Crucial Conversations | Tools for talking when stakes are high

Crucial Conversations

Summary of “Crucial Conversations”: There are events in our life that have more influence than others, and often these decisive events are crucial conversations that we have with very important people in our life, be they personal or professional; This book teaches us how to manage and use these conversations to their full potential in order to build a better life.

By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Swiztler, 2002, 230 pages.

Book chronicle and summary of “Crucial Conversations”:

Crucial conversations are not discussions between presidents, kings, emperors or prime ministers. Of course these types of discussions can be decisive for the future of the world, but the crucial conversations featured in this book are ones that happen to anyone and can happen at any time.

A conversation is crucial if it meets three criteria:

  1. The opinions of the parties involved are different. For example, you talk to your boss about your possible promotion. He thinks you’re not ready, you think you are.
  2. The stakes are high. You are at a meeting with four colleagues and you are trying to define a marketing strategy. You need to do something different or your company will not achieve its annual goals.
  3. Emotions run high. You are in the middle of a normal conversation with your spouse, when she tells you about “something bad” that took place at the neighbour’s party yesterday. According to your spouse, you not only flirted with someone, but “you almost kissed.” You don’t remember flirting; you were just trying to be polite and friendly.

What makes each of these conversations crucial is that the result can have a very important impact on our quality of life. By definition, crucial conversations are about difficult problems. And unfortunately, it is human nature to turn our backs on discussions that we are afraid will hurt us or make things worse. Colleagues send e-mails when they should really go to the hallway and speak frankly. Bosses leave voice messages instead of having meetings with their direct subordinates. Family members change the subject when it becomes too tricky. One of the authors’ friends received a voice message from his wife announcing her intention to divorce him.

We use all kinds of techniques to dodge these situations. But it does not have to be so. Typically we handle these conversations in one of these three ways:

  • We avoid them.
  • We deal with them but manage them poorly.
  • And we deal with them and manage them well.

Seen through this lens it seems simple: we all want to better manage our crucial conversations. But in reality, there are many factors preventing us from managing them well:

  • We are poorly designed. When conversations move from routine to a crucial stage, we often encounter problems. This is because emotions do not really prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations have shaped human DNA to manage critical conversations with punches and kicks, not with smart persuasion and careful attention.
  • We are under pressure. Crucial conversations are frequently spontaneous. Therefore, as we are taken by surprise, we are forced to conduct an extraordinarily complicated human interaction in real time – no books, no coaching, and certainly no small breaks to take a step back and regroup. What are we dealing with? On one hand there is a problem, on the other hand there is the other person, and stuck in the middle is our brain, preparing for fight or flight. The truth is that we multitask in real time using a brain that is busy doing something else. We’re lucky not to have a heart attack.
  • We are baffled. We don’t know where to start. And we have to work everything out ourselves, as we don’t often see examples of effective communication skills that really work. And even though we often have crucial conversations, this does not mean that we will succeed more often, because practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect: perfect practice makes perfect. This means that we must first understand what to practice.
  • We behave in a way that leads to failure. With a yo-yoing state of mind, the strategies we choose to manage our crucial conversations are perfectly designed to prevent us from achieving our goals. We are our worst enemies – and we don’t even realize it.

Fortunately, there are effective techniques for learning how to master these crucial and important conversations. Follow this guide.

Chapter 2: Mastering crucial conversations – the power of dialogue.

The authors could have created some Dan Brown style suspense by only revealing the fundamental idea of this book right at the end. But they did not. Here it is:

When the time comes for tricky, controversial and emotional conversations, competent people find a way to ensure that all the relevant information (for themselves and the others) circulates freely.

Crucial Conversations discussion

Here is the name of this spectacular talent: dialogue.

This raises two questions:

  1. How does the release of this relevant information lead to success?
  2. What can you do to encourage this relevant information circulating freely?

The answer to the first question will be given immediately, that of the second is the subject of the rest of the book – and this article.

Each of us begins a conversation with our own opinions, emotions, theories and experiences about the subject at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feelings creates our own storage tank of meanings. This bank not only informs us but also serves as fuel for each of our actions.

When two or more of us enter into a critical conversation, by definition we do not share the same tank. But dialogue-competent people do their best to ensure everyone adds their meanings to the shared reservoir and feels safe and comfortable. This applies even to ideas that, at first glance, appear controversial, false or that challenge the beliefs of one of the participants. Of course, not everyone agrees with every idea: they simply do their best to make sure that all ideas circulate freely.

While the Tank of Shared Meanings grows, it helps all concerned: as the individuals are exposed to more accurate and relevant information, they make better choices. In fact, the Tank of Shared Meanings is a measure of the group’s IQ: the bigger the group, the more intelligent the decisions will be.

On the other hand, if the Tank of Shared Meanings is dangerously superficial, and people hide relevant information from others, individually intelligent people can collectively make stupid decisions.

For example, a woman went to the hospital for a tonsil operation and the surgical team accidentally removed a portion of her foot. How could this happen? And why are there so many accidents in hospitals? This is partly because many health professionals are afraid to talk. In this case, no fewer than seven people wondered why the surgeon was working on her foot, but no one said anything. The relevant information could not be exchanged freely because people were afraid to speak.

Hospitals of course do not have a monopoly on fear. Pretty much all over the world, bosses are intelligent, very well paid, confident and frank. As a result people tend to keep their opinions to themselves rather than risk annoying someone in a position of power. On the other hand, when people can speak freely, the Tank of Shared Meanings can very significantly increase the group’s ability to make better decisions. In short:

The Tank of Shared Meanings is the birthplace of synergies.

The tank not only helps individuals make better choices, but because meanings is shared, people are much more motivated and willing to act on the decisions they have made.

The good news is that the skills required to master these high-stakes interactions are easy to understand and fairly easy to learn. By reading further, you will learn how to create the right environment for you and others so that dialogue becomes the path of least resistance.

Chapter 3: Start with the heart – how to stay focused on what you really want.

Work on yourself first

Let’s start with a true story. Two sisters and their father are in their hotel room after a hot afternoon at Disneyland. Because of the heat, the two girls have drunk enough soda pop to fill a small barrel, and they only have one thing in mind: going to the bathroom. An argument starts as to who will go first.

As with many arguments, intimidations, threats and insults are hurled on both sides. They even call upon their father, who takes a neutral position but tells them to find a solution between themselves, giving them one single rule: No hitting. Finally, after 25 minutes, one girl goes to the toilet then one minute later, the second one goes. The father asks, “Do you know how many times you could have gone to the bathroom during this fight?” This idea had not occurred to the two girls, but the result was immediate:

  • Many times, if she hadn’t been so silly!
  • Listen to her. She calls me an idiot when she could have just waited. She always wants to be first!

This story might bring on a smile, but we are no different most of the time. When we face a conversation that has failed, we are quick to blame the other(s).

Those who are the best at dialogue understand this simple fact and transform it into principle: “Work on myself first“. You are the only person you have direct control over.

Focus on what you really want

important events

Greta is the CEO of a medium-sized company. She is about to participate in a fairly tense two-hour meeting with the company’s 200 senior executives. For the past six months, she has launched and promoted a cost-cutting campaign. Few things have been accomplished so far, so Greta has convened this meeting, so that people could tell her why they hadn’t yet started cutting costs.

Greta has just opened the meeting when a manager gets up timidly, wriggles a little, looks at the ground and asks nervously if he can ask a very sensitive question. He proceeds:

“Greta, you’ve been on top of us for six months to find ways to cut costs. I would be lying if I said that we’ve had something of a mixed reaction to your proposal. If you don’t mind, I would like to talk to you about something specific that makes it difficult for us to reduce costs. ”

Greta nods with a smile.

“Well, you asked us to use both sides of all sheets of paper and simultaneously, you’re building a second office.”

Greta freezes and feels the blood rush to her cheeks. Everyone pays attention to see what’s going to happens next. The manager continues:

“Rumour has it that office supplies alone will cost 150,000 euros. Is that true? ”

And there it is. The conversation became crucial. Someone had just put a somewhat tricky choice into the shared tank.

How is Greta going to react? This will depend in large part on how she manages her emotions at that moment. If she’s like most of us, she’s going to defend herself. She could say, “Excuse me, I don’t think my new office is an appropriate subject for this meeting.”

Boom. She would have died the moment the words left her mouth. With one sharp slip-up, she would have destroyed confidence as well as any hope of candour in this conversation, and would have confirmed everyone’s suspicions.

But that’s not what she did. She did not succumb to the violent desire to defend herself. She took a deep breath, and said, “You know what? We do need to talk about this. I’m glad you asked the question. This is the opportunity to discuss what’s really going on. ”

And then Greta spoke frankly. She explained everything. At this point the authors asked her what she felt at the crucial moment. She very happily replied.

“First of all I felt attacked, and I wanted to counter-attack. To be honest, I wanted to put this guy back in his place. He was publicly accusing me and he was wrong.

And then it hit me. In spite of the fact that I had four hundred eyes staring at me, a very important question struck me like a ton of bricks: “what do I really want here?”

This is a fundamental question. When you realize that you are in a crucial conversation, ask yourself “what do I really want?” This allows you to locate your North Star, and allows you to better control your emotions by addressing an abstract problem.

Reject a binary choice

Beaumont Faculty. A professor, somewhat jaded but a veteran of the establishment nonetheless, with 33 years of teaching under his belt, makes a speech. Addressing the parallels between development programs and battle preparations, it could not have been more incoherent and stupid. Dozens of people suffered in silence, suppressing their laughter or yawns as much as they could. Suddenly, a new teacher whose turn it is to speak, strikes a fist on the table and cries:

“Am I the only one to ask myself why we allow this fossil to speak? Did he forget his pill or something? ”

A whole room of stunned faces turns to him. Realizing that people are looking at him as if possessed, the young professor utters: “Hey, don’t look at me like that! I’m the only one here who has the guts to tell the truth! ”

And here is the common tactic of a false binary choice. This young teacher has lost face to an older audience, and instead of apologizing or behaving more humbly, he says that what he did was noble. There were only two options: being respectful and dishonest, or being honest and disrespectful. Yes, really.

Those who go with this binary choice do not think that it is possible to put an and between the two proposals: to be honest and respectful. Express one’s opinion frankly and keep the other safe. Insert this simple and into the equation at the source of the crucial conversations, and you avoid the trap of the binary choice:

How can I have a frank conversation with my husband about being more confident and avoid creating a bad atmosphere and wasting our time?

Chapter 4: Learn to look – spot when an atmosphere of insecurity appears

When we get caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on and why. When a discussion starts to get stressful, we often end up doing the exact opposite of what works.

What is important is to make sure that everyone feels safe. This is the only way to be sure that everyone is confident enough to express themselves: when you feel safe, you can say anything.

If people do not feel safe, they choose one of these two harmful options:

  • Silence, the sole purpose of which is to not put any information into the Shared Tank.

It is almost always done to avoid potential problems. The three most common forms of silence are:

  • Masking, which involves minimizing or only selectively sharing our real opinion. The most popular forms are sarcasm and disguise.
  • Example: I think your idea is, um, brilliant. Yes, that’s it. I just worry that others can’t see its subtle nuances. Some ideas are ahead of their time, so expect, um, some minor resistance.
  • Meaning: Your idea is crazy, and people will fight it to the death.
  • Avoidance, which is the act of completely avoiding sensitive subjects. We talk, without addressing the real problems.
  • Example: How’s your new suit? Well, as you know blue is not my favourite colour.
  • Meaning: What happened? Did you buy your clothes at the circus?
  • Beat a retreat, which is to get out of the conversation completely. Sometimes we not only back out of the conversation, but even from the room itself.
  • Example: Excuse me. I have to take this call.
  • Meaning: I would prefer to eat my own arm off than stay in this meeting for one more minute.

Violence, which consists of any verbal strategy that tries to convince, dominate or coerce others to accept a point of view. The three most common forms of violence are:

  • Control involves putting pressure on others to adopt your way of thinking. This is done by forcing others to adopt your point of view or dominating the conversation. Methods include interrupting others, exaggerating your facts, talking only in absolute terms, changing the subject or using leading questions to control the conversation.
  • Example: There isn’t a person in the world that wouldn’t buy one of these things. These are perfect gifts.
  • Meaning: I cannot justify spending hard-earned cash on this expensive toy, but I really want it.
  • Labelling is to put a label on people or ideas in order to devalue them by placing them in general categories or stereotypes.
  • Example: Your ideas are practically prehistoric. Most people would follow my plan.
  • Meaning: I can’t argue based on the merits of my ideas.
  • The attack speaks for itself. Your goal involves winning the argument by making the person suffer. Tactics include denigrating and threatening.
  • Example: Try this stupid little idea and you’ll see what happens.
  • Meaning: I will do things my way even if I have to denigrate you and threaten you with some vague punishment.

You have probably just been thinking about certain moments in your life when you had to deal with this kind of silence or violence. What about you, when have you used them? As good as our intentions are, it is difficult to keep check on ourselves and monitor the conversation when our emotions are boiling over. We don’t see things clearly. Generally, when we get so consumed by the ideas and causes we lose all appearances of social sensibility when we are engulfed by these ideas and causes, that we lose sight of what we are doing.

Your Style Under Stress

To explore how you react to stress, you can take an online test called “Your Style Under Stress” free of charge by registering on the authors’ website, Vital smarts. If you are fluent in English, I recommend you do it soon, as the results will let you know what parts of this column and book you need to focus on the most.

So to break the vicious circle of the insecurity of silence and violence, one must learn to look whilst also:

  • Learning to look at the content and conditions.
  • Seeing when things become crucial.
  • Learning to monitor insecurity issues.
  • Looking at whether others use silence or violence.

Chapter 5: Making the conversation safe – how to make sure you talk about almost anything

The idea of the previous section was that if you detect a feeling of insecurity when it occurs, you can retreat from the conversation rut, rebuild a secure environment and then find a way to open dialogue. Here’s how.

First off, nothing beats one of the most sensitive subjects around, where feeling insecure is a common risk: the physical intimacy of a couple. Johan thinks that he and Claire are a little too selfish in their intimacy. Claire is satisfied with their physical relationship. For years they have been acting on rather than talking about, their problems. When Johan desires Claire and the latter does not, he becomes silent. He sulks, says almost nothing, and avoids Claire for a few days.

Claire knows what’s going on with Johan. From time to time she makes love to him even if she doesn’t really want to, hoping to avoid Johan’s sulkiness. Unfortunately she ends up resenting him, and this diminishes her desire, which can take time to rebuild.

So this is how things go: The more Johan insists and sulks, the less attractive and interesting he is to Claire. The more Claire gives in and then feels resentment, the less she is interested in their relations. The more they simply act instead of having their crucial conversation, the more likely it is they will end up retreating within themselves.

Claire decides to talk about it before everything explodes. She takes advantage of a moment when they are both relaxing on the couch to discuss the subject:

Claire: Johan, can we talk about what happened last night – you know, when I told you I was tired?

Johan: I don’t know if I have the spirit for it.

Claire: What is that supposed to mean?

Johan: I’m tired of the fact that you’re the one to decide when we do it!

Claire: (leaves of the room)

This is a very common situation for a couple. Claire tried to raise a sensitive subject. It was for his benefit. She already felt very comfortable and Johan hit her beneath the belt. So much for his help.

Now, what could she have done? The key is to take a step back and reflect on the content of the conversation. Claire left because she was concentrating on what Johan was saying. If she had focused on Johan’s behaviour, she would have noticed that his use of sarcasm – a form of masking – demonstrates just how insecure he feels discussing this subject. It threatens his ego. So Claire should ask, “What do I really want?”

She wants to have a healthy discussion on a subject that could result in the breakup or continuation of their relationship, so for the time being she should ignore the sarcasm. Her challenge is to build trust and security, and enough of it for them to discuss their physical relationship.

Therefore what can she do?

In this particular case, people who are bad at dialogue would do exactly as above.

Those good at it would understand that security is under threat, but they would try to solve the problem the wrong way: “Oh darling, I would really love to sleep with you more often but I have a lot of pressure at work, and this stress makes it difficult for me to fully appreciate our time together. ” This strategy, unfortunately, sidesteps the real problem, which remains unresolved.

Those best at dialogue don’t play games. They know that dialogue is a free flow of meaningful information. So they do something totally different. They take a step back from the conversation, make it safe, and then go back in. They use several tools for this:

The mutual objective

The first condition for a secure environment is to have a common goal. Find a shared goal and everyone will have good reason to discuss and create a healthy climate in which to talk.

Mutual respect

You cannot start a crucial conversation without having a common goal, and you can’t maintain it if there is no mutual respect. Why? Because respect is like air itself. If you remove it, it is the only thing that people will think about. The very moment a person perceives a lack of respect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original issue – it is about defending one’s dignity.

You should always be on the lookout for when mutual purpose and mutual respect are compromised. If this happens, take a step back from the conversation immediately and use the following tools:

Apologies when appropriate

When you make a mistake that hurts others, start with an apology. An excuse is a statement that sincerely expresses sorrow for your role in being hurtful or creating difficulties for others.

Contrast for resolving disagreements

Sometimes a person feels disrespected even if we have not done anything disrespectful. Quite innocently you can share your views on creating a mutual goal, but the other person believes that your intention is to hurt them or to force them to accept your opinion. Clearly in this case, an excuse is not appropriate. It is best to get out of the conversation, and rebuild a sense of security using contrast.

Contrast is using ‘I do not/I do’ statements that:

  • Address the concerns of others regards the fact that you do not respect them or that you have malicious intentions (I do not).
  • Confirm your respect or clarifies your real goal (I do).

For example:

  • The last thing I want to say is that I don’t value your work or that I don’t want to share it with the boss (I don’t).
  • I think your work has been nothing short of spectacular (I do).

-Use “CRIB” to establish the mutual objective

This is about using four skills when you are in the midst of a debate and that it is clear each person has different goals:

  • Commit – commit to finding the mutual goal
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy
  • Invent a mutual goal
  • Brainstorm new strategies

Let’s go back to the dialogue between Claire and Johan, which we’ll start from the beginning armed with these new tools:

Claire: Johan, I’d like to talk about our sexual relationship. I’m not accusing you or suggesting that the problem is your fault. I am clear that it is more my problem than yours. I would love to talk about it so that we can make things better for both of us.

Johan: What are you talking about? You don’t want it. I do. I’ll try to deal with it.

Claire: I think it’s more complicated than that. The way you behave sometimes makes me want you less.

Johan: If that’s how you feel, why do we pretend that we still have a relationship?

What just happened? If Claire focused solely on the content, she might feel offended and take refuge in silence or violence. But Claire wonders: Why does Johan retreat? There are two reasons:

  • He interprets the way in which Claire raised the issue as her blaming him for everything.
  • He believes that her worry about one small area reflects all her feelings towards him.

So Claire apologizes and uses contrast to rebuild a sense of security.

Claire: I’m sorry I said it like that. I don’t blame you for the way I feel or behave. That’s my problem. I don’t see it as your problem. I see it as our problem. We can both sometimes behave in a way that makes things worse. I know I do anyway.

Johan: I probably do too. Sometimes I sulk because I feel hurt. And I also hope it will hurt you. I’m sorry about that, too. I don’t see how we can solve this. I need more sex than you – seems to me the only solution is that I manage it as best I can or you end up feeling like a sex slave.

Claire [Johan thinks that they have contradictory goals, so Claire starts looking a mutual goal]: No, that’s not what I want at all. I only want what’s great for both of us. I just want to find a way for us to both feel close, appreciated, and loved.

Johan: That’s what I want as well. But it looks like we both achieve these feelings in different ways.

Claire [acknowledging the purpose behind the strategy]: Maybe not. What makes you feel loved and appreciated?

Johan: Making love to you when I know you want it, makes me feel really loved and appreciated. How about you?

Claire: When you do some thoughtful things for me. And also, when you take me in your arms – but not necessarily sexually.

Johan: You mean if we just hug you feel loved?

Claire: Yes. And sometimes – I think it’s when I think you do it because you love me – sex does that for me, too.

Johan [Inventing a mutual goal]: So we need to find ways to be together that make us feel loved and appreciated. Is that what we’re looking for?

Claire: Yes. It’s what I really want too.

Johan [brainstorming a new strategy]: In that case, what if we…

Chapter 6: Mastering My Issues – how to keep the dialogue going when you’re upset, scared or hurt

At this point you may be wondering: “How am I supposed to remember all these things – especially when my emotions are bubbling away in me?”

build a better life

This section gives you tools to better control your crucial conversations by learning how to better look after your emotions.

You are sitting at home quietly watching TV when your stepmother (who lives with you) enters the living room. She takes a look at you and begins to complain about the racket you were making a few minutes ago as you were preparing some nachos. It annoys you. She’s always sneaking around the house, thinking you’re a slacker.

A few minutes later, when your spouse asks you why you’re so upset, you answer: “It’s your mother again. I was sitting here quietly relaxing when she gave me that look, and it really annoyed me. To be honest, I wish she would stop doing it. It’s my only day off, I’m relaxing quietly, and then she comes in and drives me mad. ”

“Does she drive you mad,” asks your spouse, “or do you do it?”

Good question.

Emotions don’t just turn up, unannounced. In fact:

  • Emotions do not come and settle on you like a fog. You don’t catch them from others. Whatever discomfort it may cause in you – it’s not others that drive you mad. You’re driving yourself crazy. You and only you create your emotions.
  • Once you have created your emotions, you only have two options: you can act on them or react to them. Manipulate or be manipulated. So the moment strong emotions erupt, you find a way to control them or you become hostage to them.

Note: This echoes the source of human freedom as defined by Stephen R. Covey in The 7 habits of those who succeed in everything they do, which is about the response we give to stimuli and that I address in a podcast entitled Proactivity, Accountability and Crisis.

On top of that, we all tell each other stories, often without checking if they are true or not, by creating them out of our emotions.

So if strong emotions hold you back and trap you in silence or violence, try this:

Retrace your Path

Write down your behaviour. If you see yourself retreating out of the dialogue, ask yourself what you are really doing.

  • Am I in some form of silence or violence? Connect with your emotions. Learn how to accurately identify the emotions behind your stories.
  • Which emotions encourage me to behave in this way? Analyze your stories. Challenge your conclusions and look for other explanations for your stories.
  • What story created these emotions? Come back to the facts. Give up your absolute certainty by distinguishing hard facts from your invented history.
  • What proof do I have that backs up my story? Look for more intelligent stories. Often we tell stories about victims, villains and helplessness.

Tell the rest of the story

Ask yourself:

  • Do I pretend I have no role in this problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do that?
  • What do I really want?
  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

Chapter 7: Defining My Path – how to speak persuasively, without being cutting

In order to speak honestly when honesty can easily offend others, you have to find a way to maintain a feeling of security. How can we talk about what we cannot and yet maintain respect? This is done by carefully using three ingredients:


Most people do not handle sensitive conversations very well -at least not with the right people. For example, your colleague Francois tells his wife when he comes home in the evening that his boss Nicolas manages his schedule down to every detail and that he feels mollycoddled. He says the same thing to his colleagues and friends, so basically everyone is familiar with what Francois thinks of Nicolas. Except Nicolas himself of course.

People who are good at dialogue have the confidence to say what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it. They are confident that they can speak in an open manner without hurting others or causing excessive offense.



Trust does not mean arrogance or stubbornness. Competent people are confident in the fact that they have something to say, but also understand that others have valuable elements to contribute. They are humble enough to understand that they do not have a monopoly on truth. Their opinion provides a starting point but not the last word. They can simultaneously believe in something whilst also accepting that new information can change their minds. This means that they are ready to express their opinions as well as encourage others to do the same thing.


People who openly share sensitive information are good at this. They don’t make the false binary choice of “You’re not going to like what I’m going to tell you, but hey, someone has to be honest…” because they find a way to be honest and create a sense of security. They talk about what cannot be said, and the others are grateful for their honesty.

Let’s look at an example of a sensitive conversation in which a hot topic needs tackling:

Pierre gets home and his wife Carole seems angry, and her wet eyes show him she has been crying. She looks at him with an expression that says “how could you?” Pierre doesn’t know it yet, but Carole thinks he’s cheating on her. This is not the case.

How did Carole come to this dangerous and incorrect conclusion? Earlier that day she checked the bank statement and noticed a charge from the Good Night Hotel, a cheap hotel located just two kilometers from home.

“Why would he go to a hotel so close to home?” She asked herself. “And why didn’t he tell me? What a bastard! “.

What is the worst way Carole could handle this situation (apart from packing her bags and returning to her parents in the Pas-de-Calais)? And what is the worst way to talk about a problem? Generally people say that starting the conversation with a horrible accusation followed by threats, works well. Most people do this and Carole is no exception:

Carole: I can’t believe you’re doing this to me (in a painful tone)

Peter: Doing what? (He doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but it doesn’t look good)

Carole: You know what I’m talking about.

Pierre: (thinks: do I need to apologise for missing her birthday? No, it’s not summer and her birthday is…um, well anyway it’s not in winter). I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Carole: You’re cheating on me, and I have the proof here (she shows the statement)

Peter: What’s on this statement that shows I’m cheating on you?

Carole: It’s a hotel bill, you bastard. You take some woman to the hotel and you pay for it with our credit card?! I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!

The conversation’s gone wrong. Yet Carole has no proof, just a small piece of paper with numbers on it.

How did she get here? She did the same thing countless people have done before her:

  1. She saw or heard something.
  2. From this, she told herself a story to justify it.
  3. Once the story was told, she felt a strong emotion.
  4. She acted according to this emotion.

This is the “Path to Action”:

The Path to Action

The Path to Action

But how could Carole express her dismay while maintaining a sense of security and mutual respect? By creating-rather than submitting to – the path to action by following these five steps:

1 Share the facts.

Start with the least controversial and persuasive elements. Facts are facts and they are not questionable.

Instead of saying for example, “You’re always late. You can’t be trusted. “, say” Yesterday you arrived 20 minutes late for work.”

2 Tell your story.

Even if the facts are indisputable, they are rarely sufficient in themselves. As difficult as it seems, you have to share your view of things, the way you see the facts, your story essentially. This requires confidence, because it can be very difficult to share negative conclusions or interpretations (for instance “I think you’re a thief”).

However, if you have done your job and based your story on the facts, then it will flow well and appear reasonable and rational.

If at some point you find that your story could create insecurity, take a step back and use contrast.

3 Ask about what others are looking for.

Encourage others to share both their facts and their story.

4 Speak with care.

Share your story in a way that expresses confidence in your conclusions while demonstrating that you are prepared, if appropriate, to have your findings challenged.

5 Encourage testing.

Make sure others express different opinions, or even opposing views, and accept that your points of view may be challenged.

Let us now return to our example. But this time Carole is armed with this knowledge and defines her own pathof action:

Pierre: Hi Honey, how was your day?

Carole: Not great.

Pierre: Why?

Carole: I checked the bank statement and I noticed a debit of forty eight euros on the bank card for the Good Night Hotel, not very far from here. [Sharing the facts]

Pierre: Well, that’s weird.

Carole: Yes, it is…

Pierre: Well, don’t worry. I’ll check it out next time I pass by.

Carole: I’d rather check now.

Pierre: Really? It’s less than fifty euros. It can wait.

Carole: I’m not worried about the money.

Peter: Are you worried?

Carole: It’s a hotel not far from here. You know how my sister found out that Philip was cheating on her. She found a suspicious hotel bill. [Sharesa story, cautiously] There’s nothing I should be worried about, is there? What do you think about this debit? [asks about the other’s point of view]

Pierre: I don’t know, but you certainly don’t have to worry about me.

Carole: You have never given me reason to question your fidelity. I don’t really think you’re cheating on me. [uses contrast] It’s just that it will put my mind to rest if we check it out now. Is that ok? [Encourages Test]

Pierre: Sure. Let’s call them and find out what happened.

In the end, it turns out that Pierre and Carole had gone to eat at a Chinese restaurant a little earlier in the month, and that the owner of the restaurant is also the owner of the hotel, and he used the hotel’s banking terminal to charge them. Oops.

By cautiously sharing her story rather than attacking, insulting and threatening, the anxious wife avoided a big fight, and couple’s relationship was strengthened where it could easily have been damaged.

Chapter 8: Identifying what the other party wants – how to listen when others explode or clam up

Sometimes the other party simply does not want to open up and can fire off insults and threats as soon as you address a subject that neither of you have a common vision of. A typical example is a discussion between parents and a teenager.

discussion between parents and a teenager.

To better manage this, let’s add one more skill to those we learned in Chapter 5 in order to maintain a sense of security for all – hindsight, excuses, contrast, mutual purpose: identifying what the other party wants.

Now that we have anidea of what is going on in the other person’s mind (the Path to Action), we can use another tool to help them feel secure.  If we can get them to share their path to action – their facts, and yes, even their nasty stories and dangerous feelings – they will be more willing to open up.

How? You have to start with the heart, and really listen. This requires four skills:

  • Be sincere.

To get the others’ facts and their story, you have to get them to share what’s on their mind. But when you do, you must be sincere about it. Do not do things as per this example:

A patient comes out of a medical center. The receptionist spots that she seems a bit uncomfortable, maybe even unhappy.

Receptionist: Did the procedure go well?

Patient: More or less. (If there was ever a sign that something was wrong, “more or less” fits the bill).

Receptionist: Good! (then continues their business with a resounding “next!”)

This is a classic example where one pretends to be interested. This falls into the category of questions like “How you doing?” which actually means, “Please don’t say anything of any significance. I just want to exchange platitudes. ”

When you ask people to open up, get ready to open up yourself.

  • Be curious.

At the very moment people become furious, you should become curious. Rather than a direct response, it is better to ask what is behind the outburst. But how does one get curious when the person attacks or runs for cover? People who are competent in dialogue generally find that identifying the source of fear and discomfort is the best way to turn a conversation around. So let’s go back to our nervous patient:

Receptionist: Did the procedure go well?

Patient: More or less

Receptionist: It sounds like you had a problem. Is that so?

Patient: Well I can tell you that it hurts somewhat. Also, is the doctor not, uh, a bit too old?

In this example the patient was reluctant to say more. If she shares more of her opinion, she may insult the doctor or his loyal team. To address this, the receptionist lets the patient know (both with her tone of voice and her words)that it is safe to talk, and she opens up.

  • Stay curious.

When people start to share their stories and feelings of uncertainty, we run the risk of telling ourselves our own stories of Victimisation, Villainy or Helplessness to justify why they tell us what they do. Sadly, as it is seldom amusing to hear others telling unflattering stories, and we start to assign negative motivation to the other party. For instance:

Receptionist: But you are ungrateful! This good doctor has devoted his entire life to helping others and now that he is going grey, you want to send him to a hospice!

To avoid overreacting to others’ stories, stay curious. Give your mind a problem to stay focused on. Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person say that?”

This question will help you find the other party’s Path to Action.

  • Be patient.

Although it is natural to move quickly from one thought to another, strong emotions take time to settle. Once these hormones are released into the bloodstream, they stay there for a while – sometimes long after the thoughts have changed.

Once you have decided to maintain a curious approach, it is time to help him or her find their Path to Action. Unfortunately, we often fail at this. This is because when others start playing games of silence or violence, we join the conversation at the end of their Path to Action.

So crucial conversations can be both mysterious and frustrating, when we are embroiled in one without knowing the facts, the stories and the feelings; we only see the actions of the person facing us.

To find the Path to Action:

  • Ask

Start by simply expressing your interest in the other person’s viewpoints

  • Mirror

Avoid a feeling of insecurity by respectfully acknowledging the emotions that others appear to feel.

  • Paraphrase

While others begin to share their stories, repeat what you have heard to show that you understand, but also to show that it is safe for them to share what they think.

  • Guess

If the other party continues to clam up or attack, guess. Make your best prediction about what they might be thinking and feeling.

Once you have found the Path to the other’s Action, start sharing your views:

  • Agreement

Say you agree when you do.

  • Build

Rather than focusing on minor differences and turning them into major disagreements – we all skilled in this area since teen hood– it’s best to find areas of agreement.

Rather than say:

Wrong. You forgot to mention that…


That’s right. Also, I noticed that…

  • Compare

When your points of view continue to differ significantly, do not suggest to the other that they are wrong. Compare your two views.

Chapter 9: Act – How to turn critical conversations into action and results

Having more information in the shared tank, and even jointly owning it, does not guarantee that we will all agree on what to do with the shared information. For example, when teams or families meet and generate several ideas, they often fail to convert these ideas into action points for two reasons:

  • They have not clearly defined how decisions will be made.
  • They do a bad job when it comes to implementing the decisions they have made.

It can be dangerous. Dialogue is not decision-making. First off, people may not understand how decisions are going to be made. Let’s use an example:

Claire’s upset. Johan has just put a brochure on the table for a three day cruise and announced that he has made a reservation and even paid the 500 euros deposit to book a suite.

A week ago, they had a crucial conversation about their holiday plans. They both agreed on a cruise. And now Claire is angry, and Johan is incredulous that Claire is anything but ecstatic.

Claire agreed on the idea of a cruise. Not on a particular cruise. Johan believed that any cruise would do the trick and made the decision on his own. Have a nice cruise, Johan.

It can also transpire that no decision is made. Either the ideas go away and dissipate, or no one knows what to do with them. Or maybe everyone is waiting for someone else to make the decision.

These two problems can be solved if, before making a decision, the people involved decide how to decide. There are four common ways to make decisions:


These are decisions involving no participation, and this happens in two ways: either external forces command us to do something, or we let others make a decision and then follow them. We do not consider it important enough to get involved – let others do the work. In many teams and in great relationships, many decisions are also made by leaving the final choice to someone we trust to make a good decision.



This is a process by which decision-makers invite others to influence their decisions before they make their final choice. You can consult with experts, a representative population, or just anyone who wants to offer an opinion. Wise leaders, parents and even couples often make decisions in this way. They gather ideas, evaluate options, make a choice, and inform others.

The vote

Voting is best suited to situations where efficiency is crucial – and you are choosing from a number of good options. Team members understand that their favourite option may not be chosen, but frankly don’t want to waste time discussing it to death. They can discuss the options for a while, but then ask for the vote. To address the numerous decent options, voting is an excellent time saver, but it should never be used if team members are not prepared to back whichever decision is made. In which case it is best to use…

The consensus

This method can both be a blessing and a curse. It involves talking until everyone gives his or her honest consent to a decision. It can produce extraordinary unity and excellent decisions. If it’s not used properly it can be a horrible waste of time. It should only be used for 1) major issues and complex problems and 2) problems where everyone has to support the final decision.

Once you have made a decision, there remains one step: conclude. Determine who does what and by when. Make sure that what needs to be completed is crystal clear. Record the commitments and follow up on them. And finally, make sure that people are responsible for their promises.

Chapter 10: Putting everything together – tools for preparing and learning

To help you connect all this knowledge, here is an example of dialogue where the majority of the tools presented in the book are used, and where everything is unpicked. This is a difficult discussion between you and your sister on how to share your mother’s inheritance.

The conversation begins when you talk about your family’s summer home. Your mother’s funeral was a month ago, and now it is time to share both the money and the memories. You are not really looking forward to this. The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that you feel that you have taken care of your mother almost single-handedly for many years, and that you should receive compensation. You don’t think your sister will see things this way.

You: We have to sell the holiday home. We never use it, and we need money to pay for the expenses I have incurred taking care of mom over the last four years.

Your sister: Please don’t start to guilt trip me. I sent you money every month for you to take care of mom. If I didn’t have for travel for work, I know I would have wanted her to be at my house.

It is clear that emotions are running high from the get go. You’re starting to get defensive and your sister seems angry. You are in a crucial conversation, and it hasn’t started very well.

Start with the Heart

Ask yourself what you really want. You want to receive compensation for the time and money you put in, which your sister did not. You also want to maintain a good relationship with your sister. But you want to avoid a false binary choice. So you’re wondering, “How can I tell her that I want to receive fair compensation for the extra effort and expense I’ve incurred and maintain a good relationship?”.

Learn to look

You observe a lack of Mutual Purpose – you each try to defend your actions instead of talking about the property.

Make the conversation safe

You use contrast to help your sister understand your intentions.

You: I don’t want to start an argument or try to make you feel guilty. But I do want to talk about my getting compensation for shouldering most of the responsibility in recent years. I love mom, but it put a lot of pressure on me financially and emotionally.

Your sister: What makes you think you’ve done so much more than me?

Control your stories

You tell yourself that you deserve more because you did more to take care of your mother and to cover unforeseen expenses. Go back over your Path to Action to find the facts in the story you are telling yourself, the ones that makes you angry.

Set your Path

You need to share your facts and conclusions with your sister in a way that makes her feel secure enough to tell her own story.

You: It’s just that I spent a lot of money taking care of mom and I worked hard looking after her instead of having a nurse do it. I know you cared about mom too, but I honestly think I did more on a daily basis than you did, and it just seems fair to use a bit of what she left us to repay some of what I spent. Do you see things differently? I would love to hear what you think.

Your sister: OK, okay. Why don’t you just send me a bill.

It seems that your sister does not really agree with this arrangement. It appears that her voice is tense and that her tone is one of capitulation rather than agreement.

Explore the other’s path

As part of your goal is to maintain good relations with your sister, it is important that she adds her meanings to the tank. Explore her views.

You: The way you say it suggests you don’t agree [mirror]. Am I missing something? [ask]

Your Sister: No – if you think you deserve more than me, you’re probably right.

You: Do you think I’m being unfair? That I don’t appreciate your contributions? [guess]

Your sister: It’s just that I know I wasn’t around much in recent years. I’ve had to travel a lot for work. But I still went to see her whenever I could, and I sent money every month to help contribute to her care. I offered to help pay for a nurse if you thought it was necessary. I didn’t realise you thought you got a raw deal on the responsibilities, and it just feels to me that you asking for more money comes out of nowhere.

You: So you feel like you did everything you could to help but you’re surprised that I think I should get compensation [paraphrase].

Your sister: Well, yes.

You now understand your sister’s point of view, but you still disagree on one point.

You: You’re right. You’ve done a lot to help me, and I realise that it was expensive to visit us as much as you did. I chose not to pay for nurse care because mom felt better at home with me taking care of her, and it didn’t bother me. On top of that, there were some unforeseen expenses that I don’t think you know about. The new medication she had in the last 18 months cost twice as much as the old one, and social security only covered a portion of her hospital bills. It all adds up.

Your sister: So it’s these expenses that you’re worried about? Can we look at them together and decide how to cover them?


You want to create a clear plan to be reimbursed for these expenses, and you want it to be a plan that everyone can agree on. Get a consensus on what will happen, and document who will do what by when, and define a way to achieve that.

You: I kept track of all the expenses that exceeded the amount that we both agreed to contribute. Can we sit down quietly tomorrow and talk about this and decide how I can get refunded fairly?

Your sister: Okay. We’ll talk about the house and sketch out a plan on how to share it all.


If we learn to recognise when insecurity may arise, and that a conversation becomes crucial (Learning to Look), and that we need to make everyone feel secure in order to contribute to the Shared Tank, we can work out where to use the skills we have picked up.

Using these tools and memory-aids will help us master the skills required to improve our crucial conversations.

The authors finish the book with two chapters designed to further reinforce their theory; I do not think it’s necessary to fully detail them:

  • Yes, butadvice on difficult cases, which explores specific and difficult cases such as sexual harassment, managing a hypersensitive spouse, betrayal, regretting having said something horrible, etc.
  • Change Your lifehow to turn ideas into habit, practical advice on how to apply everything that is taught in the book and learn how to master them.

Book review of “Crucial conversations”:

This book was a pleasant surprise because it is very simple and easy to read, full of stories and examples that make the theory and the suggested tools easy to understand; its target is the 20% of conversations that bring 80% of change to our lives – or even 5% of conversations that deliver 95% of the changes. Reading it allows us to 1) become aware of the huge importance that crucial conversations have on our quality of life, and 2) acquire a whole range of very simple tools that allow us to best manage these conversations.

Practicing what this book preaches is the epitome of the Pareto law, which makes us focus our efforts where they are most likely to bear fruit. I expect you have seen for yourself how easy it is to understand these tools, and perhaps even how we use them unconsciously when we are at our best and truly control a crucial conversation.

In the end, as with any book, It is about applying these principles and tools on a daily basis, and especially using them in the heat of the moment, when the adrenaline runs high in our blood and our emotions threaten to unseat our ability to reason. Crucial Conversations dedicates a whole chapter to the implementation and gradual control of all this, but it requires motivation and perseverance. But the game is certainly worth the prize.

An excellent book, which I recommend.

Strong points:

  • Easy to read
  • Simple to understand
  • Many stories and concrete examples
  • Excellent analysis of crucial conversations
  • Smart Application of Pareto Law

Weak points:

  • Using these tools when emotions run high, doesn’t seem obvious enough
  • Not translated into French

My rating :

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