Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

The way that we handle crucial conversations has a huge impact on our lives. Unfortunately, most people don’t know how to approach these key moments in the right way. However, by learning how to open up a real dialogue, you can manage difficult conversations in a way that leaves everybody happy. Mastering this art will drastically improve your relationships and your professional life.

Summary Notes

Identify Crucial Conversations

“The crucial conversations we’re referring to are interactions that happen to everyone. They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life.”

In our day-to-day lives, we encounter lots of crucial conversations. These are turning points that, when handled well, can improve lots of areas of our lives. However, if they are handled badly, they can damage important things like our relationships or career progression. 

Knowing how to handle crucial conversations is important, but you must first understand how to identify them. Crucial conversations have three things in common: opposing opinions, high stakes, and high emotions. For example, the conversation you need to have to end a relationship, give your boss some feedback, confront a colleague about their behavior, tell somebody about a hygiene problem, or deal with addiction issues.

Actions to take

Fill the Pool of Shared Meaning

“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool—even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.”

People who are successful in crucial conversations have a skill known as ‘dialogue.’ In this context, dialogue means allowing for the free flow of ideas. When everyone in a conversation is able to put all of their ideas and feelings out in the open, a shared pool of meaning is created.

When everybody has all the information, discussions are far more constructive, and better conclusions can be made. However, this is only possible when you understand what you really want from a conversation and are aware of the other person’s goals. By understanding your own goals in the conversation and changing your focus, you can have more productive conversations.

Actions to take

Avoid the Fool's Choice

“The best at dialogue refuse Fool’s Choices by setting up new choices.”

A fool's choice is a common mistake people make in conversation. It refers to a decision with two bad outcomes. Usually, the decision is between getting what you want and hurting somebody’s feelings. 

People assume that they have to pick between expressing their feelings and creating true dialogue, losing a friend, or upsetting somebody. For example, let’s say your boss comes up with an idea during a meeting, and you disagree. In your head, you give yourself a fool’s choice; you can either speak up and say you don’t like the idea, but that could create friction with your boss.

Alternatively, you could say nothing, which means you would have to spend the next six months wasting time on an idea you already know is bad. 

People who have mastered the art of dialogue understand there is another way. You can say exactly how you feel and have a reasonable discussion without upsetting people as long as you handle the conversation well. Learning how to avoid the fool’s choice is one of the key aspects of good conversation.

Actions to take

Learn to Look

“The further you stray off track, the harder it can be to return and the higher the costs. To help catch problems early, reprogram your mind to pay attention to the signs that suggest you’re in a crucial conversation.”

Some conversations can get derailed partway through, meaning that open dialogue disappears and the conversation becomes damaging. Being able to tell when this is happening, and taking steps to get it back on track, are vital skills. 

There are three main things to look out for; the moment that a conversation becomes crucial, signs that people don’t feel safe, and your own behavior. 

When a conversation starts to feel unsafe, people respond in one of two ways: silence or violence. Silence means withholding from the conversation instead of expressing themselves clearly. Violence means imposing one's viewpoint on others or taking control of a conversation rather than allowing ideas to flow freely.

Watch out for signs of this happening, and be vigilant about your behavior and responses.

Actions to take

Make It Safe

“The best don’t play games. Period. They know that in order to solve their problem, they’ll need to talk about their problem—with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking.”

When you are able to identify safety problems in a conversation, you can then take steps to fix them and get things back on track. First, step out of the conversation, then fix it, and finally, step back in. 

As soon as you notice that the conversation is going off track and you have lost the mutual purpose and respect necessary for good dialogue, tell the other person you want to shift gears. You can then apologize, offer a contrasting alternative, and regain mutual respect.

Actions to take

Rewrite Your Story

“As we tell the rest of the story, we free ourselves from the poisoning effects of unhealthy emotions. Best of all, as we regain control and move back to dialogue, we become masters of our own emotions rather than hostages.”

When we become emotional about a situation, we begin to react based on stories we tell ourselves rather than the facts. 

You may be upset because you think that somebody is attacking you or that they don’t care about your feelings, for example. But the reality could be that they do care, and you have misinterpreted what they were trying to communicate. 

It's difficult to correct yourself when strong emotions take over, especially when you're driven by internal stories. The only way to get the conversation back on track is to refocus on the facts and rewrite these stories.

Actions to take

State Your Path

“When stakes rise, and our emotions kick in, well, that’s when we open our mouths and don’t do so well.”

It’s easy to be overbearing and push too hard when we believe our ideas are correct and others should listen. This is especially true in high-stakes situations, but pushing too hard harms your position and makes people less likely to respond. 

The best way to deal with this kind of situation instead is to state your path in a careful and considerate way. Start with the basic facts and demonstrate how these help you draw conclusions. Then, ask others for their input, and ensure that you create a safe environment where dialogue can occur. Finally, make sure you don’t state your path as a fact; you acknowledge it’s a story.

Actions to take

Explore Others’ Paths

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears—by listening to them.”

When other people in a conversation are letting their emotions get the better of them, you must listen successfully to help steer the conversation back to true dialogue. 

Mastering the art of listening can be difficult, and many people don’t do it well. It begins with curiosity and patience as you let the other person express themselves and acknowledge what they are saying. This shows them that they are in a safe environment. You can then respond to them carefully and constructively.

Actions to take

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