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In Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The 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:

  • Nature works against us. When under stress, 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 — 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.
  • Our reaction is self-defeating. 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 aggrieved partner may respond with sarcasm and sniping — which causes the offending party to spend even less time with him or her.

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.

The Seven Dialogue Principles

Know Your Heart

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.

Make the Conditions Safe

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:

  • Notice the point when a conversation turns crucial, and could go off track due to emotional responses.
  • Look for safety problems (people withdrawing or behaving aggressively) that short-circuit dialogue, and intervene before they get out of hand.
  • Beware of reverting to your style under stress. In crucial conversations, you’ll revert to tactics you grew up with (debate, silent treatment, manipulation, etc.). You need to be alert to these tendencies in order to counteract them.

Make the Content Safe

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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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 1: Recognizing a Crucial Conversation

The authors of Crucial Conversations argue that:

  • How people behave when they disagree with others about important, emotional issues is the cause of many problems in work and home life.
  • People can learn to handle crucial conversations effectively.
  • When people learn how to handle these conversations, their relationships improve and organizational performance improves.

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:

  • Differing opinions differ: You want a promotion but your boss thinks you’re not ready.
  • High stakes: You and your coworkers are discussing how to change the company’s failing marketing strategy.
  • Strong emotions: Your spouse thinks you were flirting at a party.

Common Crucial Conversations

There are many crucial conversation topics that, if mishandled, can lead to disastrous results in your personal life or at work. They...

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Shortform Exercise: Your Crucial Conversations

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?

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 2: Dialogue is Powerful

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...

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 3: Know Your Heart

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:

  1. First, you must know what you want, and despite temptations, stick with your goals.
  2. **Second, don’t make fool’s...

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 4: Make the Conditions Safe

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.

  • If conditions are safe, you can say almost anything and people will listen.
  • If you’re not afraid you’re being attacked, you can hear almost anything and not become defensive. People rarely become defensive because of what you’re saying (content), only when they don’t feel safe.
  • You’re receptive to potentially threatening feedback when you believe the other person has your best interests in mind and you respect their opinion. You trust their motives and don’t feel a need to defend yourself. Conversely, if you don’t feel safe, you can’t take any feedback. You suspect even well-intentioned comments (“What do you mean by saying I look good?”).

Nonetheless, it’s easy...

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Shortform Exercise: Monitoring Yourself

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?

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 5: Make the Content Safe

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:

  1. Step away from the content of the conversation.
  2. Determine whether mutual purpose or mutual respect is at risk.
  3. Restore safety by restoring mutual purpose or respect (Use skills: apologize, contrast, rebuild mutual purpose; or, if you don’t already have a mutual purpose, create one using CRIB: Commit, Respect, Invent, Brainstorm).
  4. Rejoin the conversation: Return to the issue at hand.

Here’s a look at each step in detail.

1. Step Away

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...

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Shortform Exercise: Finding a Mutual Purpose

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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Shortform Exercise: Making Contrasting Statements

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.

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 6: Control Your Emotions

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:

  • Emotions aren’t forced upon you by others. Others don’t make you mad; you make yourself mad. You create your own emotions — you make yourself angry, insulted, or frustrated.
  • Once you’ve created your emotions, you can do one of two things: Rethink them or be driven by them to act in unproductive ways. To put it another way, you either control your emotions, or you’ll be controlled by 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...

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Shortform Exercise: Master Your Story

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?

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 7: Share Your Stories

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:

  • People often say nothing.
  • They’re too blunt.
  • They say only part of what’s on their mind — they understate their views for fear of hurting others, or they sugarcoat their message.

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...

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 8: Explore Others’ Paths

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.

Start with Heart — Listen

  • Be sincere: When you ask people to share what’s on their minds, make sure you mean it and be prepared to listen. People instantly recognize insincerity.
  • Be curious: When others express intense emotions, you should become curious. Wonder what’s behind the emotion — getting to the source is the only way to get back to dialogue.
  • Remain curious. When people begin to share their emotionally charged or unflattering stories, it’s natural to start judging them. To avoid overreacting, maintain your curiosity. Ask yourself why a reasonable person would react this way. When you retrace the other person’s path, you...

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 9: 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. 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:

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

This chapter focuses on what it takes to move from ideas to action.

Transitioning from Dialogue to Decision-Making

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:

  • People don’t understand how decisions will be made. You may have agreed to something in principle, but not to any specific actions (yet people may act and be surprised when others object).
  • Sometimes no decision gets made. Ideas fade or people can’t get a handle on implementing them — or everyone is waiting for someone else to decide.

Decide How You’ll Decide

To avoid these two problems, you need...

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Shortform Exercise: Decision-Making

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?

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 10: Tough Cases

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.

Harassment

You’re uncomfortable with the way you’re being treated, although you don’t view it as blatant harassment.

Challenge

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.

Solution

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...

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Chapter 11: Tying It All Together

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.

Focus On These Two Things

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.

Just do...

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Crucial Conversations Summary Crucial Conversations Guide Afterword

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:

  • A crucial conversation can pop up at any time and you need to be alert to the signs.
  • Your position or title in your company doesn’t matter. Guiding a crucial conversation is the responsibility of the first person to recognize the...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Chapter 1: Recognizing a Crucial Conversation
  • Exercise: Your Crucial Conversations
  • Chapter 2: Dialogue is Powerful
  • Chapter 3: Know Your Heart
  • Chapter 4: Make the Conditions Safe
  • Exercise: Monitoring Yourself
  • Chapter 5: Make the Content Safe
  • Exercise: Finding a Mutual Purpose
  • Exercise: Making Contrasting Statements
  • Chapter 6: Control Your Emotions
  • Exercise: Master Your Story
  • Chapter 7: Share Your Stories
  • Chapter 8: Explore Others’ Paths
  • Chapter 9: From Conversation to Results
  • Exercise: Decision-Making
  • Chapter 10: Tough Cases
  • Chapter 11: Tying It All Together
  • Afterword