Crucial Conversations

George Bernard Shaw once said that "the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

As the authors of Crucial Conversations tell us, most human problems lie in how people behave when others disagree with them about important and emotional issues.

How these moments turn out often decides the trajectory of your life. Which is why having a strategy you can rely on to produce results in those moments is so crucial.

In this summary, you'll learn the 7 principles for having crucial conversations. But before we get there, we need to define what a crucial conversation is, and why it matters.

What’s a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares?

Ironically, the authors point out, that the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well.

It makes sense. They don't happen enough to develop a habit. They are very emotional, which causes us to avoid them if we can. And so we don't spend the time creating a strategy for how to do them well.

Which, of course, has an impact on every area of our life. Our careers, our home lives, and even our personal well-being rely on our ability to handle these conversations with a deft touch.

Consider what the authors call "The Fool's Choice." This is where we believe that the only choice we have is between telling the truth and keeping a friend.

Dialogue and the Shared Pool of Meaning

So that's the bad news. The good news is that there's a dependable set of strategies, proven to work in almost any situation and in almost every environment. It relies on the free flow of open communication between two people - what the authors call dialogue.

At the heart of dialogue is something the authors call the "Shared Pool of Meaning." If you and I enter a conversation and have different opinions, feelings, and theories about the topic at hand, we each have our own "Personal Pool of Meaning."

People who are skilled at dialogue make it safe for everybody to add their meaning to the shared pool, which contains ideas that we otherwise wouldn't have considered as options. Where the group ends up making a better decision than any one person could make on their own.

So how do we get there? With the 7 principles of Crucial Conversations.

Principle #1. Start with Heart

The subtitle of this chapter is "how to stay focussed on what you really want."

There are 3 steps to making this happen.

Start with yourself

The first step to getting what you really want is to remember that you are the only person you can directly control in any interaction. So, you start this journey by changing your approach and being willing to deploy the 7 principles.

Focus on What You Really Want

The next step is to stay focused on what you really want. It's easy in a high-stakes situation to change your motivations at the moment - maybe to save face, for instance.

It's also likely that in an emotionally charged conversation, your fight or flight mentality will surface. Often leading to bad outcomes. When you notice that happening, slow down and pay attention to your motives.

Ask yourself what your behavior tells you about what your motives are. Then, clarify what you really want for (a) yourself, (b) others, and (c) for the relationship.

Finally, ask yourself how you would behave if that's what you really wanted.

Refuse the Fool’s Choice

Next, as you are considering what you want, you'll notice that you'll start talking yourself into a Fool's Choice. Your mind will start suggesting that you need to choose between honesty and peace in the relationship. Or between winning and losing.

Breaking free of the Fool's Choice starts with a simple formula. Clarify (a) what you don't want, combine it with (b) what you do want, and (c) ask your brain to search for options that will bring you into dialogue.

This is all easier said than done, but start there and you'll find the important discussions in your life starting to go much better.

Principle #2: Learn to Look

One of the keys to having crucial conversations is being able to spot when you are in one. That's because crucial conversations don't normally start out that way.

When conversations are routine, people feel safe and can remain level-headed. But when conversations start to turn emotional, that feeling of safety flies out the window. Most people resort to their "Style Under Stress", which is how they've grown up dealing with difficult situations (it's usually counter-productive).

This usually includes silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or violence (trying to force meaning into the pool).

When deploying silence, people usually do one of the following: (1) masking, which includes understating or selectively showing your true opinions, (2) avoiding, which involves completely steering away from sensitive topics, and (3) withdrawing which means pulling out of the conversation altogether.

When deploying violence, people usually do one of the following: (1) controlling, which includes forcing your views on others or dominating the conversation, (2) labeling, which is putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them, or (3) attacking, which speaks for itself.

When silence or violence is deployed by anybody in the conversation, it sends the signal that this conversation is no longer safe and it usually devolves quickly from there.

To break free from this cycle, people who are skilled at dialogue look for signs of these things, which can appear in either themselves or other people, and can appear in both the content of the conversation or the condition of it.

Principle #3: Make It Safe

This principle is about how to make it safe to talk about anything, and what to do next after you or your conversation partner move to silence or violence.

Only when safety is restored can you get back to the issue at hand and continue the dialogue.

Decide Which Condition of Safety Is at Risk

In order to do that, you need to figure out what condition of safety is at risk - mutual purpose or mutual respect.

Mutual purpose means that others perceive that you are working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that you care about their interests and values, and vice versa. It's the precondition to entering into a crucial conversation in the first place.

A breakdown in mutual purpose happens when others in the conversation don't believe that you care about their goals, or when they don't trust your motives.

Mutual respect is the condition of staying in a crucial conversation. As soon as other people perceive that you don't respect them, they are out.

So when a breakdown occurs, the first step is to figure out which condition has been violated.

Apologize, Contrast and Create Mutual Purpose

Then, to get things back on track, you can deploy the following three skills.

First, apologize if you've made a mistake that has hurt others. As you do, pay attention to whether or not this has helped restore safety to the conversation.

Second, when you perceive that the other person has misunderstood your purpose or intent, you can rebuild safety by using the skill of contrasting. It involves a don't/do statement that addresses the part where they think you don't respect them (they don't part) and the part that confirms your respect for them (the do part).

For instance, you might say something like "the last thing I wanted to do was communicate that I don't value the work you've been doing. You have been invaluable to this project."

Third, you can step back and create (or recreate) a mutual purpose using a four-step process:

(a) commit to seeking a mutual purpose - here, you are making a public commitment to staying in the conversation until everybody's needs are met; (b) recognize the purpose behind the strategy (often, there's something deeper behind what people say they want); (c) invent a mutual purpose keeping in mind the real purpose and (d) brainstorm new strategies with that new mutual purpose in mind.

Principle #4: Master My Stories

This principle is all about how to stay in dialogue when you're feeling strong emotions like anger or fear.

The first step in taking control of your emotions is to realize that they don't happen to you, they are created by you. And, in many cases, they are driven by adding your own meaning to events that may or may not be true.

This typically follows a predictable pattern - you see and hear something (somebody important doesn't return your email), you tell yourself a story about it (he/she must not like me anymore), you feel an emotion (hurt or worry) and then you act on those emotions through silence or violence.

Once you've accepted that you've created your emotion, you have two choices - to act on them, or control them. Those who are skilled in dialogue decide to control them. Here are two strategies you can use to do just that.

Retrace Your Path

The first strategy is to slow down and analyze your story.

Analyze what might be causing you to feel the way you are feeling. Then, think about whether or not you have any concrete evidence to back up your conclusion - often you won't.

Next, think about the alternative explanations for what happened. There are usually a number of explanations for why something did or didn't happen. Your job here is to realize that your story is only one of the possible explanations.

Tell the Rest of the Story

Next, you'll make the choice to tell a useful story. A useful story is one that creates emotions that lead to healthy action - like dialogue, for instance.

First, think about your role in whatever has or hasn't happened. By identifying your role in the situation, you can do something about it.

Next, think about why the other person might have acted the way they did. If you start from the assumption that they are reasonable, rational, and decent, you'll quickly find some alternative explanations.

Lastly, consider what you actually want out of the situation, and then determine what a person who wanted that result would do.

The end result is that you'll have created space between the negative emotions you are feeling and your response. Which means you'll be able to get back into action by doing something about it.

Principle #5: My Path

When you are in the middle of a crucial conversation, it's easy to let your emotions get the better of you. This will sometimes cause you to speak abrasively, without you even knowing it.

To prevent this from happening, remember to STATE your path - share, tell, ask, talk and encourage.

The "What Skills

Share your facts. Whatever argument you are trying to make, these are the least controversial and most persuasive elements, because there is no arguing with facts. For instance, instead of telling the person who continues to show up late for work that they can't be trusted, start with the fact that they are showing up late for work.

Telling your story. Next, you'll start to tell the other person what you are concluding based on the facts. Just make sure that when you do so that you keep your eyes open for signs that safety is being eroded. If it is, bring it back on track with the contrasting strategy.

Ask for Others' Paths. Next, invite the other person to share their version of what's going on. Encourage them to share their facts, stories, and feelings.

The How Skills

Talk tentatively. As you are telling your story about the facts, make sure that you are clear that you are telling your story, and not presenting it as fact. Use soft language, but not to the point of being what the authors call "wimpy."

Encourage Testing. Finally, make it safe for the other person to share an opposing view. Make it clear that you really want to hear the other side of the story, if there is one.

Principle #6: Explore Others’ Paths

This principle deals with your ability to help the other person feel safe by helping them share their facts, stories, and feelings.

Your goal here is to help the other person leave their "silence" and "violence" actions behind.

There are four powerful listening skills that will help you get back to a place of safety.

  1. Ask to get things rolling. Express an interest in what's going on inside the head of the other person.

  2. Mirror to confirm feelings. Respectfully acknowledge the emotions of the other person.

  3. Paraphrase to acknowledge the story. As they start to share their story with you paraphrase it back to them to show that you've heard what they said and, more importantly, that it's safe for them to share what they are thinking.

  4. Prime when you are getting nowhere. If the other person continues to hold back, prime them by guessing and articulating what they might be thinking or feeling.

When you are responding

When it comes back to your turn to respond, remember your ABCs.

Agree. When you share views with the other person, point them out first.

Build. If the other person leaves something out, point out the areas of agreement, and then add the elements that were left out.

Compare. If you simply just disagree with the other person, suggest that you differ (not that they are wrong) and how you view things differently.

Principle #7: Move to Action

Of course, the point of all crucial conversations is to move to action. Yet, even when great conversations take place, forward action isn't a foregone conclusion.

There are two reasons that conversations don't move into action - unclear expectations about how decisions are going to be made, and poor follow-through on decisions that are made.

Here are strategies to deal with both of those potential roadblocks.

Decide How to Decide

There are four ways to make decisions, and you must determine which one fits your current situation, and make it clear how the decision will be made.

Command. This is where decisions are made without involving others.

Consult. This is where input is gathered from the group and then a subset of that group makes the final call.

Vote. An agreed-upon percentage swings the decision.

Consensus. Everyone comes to an agreement and then supports the final decision.

When deciding which method you'll choose, there are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Who cares about the outcome? Include people who do. Don't include people who don't.
  2. Who knows? Include people who have the expertise to make the decision. Don't include people who don't.
  3. Who must agree? Include people with who you might need to cooperate in making the decision.
  4. How many people is it worth involving? Only include enough people to make a good choice. More is not necessarily better.

Finish Clearly

Finally, in order to bring the ball across the finish line, make sure you consider who needs to take action from the decision, exactly what they need to do, by when, and create a game plan to follow up.


We've covered a lot of ground here, and the best way to start down your journey of having crucial conversations present in your life is to, well, start.

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