Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

If you find yourself dreading conversations with others that you know are going to be emotional and controversial, I recommend reading the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. The authors describe why we often behave badly in these situations even when we have the best of intentions.

A crucial conversation is one in which: 1) the stakes are high; 2) opinions vary; and 3) emotions run strong. These types of conversations can happen at home and in the workplace.

Being adept at handling this type of conversation can have benefits for your relationships, health, and career. When problems continue over time, they can affect your sleep, your physical and mental health, and how you feel about your job and the people around you. This is an important skill for those who manage others or those who work in groups, which describes most of us.

The emphasis is to work on yourself first; know what you want and think about how you may be contributing to the problem. While we are hard-wired to resort to fight or flight (violence or silence, according to these authors), there is a third option — dialogue. By using the techniques in the book, you can invite the other person to have a safe and interactive conversation on any topic.

It is important to be aware of your emotions and observe how the other person is reacting. When defensiveness occurs, it might be time to re-establish mutual purpose, mutual respect, clarify your intent, or apologize. Depending on the situation, any of those approaches can help make it safe again before continuing.

It is only natural that we interpret others’ behaviors and assign meaning to them. As a result, there are facts and the stories we create about those facts. Our stories can be incorrect, and they may contribute to strong emotional reactions. Sometimes we may assign villain, victim, and helpless stories to the behaviors, and these stories can cause us problems.

Rather than attacking or accusing the other person, it is important to approach them with questions and then paraphrase their reply to make sure you understand their perspective and feelings before presenting your ideas. Looking for areas of agreement and underlying motivations can help lead to solutions.

Finally, deciding how you will move to action based on the dialogue is important for establishing future expectations. Dialogue is a separate process from decision-making. The typical methods of decision-making are command, consult, vote, and consensus. Some conversations are needed just to clear up misunderstanding. Others, however, need to determine who is going to do what by when. Making a clear plan for this, including follow-up, is important.

Becoming competent with crucial conversations can change your life. It is not easy to develop these skills, but well worth it. The authors encourage you to pick a relationship, pick a conversation, let others know you are trying to do better, and then give it a shot. Do not strive for perfection. Aim for progress and celebrate your success.

Back to Blog