How To Handle Crucial Conversations with Skill



“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.” – Margaret Wheatley

What is a crucial conversation?

A crucial conversations is where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.

Learning to master crucial conversations can propel your career and help you heal your relationships in work and life.

In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer define what is a crucial conversation, why care about them, and how to handle crucial conversations better…with skill.

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.

3 Keys That Define a Crucial Conversation

The authors of Crucial Conversations define a crucial conversation as a conversation where opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong.

Here are the authors on the 3 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 ‘ugly 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.”

Examples of Common Crucial Conversations

We all have crucial conversations at multiple points in our life.

The authors share some 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 interfering.
  • Talking to a coworker about a personal hygiene problem.

How Do We Handle Crucial Conversations?

The authors of Crucial Conversations lay out the options for handling our crucial conversations:

  1. We can avoid them.
  2. We can face them and handle them poorly.
  3. We can face them and handle them well.

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

It’s Human Nature to Avoid Crucial Conversations

Unfortunately, we usually either avoid crucial conversations or we handle them poorly.

This is natural because  because of the stress involved and the lack of skill.

The authors write about how we 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.”

How To Master Crucial Conversations with the Dialogue Model

The good news is we can handle crucial conversations with skill by learning how to look at them differently and by focusing on building skills that help when conversations get tough.

The authors of Crucial Conversations have created a very powerful mental model and framework for understanding and mastering crucial conversations.

Here is the framework at a glance:


As you can see from the model, you get better at crucial conversations by working on various parts:

  1. Mastering your stories and exploring the stories of others in a non-defensive way through dialogue.  See How To Master Your Emotions by Mastering Your Stories.
  2. Creating Safety.  See How To Make It Safe to Talk About Anything
  3. Contributing to a Pool of Shared Meaning.
  4. Avoiding Silence patterns such as Withdrawing, Avoiding, and Masking
  5. Avoiding Violence patterns such as Controlling, Labeling, and Attacking

How To Master Crucial Conversations with 7 Steps

The authors of Crucial Conversations identify 7 steps or patterns to have better conversations and stay in dialogue.

Here are the 7 steps of crucial conversations at a glance:


Here is a summary of the 7 steps:

  1. Start with Heart — What is your desired result?  What specifically is at stake?  Ask yourself before going into the conversation so you know what you want to achieve and why.  This will help keep you from getting caught in the heat of the moment, and will help you refocus on your desired outcomes.  See How To Reduce Conflict By Starting with Heart.
  2. Learn to Look — Be on the lookout for Mutual Purpose and continously ask yourself whether you are creating dialogue or being defensive.   See How To Improve Crucial Conversations by Learning to Look.
  3. Make it Safe — When you notice that you or others have moved away from dialogue, do something to make it safe or comfortable.    See How To Make It Safe to Talk About Anything
  4. Master My Stories — Retrace your path and tell the rest of the story.  The authors teach people to ask 3 important questions when mastering their story: 1)  “Am I pretending not to notice my role?”, 2)  “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?”, 3) “What is the right thing to do right now to move toward what I really want?”  See How To Master Your Emotions by Mastering Your Stories.
  5. State My Path — Explain what you’re beginning to conclude, starting with the least controversial, most persuasive element.  Encourage others to share their facts and stories.  Stay connected and avoid escalating.  Share your story as a story, don’t disguise it as a fact.  This will help you stay connected.
  6. Explore Other’s Paths — Use dialogue to actively inquire about the other party’s views.  Listen with empathy.  Listen to understand.   Now that you both understand each other, emphasize the parts where you agree, and identify where you differ.  Again, look for Mutual Purpose.
  7. Move to Action — Come to consensus about what will happen (who does what by when), and find a way to follow up. If consensus won’t work, see 4 Decision Making Methods.

Key Takeaways

I think mastering crucial conversations is one of the most important skills for life.

Here are my key takeaways:

  • 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.

You Might Also Like

4 Decision Making Methods

How To Improve Crucial Conversations by Learning to Look

How To Make It Safe to Talk About Anything

How To Master Your Emotions by Mastering Your Stories

How To Practice the Principle “Work On Me First”

How To Reduce Conflict By Starting with Heart

How To Refuse Sucker’s Choices to Get Better at Dialogue

How To Resolve a Conflict by Inventing a Mutual Purpose


  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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