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Crucial Conversations Summary

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Crucial Conversations Book Mockup

This book teaches you the philosophy and process to handle crucial conversations. It works whether the conversations happen with your partner, family, friends, in the workplace, or in the community. If the stakes are high, there are opposing opinions, and strong emotions; then you want to read this book and learn how to excel. Key insights:

  1. A crucial conversation occurs when stakes are high, opinions differ, and there are strong emotions

  2. The goal of conversation is to having flowing dialogue thereby increasing the pool of shared meaning, by avoiding silence (flight response) or ‘violence’ (fight response) in participants

  3. Conversational silence includes hiding true opinions, avoiding issues, withdrawing from discussions

  4. Conversational ‘violence’ includes controlling others’ inputs, labelling people or ideas negatively, or attacking people directly

  5. Make a conversation safe by aligning on an mutual purpose, ensuring mutual respect, or apologizing if necessary

  6. Try a don’t/do statement to get safe and stay on point – ‘I don’t want to jeopardize our relationship, but I do want to talk about the events yesterday’

  7. The 4-step Path to Action is 1) see & hear events, 2) tell a story about events, 3) have a feeling about your story, and 4) take action based on your feeling

  8. If someone’s actions seem strange, work backwards up the Path to Action to understand why

  9. Avoid these three false stories – I’m a victim, they are a villain, and I couldn’t have done anything differently

  10. To make conversational progress, agree on the things you agree on, build on or add to incomplete statements, and seek to contrast areas where you disagree

Book details

Full title: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. By Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.

Length: 296 pages, or 6 hours and 29 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: Crucial Conversations 101 – getting started

Crucial Conversations: The authors define a crucial conversation as involving three key elements, 1) high stakes, 2) opposing opinions, and 3) strong emotions. Below are some examples of crucial conversations:

  • Discussing relationship issues or ending a relationship

  • Providing difficult performance feedback to a subordinate

  • Giving your boss/supervisor bad news or telling them they are wrong

  • Discussing inappropriate behavior or poor teamwork with co-workers

  • Trying to resolve bad teenager behavior or discuss poor school performance

  • Asking in-laws to stop interfering in your relationship

  • Resolving disputes with neighbors or within community groups

Dialogue: The fundamental premise of Crucial Conversations is that almost any problem can be solved if the stakeholders are able to communicate efficiently and effectively on it – what the authors call dialogue. As dialogue flows, the ‘pool of shared meaning’ grows and eventually a mutually beneficial solution to problems can be found. The problem is that we humans are great at having stressful conversations. We resort to the conversational equivalent of fight or flight; what the authors call silence or violence. When this happens, dialogue stops, and the pool of shared meaning never builds. This is shown in the diagram below.


Fool’s choice: The author’s introduce the notion of a fool’s choice; which is simply choosing between avoiding crucial conversations or reacting aggressively to them. Crucial Conversations is all about staying in the middle ground between silence and violence and achieving great outcomes through dialogue with key stakeholders.

Start with Heart: A key thing to consider before starting any crucial conversation is to begin with the end in mind. That is, to ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What do I want for myself as a result of this conversation?

  2. What do I want for others as a result of this conversation?

  3. What do I want for our relationship as a result of this conversation?

  4. How would I behave in this conversation if I really wanted the above outcome(s)?

  5. What do I want to avoid as an outcome?

  6. How should I go about getting what I really want, and avoiding what I don’t want

By asking yourself these questions you quickly realize that you need to have the conversation (silence won’t work), and that you want to want a positive outcome that maintains the relationship (neither will violence).

Key insight 2: Silence, violence, purpose and respect

Signs of silence: Silence consists of any verbal or physical strategy that purposefully withholds information from the pool of meaning, and so limits folks discussing problems ability to solve them. The authors describe the three most common forms:

Masking consists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching are some of the more popular forms.
Avoiding involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
Withdrawing means pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either exit the conversation, or exit the room.”

Signs of violence: Violence consists of any verbal or physical strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view. It is the opposite of silence in that it forces information into the pool of meaning, and so limits folks ability to solve problems. The authors describe the three most common forms:

Controlling consists of coercing others to your way of thinking. It’s done through either forcing your views on others or dominating the conversation. Methods include cutting others off, overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects, or using directive questions to control the conversation.
Labeling is putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category – e.g. those ideas are racist, only an engineer would think that way.
Attacking speaks for itself. You’ve moved from winning the argument to making the person suffer. Tactics include belittling and threatening.”

If you or the person you’re talking to switches into silence or violence, it is because they feel unsafe. From key insight 1 above, they have entered the conversational fight or flight mode.

Make it safe – Mutual Purpose: Crucial conversations can come off the rails if someone doesn’t believe there is a shared mutual purpose. For example, perhaps your supervisor is asking you questions to find evidence of your possible mistakes in order to demote you in favor of someone else – in which case you might be reluctant to speak freely. For mutual purpose to exist, both parties need to believe that both of you are working towards a common goal or purpose. Mutual purpose is the entrance condition of dialogue. More from the authors:

“The purpose has to be truly mutual. If our goal is to get our way or manipulate others, it will quickly become apparent, safety will be destroyed, and we’ll be back to silence and violence in no time. Before you begin, examine your motives. Ask yourself the Start with Heart questions.”

Make it safe – Mutual Respect: The condition of continued dialogue is mutual respect. A conversation without respect is one where people stop focusing on the issues at hand and start defending themselves or attacking others in retaliation. Dialogue grinds to a halt and the pool of meaning empties. More from the authors:

“Because respect is like air. As long as it’s present, nobody thinks about it. But if you take it away, it’s all that 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.”

Key insight 3: Understanding the Path to Action

The authors introduce a model for the Path to Action covering four steps as shown below.


The model is best described in reverse as follows.

Feelings drive actions. If you’re mad at someone you are more likely to do nasty things to them. Think of the actions that are associated with love, compassion, respect, or sympathy and it easy to see how actions follow feelings.

Stories create feelings. For all of the emotions above we could imagine a compelling narrative. We’re mad at the coworker who undermined us to the boss. We love our supporting partner of 20 years. We have compassion and respect for the person with disabilities who strives to overcome their adversities. Every interpersonal emotion has a story that acts as the rational for that emotion, and by extension the actions that follow.

Facts loosely inform stories. The authors note that link from facts to stories is much less robust than for the other steps. A given set of facts can justify an almost infinite set of stories – a feature not lost on Hollywood movie writers. Further, even if we don’t realize it we are always telling ourselves stories. The authors again:

“Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast. When we believe we’re at risk, we tell ourselves a story so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. If you don’t believe this is true, ask yourself whether you always become angry when someone laughs at you. If sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, then your response isn’t hard-wired. That means something goes on between others laughing (see & hear) and you feeling. In truth, you tell a story. You may not remember it, but you tell a story.”

In Crucial Conversations you are invited to take control of your own stories by retracing your steps. If you find yourself feeling unsafe (silence or violence) or generally don’t like your actions, then ask yourself what are your feelings/emotions telling you about others? What emotions are encouraging you to act this way? Then ask yourself what story or narrative is justifying these emotions. Now it’s time to question your feelings and stories. More from the authors:

“The first step to regaining emotional control is to challenge the illusion that what you’re feeling is the only right emotion under the circumstances. This may be the hardest step, but it’s also the most important one. By questioning our feelings, we open ourselves up to question our stories. We challenge the comfortable conclusion that our story is right and true. Willingly question whether our emotions (very real), and the story behind them (only one of many possible explanations), are accurate.”

The authors encourage us to not confuse stories with facts; indeed they encourage us to be deliberate in separating them by looking for ‘hot’ or emotive words – they are clear evidence of stories not facts.

“Sometimes you fail to question your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught up in the moment that you begin to believe your stores are facts. They feel like facts. You confuse subjective conclusions with steel-hard data points.”

Lastly, instead of confronting others on their behavior ask them to retrace their path to action. Ask ‘what were you feeling when you did that?’ Then to uncover the story ask ‘why do you feel that way?’ Finally ask, ‘what did you see or hear that lead to this conclusion?’ to reveal the facts that they are relying on.

The model below aims to bring the above key insights together. Developing a pool of shared meaning of sufficient depth to solve complicated problems requires balanced contributions from you and others whilst remaining in a circle of safety.


Other insights from Crucial Conversations

4. Get safe with an apology. If you detect the conversation is no longer safe (participants are in silence or violence) then consider apologizing. An apology is a statement that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing – or at least not preventing – pain or difficulty to others. Done properly this will also support the need for mutual respect as a condition for continued conversation.

5. Get safe with don’t/do statements. When you sense folks not understanding your intent or purpose, or feeling disrespected; try a don’t/do statement (which the authors call a contrasting statement). For example, ‘I don’t want to overstate the issue or cause a relationship issue, but I do want to find a way to agree financial matters with you.’ Or in the workplace, ‘I don’t want to suggest your overall work performance is anything other than first class, but I do want to discuss how much time you spend on your iPhone during work time.’

6. Get safe by creating mutual purpose. If you sense that you and your conversationalist(s) are not on the same consider committing to, or creating a mutual purpose. For perhaps your arguing with your partner about a holiday destination. What can help is to revisit the purpose behind the holiday. For example, what type of holiday are you seeking? By confirming the need for a holiday, and what you hope to achieve with a holiday (more time with kids, or away from kids for example) you can discuss specific plans more concisely.

7. Three clever stories to avoid. In Crucial Conversations the authors list three clever stories to get us off the hook, or keep us from acknowledging our own failures. The first is that we are a victim – it’s not my fault and I couldn’t have done anything differently. The second is that ‘they’ are villains – it’s all their fault and they are nasty. The third is that we are helpless – I couldn’t have done anything to change things.

8. Tell the rest of the story. Continuing from the above insight, we need to tell the complete story to avoid the clever story trap. Is it true that you are a victim? Isn’t it true you could have done things differently to change the outcome? And they aren’t really villains either. What evidence can you find where they weren’t villains. Finally, you and others aren’t helpless. We all have agency over our lives and can take action to change things we don’t like.

9. Build consensus with ABC. One way to maintain progress and build consensus is to agree, build, and compare. Agree on the things you agree on and move on – don’t waste time aggressively agreeing. If someone makes an incomplete statement, agree with the specific elements you like and then built on it. For example, ‘I really like what you’ve suggested here, but I’d like to add these points …’ Finally, where you disagree, be curious and explore these differences by comparing them in deliberate conversation. For example, ‘Can you help me understand why you think X, when I saw the incident I was thinking Y. How are you seeing it?’

10. Implementing agreements. One thing I like is Crucial Conversations at the end was a focus on implementing agreements through agreeing on a few key questions during the conversation. These are: Who? Does what? By when? And, how will we know progress is being made? These are important things to agree with your stakeholders or the crucial conversation will have been for naught.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

You’ve got a lifetime ahead of you and I can guarantee there are many crucial conversations ahead of you. With family, friends, partners, and your boss/coworkers/subordinates. These conversations will be literally life-changing in that they will result in family harmony or fracture, solid or broken friendships, stable and loving or ended relationships, and workplace success or failure.

The authors in Crucial Conversations map out an easy philosophy to understand, and process to follow, to ensure that your difficult conversations achieve the best possible outcome. This might not sound like a big deal now, but after your first consequential train wreck conversation, you’ll wish you’d applied the principles in this book.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#1 – The Algebra of Happiness. This book provides an overview of the different sorts of challenges and opportunities you’ll experience in your life. It’s not too hard then to see where the really crucial conversations will arise and how they can be a pivot in determining your outcomes.

#4 – The Defining Decade. As with The Algebra of Happiness this book maps out the important decisions you need to make in your 20s to set up your 30s, 40s, and 50s for success. These decisions will result from crucial conversations with relevant stakeholders – where these skills will be essential.

#5USA – Set for Life. This book is about financial decisions…say no more. Seriously, if you want agreement with your significant other, learning the principles in Crucial Conversations will help a great deal.

#5AUS – The Barefoot Investor. This book is about financial decisions…say no more. Seriously, if you want agreement with your significant other, learning the principles in Crucial Conversations will help a great deal.

#7 – Emotional Agility. This book spends more time dealing with one of the key points in Crucial Conversations around the difference between facts, stories, feelings, and actions.

#12 – Loserthink. This book encourages you to adopt different mindsets – engineer, scientist, economist, artist, etc – when thinking about problems. This and other aspects of the book can help you realize that your stories are not facts, and help you be more curious about your path to action.

#13 – 12 Rules for Life. This book will have you thinking about a great many psychological and spiritual aspects of your life, which may trigger a range of crucial conversations with those close to you. Best you be prepared for these conversations.

#19 – Gifts Differing. This book will help you realize more about your personality and the personality of those around you. This knowledge will equip you well for navigating the crucial conversations you may be called on to have with them.

#21 – Leaders Eat Last. This book provides a great introduction to leadership for those starting the journey. As a leader, there will be many crucial conversations with supervisors, coworkers, and subordinates were you will want to excel. Crucial Conversations provides the philosophy and process to do just that.

#24 – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. This book provides the most important context for learning how to have successful crucial conversations. Nothing impacts the quality of your life more than the quality of your intimate relationship with your chosen life partner.

Book resources

About the authors

Kerry Patterson has co-authored four award-winning training programs and led multiple long-term change efforts in Fortune 500 organizations around the world. He is the recipient of the BYU Marriot School of Management Dyer Award for outstanding contribution in organizational behavior and he completed doctoral work at Stanford University.

Joseph Grenny is an author, speaker, and social scientist for business performance. He has advised leaders on every major continent, for the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. He cofounded two not-for-profit organizations Unitus Labs and The Other Side Academy.

Ron McMillan has consulted with thousands of leaders around the world ranging from first-level managers to Fortune 500 executives. Prior to founding VitalSmarts, he cofounded the Covey Leadership Center where he served as vic president of research and development.

Al Switzler is a renowned consultant who has directed training and management initiatives with leaders from Fortune 500 companies worldwide. He also served on the Executive Development Center at the University of Michigan.

External links

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