

But someone’s actions alone can’t cause our emotional reactions. When faced with the same circumstances, different people have different emotional responses. What makes the difference is that after we see what someone did and before we react emotionally to it, we tell ourselves a story to interpret what we saw. This creates our emotions. Our Path to Action is: We see and hear something. We tell ourselves a story about it. We feel. We act.

Since we are the one telling the story, **we can take back control of our emotions by...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 7: Share Your Stories

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STATE Your Path

To have a healthy conversation about a tough topic, you must take care not to violate respect or safety with threats and accusations, despite your worst fears. To create conditions conducive to dialogue:

  • Start with heart: Think about what you really want and how dialogue can help you get it
  • Master your story: Realize you may be jumping prematurely to a clever story: victim, villain, or helpless.
  • Think about other possible explanations, to open your mind to dialogue.

Use five skills with the acronym STATE to talk about sensitive topics:

  1. Share your facts.
  2. Tell your story.
  3. Ask for others’ paths.
  4. Talk tentatively.
  5. Encourage testing.

The first three skills involve what to do. The last two are how to do it.

What Skill #1: Share the Facts

Facts set the stage for all sensitive conversations. Start with the facts alone (which are observable), not your emotion-driven story...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 8: Explore Others’ Paths

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  • Break the cycle: The typical response to nonconstructive behavior is to match it. But you need to stop the cycle by stepping away from the interaction and making it safe for the other person to talk about their path to action. Help them to move away from intense feelings and reactions and return to the cause (the facts and story behind the emotion).
  • Ask: When someone is upset, they have a story and facts to share. Be genuine and sincere in inviting them to share, regardless of their emotions. Listen in a way that makes it safe for them to share. They must believe they won’t offend or suffer from speaking honestly.

How to Listen

To encourage others to share, use four listening tools: Ask, mirror, paraphrase, prime (AMPP).

A: Ask

Ask to get things going: Often all it takes to break an impasse is to seek to understand others’ views. When you show genuine interest, people feel less compelled to use silence/violence. For example, use phrases like, “What do you mean? I’d like to hear your concerns.” Other invitations include: “What’s going on?” “Please let me know if you see it differently.” “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings; I really...

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Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 9: From Conversation to Results

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For example, managers and parents decide how to decide; it’s part of their responsibility as leaders. Vice presidents don’t ask hourly employees to decide pricing changes or product lines. Parents don’t ask kids to set their own curfew or make household decisions.

Leaders can turn decision making over to direct reports when warranted, but the person in authority still decides what method of decision making to use. Deciding what decisions to turn over and when is part of their stewardship.

Situation 2: When there’s no established line of authority

When there’s no clear line, deciding how to decide can be quite difficult.

For example, if a teacher wants to hold your child back a year but you object, who decides? Who makes the decision should be discussed in the group. If you don’t talk and opinions differ, you’ll end up in a dispute. When authority is unclear, decide together how you’re going to decide.

Four Methods of Decision-Making

Four common ways of making decisions are: command, consult, vote, and consensus. They reflect increasing degrees of involvement. Increased involvement brings greater commitment but decreased efficiency. The method you...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 10: Tough Cases

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  • Use contrasting statements (what you don’t/do want).
  • Ensure the conversation is safe for both parties.
  • If the other person still becomes defensive, don’t give up — rethink your approach, increase safety, and try again.

Having a confidante and coach to give you helpful feedback is an important benefit of a healthy relationship.


Letting the Team Down

At work, you get together as a team and talk about how to improve, but some of your teammates don’t do what they agreed to do.

Challenge

In an effective team every team member is accountable. Team members speak up when they see violations. Lesser teams ignore problems or let the boss deal with them.

Solution

It’s your responsibility to speak up. When team members agree to a course of action, they must be willing to confront any team member who doesn’t live up to the agreement — or the whole thing can fall apart.

The team’s success depends not on flawless performance, but on teammates who hold crucial conversations with each other when necessary.

Deference to Authority

People who work for you seldom take initiative on anything. They hold back their opinions and say what...

Crucial Conversations PDF Chapter 11: Tying It All Together

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Crucial questions: What do I really want? How should I be behaving to achieve what I want? What do I not want?

2. Make the conditions safe

Skills: Be alert to the point when the conversation turns crucial. Look for safety threats. Beware of reverting to your style under stress.

Crucial questions: Am I, or others, moving to silence or violence?

3. Make the content safe

Skills: Apologize if needed, use contrasting to ensure understanding, and use CRIB (Commit, Recognize, Invent, Brainstorm) to create a mutual purpose

Crucial questions: Why is safety at risk? Do we have a mutual purpose and mutual respect? What can I do to rebuild an environment of safety?

4. Control your emotions

Skills: Retrace your path, separate fact from story, watch for clever stories, tell the full story.

Crucial questions: What’s my story? Am I ignoring my role in the problem? Why would a reasonable person do what the other person did? How can I move toward what I want?

5. Share your stories

Skills: Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others’ paths, Talk tentatively, Encourage testing

Crucial questions: Am I actually open to others’ viewpoints? Am I...

Crucial Conversations PDF Afterword

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  • The crucial conversation is the beginning of a dialogue, rather than your only chance to solve a problem.
  • You can use the dialogue skills to improve relationships over time (their use is not restricted to one-time interactions).
  • If you persist over time, refusing to take offense, making your motive genuine, showing respect, and constantly searching for mutual purpose, then the other person will almost always join you in dialogue.