Crucial Conversations


What is a crucial conversation? A crucial converations is where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer define a crucial conversation.

Key Take Aways
I think mastering crucial conversations is one of the most important skills for life. Here’s my key take aways:

  • Manage crucial conversations or they will manage you. Crucial conversations are a part of life. You can run but you can’t hide.
  • Use crucial conversations as a chance to improve. What if instead of fearing your crucial conversations, you embrace them as a chance to learn a life long skill?
  • Competence builds confidence. I think that crucial conversations are so tough because you don’t learn these skills in school. While the skills come naturally to some, they aren’t natural for most. In fact, we’re basically wired with a fight-or-flight mode that is counter-produtive for constructive crucial conversations. Learning effective communication techniques for dealing with crucial conversations is a key to competence and confidence.

Examples of Common Crucial Conversations
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler give examples of common crucial conversations:

  • Ending a relationship
  • Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments.
  • Asking a friend to repay a loan.
  • Giving the boss feedback about her behavior.
  • Approaching a boss who is breaking his own safety or quality policies.
  • Critiquing a colleague’s work
  • Asking a roommate to move out
  • Resolving custody or visitation issues with an ex-spouse.
  • Dealing with a rebellious teen.
  • Talking to a member who isn’t keeping commitments.
  • Discussing problems with sexual intimacy
  • Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem.
  • Talking to a colleague who is hoarding information or resources
  • Giving an unfavorable performance review.
  • Asking in-laws to quit interferring.
  • Talking to a coworker about a personal hygiene problem.

Handling Crucial Conversations
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler lay out the options for handling crucial conversations:

  • We can avoid them.
  • We can face them and handle them poorly.
  • We can face them and handle them well.

Based on that list, I think facing them and handling them well is the obvious choice.

3 Keys That Define a Crucial Conversation
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler write about three keys that make a conversation crucial:

“Now, what makes your conversation crucial as opposed to plain vanilla? First, opinions vary. For example, you’re talking with your boss about a possible promotion. She thinks you’re not ready; you think you are. Second, stakes are high. You’re in a meeting with four coworkers and you’re trying to pick a new marketing strategy. You’ve got to do something different or your company isn’t going to hit its annual goals. Third, emotions run strong. You’re in the middle of a casual discussion with your spouse and he or she brings up an “ugliy incident” that took place at yesterday’s neighborhood block party. Apparently not only did you flirt with someone at the party, but according to your spouse, “You were practically making out.” You don’t remember flirting. You simply remember being polite and friendly. Your spouse walks off in a huff.”

Human Nature is Avoidance
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler write that it’s natural to avoid crucial conversations:

“By definition, crucial conversations are about tough issues. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to back away from discussions we fear will hurt us or make things worse. We’re masters at avoiding these tough conversations. Coworkers send email to each other when they should walk down the hall and talk turkey. Bosses have voice mail in lieu of meeting with their direct reports. Family members change the subject when an issue gets too risky.”

Stephen Covey on Crucial Conversations
I particularly like the way Stephen Covey paints crucial conversations in the foreword of the book:

“From my own work with organizations, including families, and from my own experience, I have come to see that there are a few defining moments in our lives and careers that make all the difference. Many of these defining moments come from “crucial” or “breakthrough” conversations with important people in emotionally charged situations where the decisions take us down one of several roads, each of which leads to an entirely different destination.

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  1. A common theme in lack of results is “failing to do what we know.”

    The problem with crucial conversations is, “knowing what to do.” To make it worse, you actually have to fight your fight or flight instincts.

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