We've all had those awkward conversations that we wish we could forget. But it doesn't have to repeat. Learn how to have difficult, emotionally-charged conversations with our summary of Crucial Conversations.
The most influential people are not magicians: they don’t hypnotize you, and definitely don’t use any spells. Even more, they may seem pretty ordinary at first. Yet you can feel their strong power – and voluntarily recognize it. Why does this happen? What is the secret of their charisma?
“Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by K. Peterson, J. Grenny, R. McMillan, and A. Switzler is a useful self-help book which explains that the main ingredient of success (and power) is the right communication skills. Human relationships are very complicated – it’s a tangled web of emotions, feelings, desires, and ambitions. Knowing how to talk to people, who are very emotional and sometimes illogical creatures, you can achieve more than you think.
Here you can read our “Crucial Conversations” summary and learn more about the principles of productive communication.
The term “crucial conversations” may sound like something very official, something that only presidents and prime ministers have to deal with. But in fact, these are day-to-day conversations that happen to everyone. So why are they crucial?
What makes each of these conversations crucial - and not simply challenging, frustrating, frightening, or annoying - is that the results could have a huge impact on the quality of your life. In each case, some element of your daily routine could be forever altered for better or worse.
According to the authors, the things that make crucial conversations different from routine ones, are as follows:
An interesting paradox about crucial conversations is that while they can improve our life, people tend to avoid them. Or even more, when we actually have them, we demonstrate our worst behavior. The reason, say the authors, is that people are “designed wrong” – due to the evolutionary mechanism, our natural reaction to a threat is “fight, flight, or freeze”. Given their intensity, crucial conversations can definitely be taken for a threat.
For example, when someone says something you disagree with, your adrenal glands start producing adrenaline and pumping it into your bloodstream. Your arms and legs get more blood (because these are organs responsible for running or hitting), while your brain gets less. Can you think reasonably in this situation? Probably not.
So what are the topics of conversations that can be considered “crucial”?
Crucial conversations are not easy but they are definitely worth a try. The authors mention three main areas they can help you improve:
The good thing is that when you have to discuss something very important, you don’t have to choose between, for example, candor and career – because if you pick the right approach, you will not lose anything.
Each of us has our own opinions, feelings, and experiences. The authors call this combination of thoughts and feelings “a pool of meaning”. Naturally, the pools of meanings of two different people will not be the same. When it comes to crucial conversations, the best thing to do is to add your meaning to the shared pool – in other words, ensure that all ideas are expressed and heard.
Adding to the shared pool of meaning has two benefits: firstly, it helps to gather more information and make a better choice; secondly, when people withhold meaning from each other, they can make a huge mistake – and make it collectively, which means everyone will be held responsible.
How exactly can adding ideas increase a whole group’s ability to make better decisions? The thing is, when someone says something, their idea can lead to another one, and then to one more – and eventually, you can come up with an idea which no one originally thought of.
Unfortunately, having a serious conversation, most people don’t add meaning to the shared pool – instead, they resort to something very unproductive:
Sometimes we rely on hints, sarcasm, innuendo, and looks of disgust to make our points. We play the martyr and then pretend we're actually trying to help. Afraid to confront an individual, we blame an entire team for a problem-hoping the message will hit the right target. We withhold meaning from the pool. We go to silence.
People can change but it doesn’t happen by itself. Usually we don’t even think that it’s us who has to change – we blame others. It’s easier. But as the authors say, we are rarely totally innocent. Admitting it will be the first step to improve:
As much as others may need to change, or we may want them to change, the only person we can continually inspire, prod, and shape - with any degree of success - is the person in the mirror.
So if you want to become a crucial conversation expert, you will have to start with yourself and realize what your true goal is. This can happen in the following way:
Very often we justify our behavior, saying that we’ve been caught between two unpleasant options – for example, either we are honest and attack our spouse, or withhold the truth by staying kind. This is a Sucker’s Choice. Why don’t we think that there is the third option – being candid and respectful? Instead of limiting ourselves, we can think of a dialogue creatively.
We cannot always say at what point an innocent discussion starts transforming into a crucial conversation. So when it becomes stressful, we return to our old style. This is why it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on.
The authors mention 6 things we need to watch for:
1. Conditions. There are special signs that can help you spot the moment:
2. Safety problems. Nothing kills flow of meaning like fear: when you feel people don’t like your ideas, you either push harder, or hide. This way, the most obvious signs that people feel unsafe are violence and silence.
The three forms of violence are:
The forms of silence include:
Neither violence nor silence makes a conversation productive. We should understand what exactly is our Style Under Stress, and then change it, doing everything possible to make the conversation safe:
If you make it safe enough, you can talk about almost anything and people will listen. If you don't fear that you're being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.
As soon as you spot risks, you should “step out” of the conversation and try to restore safety. To do so, analyze which of the following conditions is at risk – mutual purpose or mutual respect.
Mutual purpose means that both sides participating in a conversation move toward a common outcome. We care about someone else’s goals, and they care about theirs. When people feel you manipulate them, safety will be destroyed. So ask yourself: what is my true motive? Do other people believe I care about what’s important to them?
While mutual purpose is the entry condition of a conversation, mutual respect is the condition that continues the dialogue. When people feel disrespected, they become emotionally charged – instead of fear, they feel anger.
We often show disrespect because we pay attention to how other people are different from us – but this can be counteracted if we start paying attention to how we are similar. You don’t have to respect every aspect of your opponent’s character – but seeing a human being in them, you can change the course of the whole conversation.
Respect is like air. If you take it away, it's all people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose - it is now about defending dignity.
In chapter 5, the authors also talk about three dialogue skills – apologizing, contrasting, and CRIB:
Learn more about creating psychological safety in the workplace ➡️
We may not notice it but we always tell ourselves stories. We hear facts and interpret them our way; we explain why and how things are happening. And as we come up with our own interpretation, our body immediately starts reacting – not to the fact, but to our judgment.
The problem with storytelling is that it happens very fast - so fast we don’t realize it. For example, you’re giving a presentation and your colleague starts laughing at you. You get angry. Of course, you can say that it’s feelings that came first, not the thought. But think about this: do you always get angry when someone laughs at you?
Fortunately, there are some techniques that can help us control our emotions:
Noticing your behavior. What’s important here is that you have to be very honest with yourself – for example, if you say that your violent behavior is a “necessary tactic”, you won’t give yourself a chance to reconsider your actions.
Getting in touch with your feelings. Identifying feelings and emotions is not as easy as it seems. Many people are emotionally illiterate: feeling embarrassment or surprise, then can describe it as anger or fear. Besides, some people are simply not used to sharing what’s inside.
Getting back to facts. Watch for “hot” words – the words expressing judgment, like “scowl” and “sarcastic”.
Watch for three “clever” stories. The authors call them “clever” because they “allow us to feel good about behaving badly.” The first type is “victim stories” – stories where you ignore your role. The second one is “villain stories” – stories where we overemphasize someone else’s guilt. And finally, “helpless stories” – those where we pretend that there are no healthy alternatives to the actions we’ve done. “Clever” stories are dangerous because they excuse us from responsibility.
When we have to share a tough message, it’s important to remember that believing so strongly in our ideas, we can shut people down rather than open them up. The authors say that those who know how to share information delicately, use five skills that help talking about the most sensitive topics – the skills that can be easily remembered with the acronym STATE:
Share your facts. Facts are safe to begin with. They are not controversial: “You arrived 20 minutes late” provokes no dispute – unlike “You’re always late, you can’t be trusted.” Facts are least insulting and most persuasive. So don’t start with conclusions – start with observations.
Tell your story. Facts alone are not worth mentioning: you need to share your story, which can be potentially unflattering. It can be hard, but if you let your negativity simmer, it will explode sooner or later. Remember to pay attention to the signs that safety is deteriorating. Use the contrasting technique as “first aid.”
Ask for others’ paths. This one is easy – just invite others to do exactly the same: provide facts, and then share their own stories.
Talk tentatively. Make sure you’re neither too hard nor too soft: don’t make another Sucker’s Choice. For example, instead of saying “This is probably stupid but” (too soft) or “How come you ripped us off” (too hard), you can say “It's starting to look like you're taking this home for your own use. Is that right?"
Encourage testing. Your counterparts need to feel it’s safe to express their thoughts. Invite people to speak with both your words and your tone. When others don’t say what they think, but don’t agree with you at the same time, play devil’s advocate: say that you could be wrong, so what is the opposite is true?
Those who are good at dialogue … understate their views out of fear of hurting others. They talk, but they sugarcoat their message. The best at dialogue speak their minds completely and do it in a way that makes it safe for others to hear what they have to say... They are both totally frank and completely respectful.
Sometimes it seems impossible to get people to dialogue: they either refuse to speak their minds or behave abusively. You cannot force people to dialogue, but you can make it safer for them, using powerful listening skills. These skills are as follows:
Ask. This is pretty self-explanatory. The key here is your sincere curiosity that encourages people to open up.
Mirror to confirm feelings. Mirroring is describing how people look and act – as if you were holding a mirror up. We may not understand their stories – but we can see how they are acting, and describe that out loud:
“You say you’re okay but by the tone of your voice, you seem upset.”
Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is not simply parroting back – it’s saying the same thing but in different words, preferably in an abbreviated form.
Prime. The term comes from an expression “priming the pump”: like you have to pour some water into a pump to get it running, you offer your guess at what a person is thinking or feeling.
Dialogue is not decision making. Adding meaning to the shared pool, we don’t actually make a decision – even more, if you add an idea, it doesn’t mean you participate in decision making.
According to the authors, there are four methods of decision making, and each situation will require a particular one. These methods are:
Command. These are decisions made with no involvement. For example, when customers set prices, and the government sets limitations, we don’t decide what to do – we decide how to make it work. This is the method used by parents talking to their children.
Consult. Consulting takes place when you invite other parties to help you make a decision. These can be subject matter experts or anyone whose idea you want to hear.
Vote. Voting is the best method when it comes to choosing from a list of options. But you don’t have to vote for the final option: reduce the list of 20 options to 5, then use the consensus method.
Consensus. It’s a tricky one. To reach consensus, you will have to talk until everyone agrees with the same decision. If they don’t, it will be a huge waste of time. Remember that consensus is about doing what’s best for the whole group.
In this chapter, to make it easier for readers to memorize information, the authors present a Model of Dialogue – a visual representation of the main crucial conversations principles. The model looks like a target and consists of circles, each representing a principle.
The center circle is the Pool of Meaning – this is the aim of the dialogue.
The circle surrounding the Pool of Meaning is safety. When safety is not strong, we have two options: either to withhold, avoid, or mask (the upper part of the next circle), or control, label, or attack (the lower part of the circle). These lead to the last circles - silence and violence, correspondingly.
The arrows represent “me” and “others”. As we can clearly see from the model, safety is the most important part: only if everyone feels safe to contribute, we can start using the skills for a crucial conversation to take place.
To show how exactly the skills described in the book apply to real-life situations, the authors provide seventeen cases, analyzing them and discussing two things: the danger point and solution. We will shortly go through one of the cases:
I'm not sure I can trust this person. He missed an important deadline. Now I wonder if I should trust him again.
The danger point: we should realize that trust is not something universal – in different situations, there can be different degrees of trust. For example, you can trust me to fix a laptop because I’m proficient at it, but you cannot trust me to build a house because I know nothing about it.
The solution: deal with trust around the issue, not around the person. If they’ve earned your mistrust in something, it doesn’t mean they will keep letting you down in everything.
Check out our guide on how to build trust in the workplace ➡️
It’s easy to implement conversation skills at meetings – because meetings are predictable. It’s less easy to implement them during heated discussions – because you cannot plan for them. It’s even harder if you think about how emotional people are. So how can we learn how to deal with crucial conversations?
Firstly, you should master the content, say the authors. Pick a chapter of the book and study it, one at a time. Discuss the material with someone else – or even teach it.
Secondly, master the skills. Ask a friend to rehearse a skill you want to learn. Model a situation, and practice. And don’t miss a chance to practice when a real opportunity presents itself – it’s especially easy if you have children.
Thirdly, enhance your motives. Let other people know you want to practice the skills; make it public.
Finally, build in cues. Carry a reminder to use the new skill. Make a poster and put it on the wall.
Don't expect perfection; aim for progress. And when you succeed, celebrate your success… when the chance arises, help others do the same.
Serious changes are not easy. To have better health, climb the career ladder, and develop stronger relationships with family, you will have to put in a lot of effort. Changing the way you think, which is basically controlled by our subconscious mind, can seem to be an impossible task, but take a step, and then again – till you see how your ideas become habits, and your dreams become reality.
📚 Read other book summaries on management from Runn:
Are you ready to make your team’s goals more meaningful? With our summary of Measure What Matters by John Doerr, you'll learn how to implement the OKR system for any team or organization.
Management can be tough, but you can learn your way through it with practice. If you need theory, this list of top management books and their summaries will help.