In Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler argue that many problems are caused by how people behave when they disagree with others about high-stakes, emotional issues. Organizational performance and the quality of relationships improve significantly when people learn the skills to handle these crucial conversations effectively.
A crucial conversation is a discussion characterized by high stakes, differing opinions, and strong emotions. Crucial conversations are often typical daily interactions as opposed to planned, high-level meetings. These conversations can have a huge impact on your life. Examples include: ending a relationship, asking a roommate to move out, resolving an issue with an ex-spouse, confronting a coworker about his/her behavior, or giving the boss critical feedback.
We often try to avoid having these conversations because we’re afraid we’ll make matters worse. And in fact, when we do have crucial conversations, we usually handle them badly. We behave our worst at the most critical moments. We may withdraw, or rage and say things we later regret.
We typically fail at these conversations because:
But this doesn’t have to happen. People can learn the skills to handle these conversations effectively. And when they do, their career, health, personal relationships, and their organization or company benefit tremendously.
For crucial conversations to be constructive, they must have a shared purpose and the conditions must be safe for everyone to contribute. It’s important that all parties participate in order to reach the best conclusion or outcome. Many conversations, however, go off the rails as people act out by pushing their views aggressively, withholding their views, or acting from motives that undercut the shared purpose.
Specifically, there are seven key dialogue principles, including implementation skills you can learn.
In high-risk discussions, stay focused on what you really want (your big-picture goal, such as a stronger relationship), so you don’t sidetracked by conversational games, such as trying to win, punish the other person, or keep the peace.
Also, refuse the fool’s choice of limiting yourself to an either/or alternative (I can stay silent and keep the peace, or I can speak up and ruin my relationship). Look for ways to do both: speak up and have a stronger relationship.
The first prerequisite for healthy dialogue is safety. You can’t have constructive dialogue when people don’t feel safe, because they start acting in unproductive ways and stop contributing to the dialogue. To maintain safety in a conversation, you must monitor two elements: what’s being discussed and what people are doing in response — both the content and the conditions of the conversation.
To ensure safe conditions for conversation:
For people to feel safe in speaking their minds, there are two requirements: 1) a mutual purpose for the conversation (agreement on what we’re trying to accomplish); and 2) mutual respect — each participant’s views and feelings are respected.
When someone doesn’t feel safe in saying something potentially controversial, either they don’t trust in a mutual purpose (they’re suspicious of...
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The authors of Crucial Conversations argue that:
So what are crucial conversations? They’re not limited to important people talking about high-level things. They’re typical interactions you have every day — which can have a huge impact on your life.
A crucial conversation is a discussion characterized by high stakes, differing opinions, and strong emotions.
Here’s an example of each of the criteria:
There are many crucial conversation topics that, if mishandled, can lead to disastrous results in your personal life or at work. They...
A crucial conversation is a discussion characterized by high stakes, differing opinions, and strong emotions. Your skill in handling these conversations directly affects your success at work and in your personal relationships.
Think of a crucial conversation at work that you’re avoiding or not handling well. How could handling it successfully boost your career?
Many people make the mistake in crucial conversations of believing they have to make unpalatable either/or choices, for instance, 1) choose between telling the truth about a problem vs. 2) staying silent to preserve a relationship with a boss, coworker, or loved one.
Believing you have only two problematic alternatives to choose from is a fool’s choice. There are always more alternatives.
We’ve all made the fool’s choice to not say anything about issues with bosses, family, and friends. The consequences can be unfortunate: In the workplace, it can lead to terrible decisions; in personal relationships, it can create misery when partners are afraid to speak up.
Here’s an example of how employee silence can affect a company. The leaders of a company are planning to move its headquarters for flawed reasons. If the employees make a fool’s choice and fail to point out potential downsides for fear of retribution, company leaders will make a decision with harmful future consequences and waste money.
But there’s another option: A manager can speak up honestly and also preserve the relationship by using dialogue skills to be persuasive and respectful. If she succeeds the...
Learning dialogue skills starts with diligent self-examination because if you don’t understand yourself, you can’t be fully effective at dialogue.
In crucial conversations, you’ll revert to tactics you grew up with (debate, silent treatment, manipulation, etc.). You need to understand your tendencies in order to counteract them and learn new skills.
You also need to be able to see how you’re contributing to the problems you’re experiencing. In disagreements, it’s human nature to focus on what you think someone else is doing wrong. But when you focus on blaming or finding fault, you lose track of what you really want, to your detriment.
For example, two children who get into a fight over who should be first to use the bathroom forgot their objective (using the bathroom) when they became focused on winning the argument. As a result, they prolonged their misery.
It’s important to begin high-risk discussions with the heart (with the right motives) and stay focused no matter what happens.
You do this by making two heart-based assumptions:
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The first prerequisite for healthy dialogue is safety. You can’t have constructive dialogue when people don’t feel safe, because they start acting in unproductive ways and stop contributing their information to the shared pool.
To maintain safety in a conversation, you must consider two elements: what is being discussed and what’s happening in response — both the content and the conditions of the conversation.
Most people focus on the content, but the conditions are equally important.
Nonetheless, it’s easy...
You can get so involved in the content of an intense conversation that you lose track of what you’re doing and how others are reacting (your brain disengages and your emotions predominate). For conversations to be successful you need to pay attention to both the content and the conditions, so you can adjust if a dialogue goes off track.
Think about some of your toughest conversations. What were the cues (physical, emotional, behavioral) that your brain was beginning to disengage, and your emotions were driving you away from dialogue?
We’ve all been part of conversations in which we didn’t feel safe to say what was on our mind. This chapter explains what to do to fix that. The basic steps in brief are:
Here’s a look at each step in detail.
The best approach when you don’t feel comfortable speaking your mind, is to step away from the content of the conversation until you can enhance safety.
Example: A Couple’s Argument
A couple, Yvonne and Jotham, have a conflict over intimacy — Jotham wants to have sex more often than Yvonne does. If Yvonne declines his invitation, Jotham goes silent and sulks (then she wants intimacy even less). If she goes along with it when she doesn’t want to, she feels resentful. Things keep escalating
Yvonne attempts to discuss the problem, but Jotham...
Sometimes we end up in a debate because we have different purposes or goals. The best approach is to stop debating, back up, and create a mutual purpose. (The CRIB steps — Commit, Recognize, Invent, Brainstorm — may help.)
Think of a crucial conversation that you need to have in your relationship. Do you have a mutual purpose - do you agree on what you want to see happen? If so, what is it?
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When someone in a crucial conversation mistrusts your motives, you can use the technique of contrasting to help reassure them and get the dialogue back on track. You do it by first stating what you don’t want or intend, followed by what you do want.
Think of a touchy conversation you’re reluctant to have because you’re concerned the other person will get the wrong impression. Write a contrasting statement that you could use to reassure the person.
By learning to control your emotions, you’ll be in a better position to use the tools discussed so far (dual processing, contrasting, creating mutual purpose, etc.) to have successful crucial conversations.
Getting a better understanding of how emotions work is the first step. When we lose our cool we tend to blame others for pushing our buttons or making us mad. But we’re the drivers of our emotions, which in turn drive our actions.
Emotions don’t just happen. Here are two truths about them:
Here’s an example of how emotions can lead to unproductive behavior. Maria is a copywriter who worked with her boss, Louis, on a project, which they were supposed to present jointly. But Louis presented the entire project himself without giving Maria a chance to speak. She’s angry and...
When we see and hear something that affects us, we tell ourselves a story explaining what happened, which then drives how we feel and behave. This can be counterproductive, but we can change our stories and therefore our emotions.
Think of a time when you felt very strongly about something someone said or did. What story did you tell yourself to generate your feelings?
Sharing your point of view when you have something difficult to say isn’t easy, but you can learn to do it successfully. Remember, it’s important that everyone’s information, no matter how controversial, be included in the shared pool.
Most conversations start on autopilot with friendly small talk, but in high-stakes conversations your emotions kick in and you don’t do as well.
When it comes to sharing touchy information:
However, the best approach is to speak your mind completely, but in a way that makes it safe for others to hear and respond.
Example: The Suspicious Affair
A wife finds a hotel receipt and mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair. The worst way to handle a touchy situation like this would be to plunge in with an accusation followed by a threat — that’s what most people would do.
But there’s a constructive way the woman can share and resolve her concerns using several dialogue steps (with the acronym STATE). More on those steps in a...
When others shut down or blow up (resort to silence/violence), it’s important to get them to rejoin the dialogue. You can’t work through your differences until all parties add their input to the pool of information.
While you can’t force others to participate, you can take steps to make it more comfortable for them to do so. The key to encouraging participation is letting them know it’s OK to share their path to action (their facts and stories), regardless of how controversial it might be. Here’s how to do this.
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. This is a critical turning point at which new challenges can come up.
Groups often fail to convert the ideas into action and results for two reasons:
This chapter focuses on what it takes to move from ideas to action.
If you don’t clarify the conclusions and decisions emerging from the discussion, you can run into unmet expectations later on.
Problems develop in two ways:
To avoid these two problems, you need...
Four common ways of making decisions are: command, consult, vote, and consensus. Which method to use depends on the circumstances. You choose based on four questions: Who has a stake, who has the knowledge, who needs to be on board, and how many people need to be involved.
Think of an important decision you recently took part in or were affected by. How was the decision made?
People often think their situations are unique and that dialogue skills outlined in this book don’t apply, or won’t work. According to the authors, the skills do in fact apply to virtually any issue, although some problems are more challenging than others.
This chapter looks at some tough (but not uncommon) challenges and how to handle them.
You’re uncomfortable with the way you’re being treated, although you don’t view it as blatant harassment.
You find the behavior offensive, but it’s so subtle or sporadic that you’re hesitant to go to your boss or HR for fear of looking like you’re overreacting. Getting caught up in a villain story could drive you to respond in ways that end up hurting you.
Tell the full story. Admit it if you’ve put up with the behavior for a while without saying anything. Then discuss it with the other person. Try to treat the person as reasonable — even if the behavior isn’t.
After establishing a mutual purpose for the conversation, STATE your path. If you can be respectful but firm, the individual usually will stop the objectionable behavior. If the behavior ever crosses the line, contact HR to...
When you’re involved in a fast-moving crucial conversation, it can be hard to remember and apply the dialogue skills and principles. This chapter offers a simple suggestion for getting started, as well as a quick review of the principles and skills.
First, the suggestion: One way people have succeeded in improving their handling of crucial conversations is by focusing on just two key principles: Pay attention to what’s happening, and ensure safety.
1. Pay attention to what’s happening: Constantly ask yourself whether you’re in or out of dialogue. This makes a huge difference.
Even if you can’t remember the acronyms or steps you can help maintain dialogue by noticing whether you or others are falling into silence or violence. Even if you don’t know exactly how to fix the problem when you see it, it’s worth trying something to restore the dialogue.
You can use the statement, “I think we’ve moved away from dialogue,” to get back on track.
2. 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.
In an Afterword published in 2012, the four authors reflect on what they learned in 10 years of teaching their dialogue principles and getting feedback from people who used the principles in crucial conversations. Their insights included: