Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High

Nothing good ever happens after you hear the words, “Can we talk?” or “I need to talk to you about something.”  At that moment, you know you’re about to have a crucial conversation.

Crucial conversations are often spontaneous and can come up when we are unprepared and vulnerable. They trigger the same primitive part of our brain that was reserved for dealing with mastodons and dangerous environmental situations rather than human interactions.  There are really only three ways of dealing with a big conversation:

  • Deal with it well
  • Face it head-on and fail
  • Avoid it altogether

Which one are you?  I’m an avoider.  This is why I was so excited to dive right into this book.  My goal in reading it was to be able to identify when a crucial conversation comes up and then learn how to effectively deal with any situation.

Crucial Conversations is a powerful book for people committed to leadership

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High is powerful from the first sentence. And apparently 2 million people agree because the book has sold that many copies since its first publication back in 2002.

I had completely missed out on this book the first time around, and it’s a good thing for me (and maybe you too) that the publishers sent me a review copy of an updated edition.

The authors make some “audacious claims” for what this book can help you do, including:

  • Improving your relationships
  • Improving your personal health
  • Standing up to a colleague or boss when you disagree or are disappointed
  • Addressing family tensions during the holidays
  • Talking to a rebellious teen with candor and respect

The authors are a team of professional communicators

Crucial Conversations is written by the same folks who brought you these New York Times bestsellers: Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior, and Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.

Authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (@VitalSmarts) are all accomplished speakers and developers of training programs and change initiatives for major corporations.  The four are also co-founders of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance.

The authors didn’t start out by researching conversations; they actually started researching effective people.  Over 25 years, they interviewed over 20,000 people and what they found was startling: It turns out that the most successful people were those who were skilled at having crucial conversations, assertive enough to get their point across and yet respectful of everyone involved.

A 7-step primer on managing crucial conversations

Crucial Conversations teaches a 7-step process for managing these conversations:

  1. Start with heart. Ask yourself what you really want and what’s at stake.
  2. Learn to look. Always be asking yourself whether the conversation is defensive or a dialogue.  If you or the other party strays into defensiveness, simply say “I think we’ve moved away from dialogue” or “I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to force my ideas on you.”
  3. Make it safe. Another way to deal with defensiveness in difficult conversations is to create a comfortable situation by apologizing, asking a question that shows interest in others’ views or even taking a time out.
  4. Master your story. Focus on what happened that made you feel a certain way.  Think through your emotions and then choose the appropriate way to respond.
  5. State your path. Share your facts and conclusions so that the other party can see where you are coming from.
  6. Explore others’ paths. Find out what the other person is thinking.  Make sure that you understand each other and look for areas of agreement.
  7. Move to action. Come to a consensus about what will happen.  Document who will do what by when and settle on a way to follow up.

Crucial Conversations contains useful tools and resources

This book is based on years of research that are covered in detail on the book’s companion website.  There you will find research summaries that will help you with 33 different crucial conversations–anything from talking about drugs with your teens to discussing holiday spending, politics and working for a jerk.

Who will benefit most from this book?

At the risk of being too broad, I’m going to say that everyone will benefit from this book, both personally and professionally.  However, the people who will benefit the most are those people who are committed to becoming the best leader they can be.

Business owners will benefit by upgrading their conversations in a way that will eliminate fear and intimidation among their teams.  The authors’ research shows that companies with leaders who communicate using the Crucial Conversations® skills covered in this book are significantly more productive than those who don’t.

Sales and marketing professionals will learn how to put customers at ease and negotiate more profitable deals.

Human resources professionals will learn skills that will make employee communication and conflict resolution go smoothly.

The bottom line

What I learned from Crucial Conversations is that most of us are letting our emotions and past experiences and stories drive our actions. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for rational or strategic thinking at times that matter most.

Use Crucial Conversations as a tool to help you prepare for that next big conversation.  In fact,  you may want to start practicing each chapter a week at a time so that you’ll be prepared the next time someone says “Can we talk?”

Ivana Taylor Ivana Taylor is the Book Editor for Small Business Trends. She is responsible for directing the site’s book review program and manages the team of professional book reviewers. She also spearheads the annual Small Business Book Awards. Ivana publishes DIYMarketers, where she shares daily do-it-yourself marketing tips, and is co-author of "Excel for Marketing Managers."