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Crucial Conversations

Tools for talking when stakes are high

This is part of our Book Trainer series – training exercises for books. See the full collection here

Big Idea

“When it comes to risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves and others) out into the open.”


Over the past 25 years, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler asked over 20,000 people to identify individuals in their organizations who could really get things done. They found what sets these individuals apart was their ability to deal with crucial conversations “when talking turned tough and stakes were high.”

My Story

For a long time, I avoided conflict when possible. Why risk upsetting others?

This turned out to be a big assumption. Withdrawing from conflict could eventually make things worse.

I read this book for two reasons:

  1. To deepen my relationships. My parents tend to avoid conflict (at least publicly), and my inclination is to do the same with my girlfriend. I want to break that pattern.
  2. To improve my leadership skills. It’s easy to default to “fight or flight” mode when stakes are high. Crucial Conversations has given me a framework to defuse my fight or flight animal instincts, gain a more complete view of the problem, and pursue better solutions.
Exercise 1: When You Feel Unsafe, Do You Tend Towards Silence or Violence?

When you’re confronted with risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, do you tend towards silence (flight) or violence (fight)?

Silence means purposefully withholding information. Silence could mean “masking” (understating or selectively showing true opinions), “avoiding” (steering away from sensitive subjects), and “withdrawing” (exiting a conversation).

Violence means using control and coercion to force your meaning. Violence could mean “controlling” (forcing your views, dominating conversation), “labeling” (putting a label on someone so we can dismiss them), and “attacking” (making others suffer).

Exercise 1 is about identifying your tell-tale signs of you falling into silence or violence.

These could be:

  • Physical signals – how does your body feel? For me, my throat tightens.
  • Emotional signals – for example, you feel scared, hurt or angry. For me, I feel exasperated, then threatened.
  • Behavioral signals – for example, you get very silent or raise your voice. For me, I tend to get defensive. Then, I tend to put off dealing with the problem for later.

The authors provide a “your style under stress test” that exposes your tendencies towards silence or violence. The first step to mastering crucial conversations is identifying when they happen – when your safety or others’ safety feels threatened.

Do you tend towards silence or violence when conversations get emotional? What about your partner, family member or colleague? What physical, emotional and behavioral signals will help you identify when conversations turn crucial?

Exercise 2: Start with the Heart. What Do You Really Want?

When you find yourself moving to silence or violence, stop and pay attention to yourself first:

  • What do you really want for yourself?
  • What do you really want for others?
  • What do you really want for the relationship?
  • How would you behave if you really wanted these results?
  • What do you NOT want?

Before getting distracted by winners and losers, right and wrong, do the hard work of asking what you really want. This honest reflection is your contribution to the shared, open space where solutions can emerge.

Exercise 3: Step Out (of Dialogue), Make it Safe, then Step Back In 

“When it’s safe, you can say anything.”

Productive dialogue calls for a free flow of perspectives and meaning.

When emotions flare and you feel those involved drifting towards silence or violence, “Step out, make it safe, then step back in.”

This usually happens when someone feels disrespected or doesn’t trust your motives. People might not believe that you care about their goals or that you respect them. You need to step out of the dialogue, and create safety by re-establishing shared purpose and respect.

Do this by apologizing, contrasting and CRIB:

Sincerely Apologize when appropriate. When you cause – or not prevent – pain or difficulty for others, say so.

Example: “I’m sorry I didn’t give you a call when I learned that we wouldn’t be coming by. You worked all night, and it would have been a wonderful chance to showcase your improvements, and I didn’t even explain what happened. I apologize.”

Contrast to fix misunderstanding. When others misunderstand either your purpose or your intent, use contrasting. Start with what you don’t intend or mean. Most often, this would be addressing others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or have malicious a purpose. Then explain what you do intend or mean – your real purpose. Use contrasting to bolster safety before sharing your view, or as first aid for flaring emotions.

Example: “I don’t mean to do ___. What I want is ___.”

Finally, CRIB to get to mutual purpose.

Commit to seek mutual purpose (C)

Example: “It seems like we’re both trying to force our view. I commit to stay in this discussion until we have a solution both of us are happy with.”

Example: “This isn’t working. You want ___, I want ___. Why don’t we see if we can come up with something that satisfies everyone?

Recognize the purpose behind the strategy (R)

Example: “Why do you want ___?”

Example: “You want peace and quiet, and I want time with you away from the kids. So, if we can come up with something that is quiet and away, we’ll both be happy. Is that right?”

Invent a Mutual Purpose (I) – find an objective that is more meaningful or rewarding than the ones that divide the various sides. Can you find more encompassing goals? 

Example: “I certainly don’t want to make winners and losers here. It’s far better if we can come up with something that doesn’t make one team resent the other… I’m more worried about ___ (i.e. how we feel about each other) than anything else. Let’s make sure that whatever we do, we don’t drive a wedge in our relationship.

Brainstorm new strategies (B)

Example: “So we need to come up with something that does ___, and does ___. What if we were to do ___? That way, we’ll be able to…”

I used a lot of examples from the book, because they show the type of phrases that can help you “step out” of a difficult conversation to get back on track.

Exercise 4: Rethink Your Stories

It’s human nature to spring towards silence or violence when confronted. 

See/Hear > Feel > Act

But, what if we extended the chain from action to reaction? What if we looked at the story that takes us from observing to feeling and acting?

See/Hear > Tell a Story > Feel > Act

Our feelings result from the story we tell about what happened. That story is your interpretation of actual events. 

“We observe, we tell a story, and then we feel…. Since we and only we are telling the story, we can take back control of our own emotions by telling a different story. We now have a point of leverage. If we can find a way to control the stories we tell, by rethinking or retelling them, we can master our emotions, and therefore, master our crucial conversations.”

How to do this? The next time you tend toward silence or violence, work backwards:

[Act] Notice your behavior. Am I in some form of silence or violence?

[Feel] Get in touch with your feelings. What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?

[Tell story] Analyze your stories. What story is creating these emotions?

[See/hear] Get back to the facts. What evidence do I have to support this story?

Watch out for vicim stories (“it is not my fault” stories that exaggerate our innocence), villain stories (“it’s all your fault” stories that overemphasize other person’s guilt) and helpless stories (“there’s nothing else I can do” stories that turn other’s behavior into a fixed trait).

“Rarely do these stories match reality. More often than not they are self-serving stories that justify our (silent or violent) behavior. They allow us to feel good about behaving badly while achieving bad results.”

What a powerful quote. Denial absolves us of responsibility for improving our situation. When you hear yourself or others taking extreme, absolute views about culpability or your powerlessness, rethink your stories. Do they reflect reality? Can you change them? As Dr. Jim Loehr says, “Change your stories, change your life.”

Exercise 5: Share the Path You Took to Arrive to Your Story 

When you have a tough message to share – or when you are super convinced of your own rightness – STATE your path. The goal? To show how a reasonable person could end up with the your story. 

The path metaphor is powerful. Take the other side along with you on the path you took to reach your conclusions, starting with the facts.

“We aren’t trying to win, we just want our meaning to get a fair hearing. We’re trying to help others see how a reasonable, rational, decent person could end up with the story we’re carrying. That’s all.”

Share your facts (S) 

Begin with facts, because they are least insulting. Facts are specific, objective and verifiable – any two people watching could make the same observation.

“Earn the right to share your story by starting with your facts.”

Tell your story (T)

Share your conclusion that is reasonable, rational and decent (although admittedly still subjective).

Ask for others’ paths (A)

Ask others for their path, and paraphrase along the way to confirm it. 

Talk tentatively (T)

When sharing a story, share in a way that expresses appropriate confidence in your conclusions while demonstrating that, if appropriate, you want your conclusions challenged. Strike a balanced tone that is tentative, but not wimpy. 

  • Change “the fact is” to “in my opinion”. 
  • Swap “everyone knows that” for “I’ve talked to 3 suppliers who think that.” 
  • Soften “It’s clear to me” to “I’m beginning to wonder if…” or “I was wondering why…”

Encourage testing (E)

Actively invite opposing views 

  • “Does anyone see it differently? What am I missing here? I’d really like to hear the other side of this story.” 
  • “Maybe I”m wrong here. What if the opposite were true?”
Last Thoughts

I expect Crucial Conversations to help me with the most important conversations of my life – the high stakes ones. Real life is infinitely more complex than the acronyms and frameworks proposed by the authors. Nevertheless, I now have a much more nuanced language to navigate crucial conversations.

Interestingly, the authors don’t believe in compromise as the ultimate solution. The goal of crucial conversations isn’t to meet the other party half way. It isn’t about “my way” or “your way” and meeting somewhere in the middle. Rather, it is to find a higher middle way, like the apex of a triangle – an “our way” – a creation of something new that arises from genuine dialogue. 

Doing this requires a mix of meta-awareness, confidence and humility that requires a lifetime of refinement. I will try my best! For these are the conversations that define us and our relationships with others.

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One reply on “Crucial Conversations”

That made me think a lot about what you wrote in your book about leaders/entrepreneurs who delegate the responsibilities of making tough decisions by fear. And it made me think a lot about the book of Chris Voss; Never Split The Difference (and find the “our way”). That was a great read; I’m still digesting the inputs… I guess only practice can really make a difference. Thank you for the article.

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