“Crucial Conversations” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzer

If you work or live with or near other people you probably have occasions when crucial conversations need to take place. A crucial conversation is defined as a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. These conversations, if handled well, can deepen a relationship. If handled poorly, they can damage a relationship. The difficulty is that, since these conversations are full of emotion, they can easily spiral out of control. Or the fear of them spiraling out of control can prevent them from ever happening, even though they are often necessary for resolving an issue or building a relationship.


Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer is a popular book on communication in challenging circumstances. The authors point out that there are three choices when we face crucial conversations:

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

Too often the result is one of the first two outcomes, not because that is our choice but because people often don’t have the tools to handle these conversations well. The book presents a process for achieving a positive outcome based on research that the authors conducted, examining the practices of people who were able to handle crucial conversation extremely well.

The book begins with an explanation of why crucial conversations can easily spiral out of control. When stakes are high and emotions begin to rise, there are natural responses built into our bodies. Adrenaline rises, blood flow is altered, muscles tense, etc. These are all part of the natural fight or flight responses that are built into our physical system as a matter of survival. These responses begin when we face tense situations, often beginning even before we realize that the situation could present challenges.

In order to understand the recommended process for handling crucial conversations, we need a little background in neuroscience. There are two major areas of brain activity relevant for our discussion. The prefrontal cortex is the area where we store and process facts and information, identifying relationships between facts, and developing logical conclusions. The other major part of the brain is the limbic system which is composed of various brain structures where various reflexive or reactive brain activities take place. The fight or flight response and other emotional responses come from the limbic system.

The tools defined in this book, “Crucial Conversations”, are all focused on engaging the prefrontal cortex and keeping the limbic system quiet during such a conversation. By keeping the conversation logical and safe for all parties, the parties can more clearly communicate. If we stray into a highly emotional discussion, the limbic system can highjack the conversation and prevent the logical input that we would desire from the prefrontal cortex. The book outlines seven steps to a positive crucial conversation, as follows, all aimed at keeping the conversation in the prefrontal cortex and out of the limbic system:

  1. Start with Heart – This step is aimed at understanding the desires of the various participants by asking, “What do I really want for myself, for others, for the relationship?” The other component here is refuting what the authors call the Fool’s Choice of thinking that the only choices are silence or an emotional discussion with a bad outcome, by identifying what would be the best outcome.
  2. Learn to Look – This step is focused on maintaining safety for all involved so that we keep the conversation in the prefrontal cortex and away from the limbic system. The participants watch for signs of stress in themselves and others and bring all parties back to safety rather than moving toward fight or flight or what the book calls silence or violence.
  3. Make It Safe – This step provides tools for bringing the dialogue back to safety including apologize, contrast to explain, and getting back to the mutual purpose.
  4. Master My Stories – Part of the reason that crucial conversations go bad is that people imagine stories behind others’ actions. This step asks what might be a logical explanation rather than inferring the worst.
  5. State My Path – Using a concept of path to action, this step Shares facts, Tells story, Asks for others’ paths, Talks tentatively, and Encourages testing.
  6. Explore Others’ Paths – Using some strong communication tools, this step seeks to understand the others’ view. The book uses Ask to seek out, Mirror emotions to show safety, Paraphrase to show understanding, and Prime to get the information flowing. Then to build common ground use Agree, Build, and Compare.
  7. Move to Action – The last step is designed to ensure that the issue is settled by defining a decision process and timeline.

“Crucial Conversations” presents a process that can be used in the workplace (with superiors, co-workers, or subordinates), in family relationships, or in any other circumstances that fit the definition of a dialogue where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. Rather than let an emotional dialogue damage a relationship, we can learn to conduct a crucial conversation in a way that produces a positive outcome. I thought this book was quite good and would give it a 9 out of 10.

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