Crucial Conversations, Tools for talking when stakes are high
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler


By Morgan Craig-Broadwith

This month, the YWE Book Club met to discuss Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.

Facilitating an open, honest and successful conversation with a challenging colleague, partner, overbearing friend or mother-in-law is uncomfortable at best. At its worst, it can result in a heated debate, a relationship-altering argument or worse, a lost job, home, or long-term relationship. Yet, there is hope.

While this month’s book may not have all the answers, it definitely provides some useful, tangible and applicable tools to successfully and meaningfully communicate with colleagues, friends and family.

The authors introduces the reader to what makes a conversation crucial, unravels the various reasons why conversations go awry, and finally, discusses how to move to action.

The book is divided into 12 chapters:

  • Chapter 1: What’s a Crucial Conversation?
  • Chapter 2: Mastering Crucial Conversations?
  • Chapter 3: Start with Heart
    Chapter 4: Learn to Look
  • Chapter 5: Make it Safe
  • Chapter 6: Master My Stories
  • Chapter 7: STATE My Path
  • Chapter 8: Explore Other’s Paths
  • Chapter 9: Move to Action
  • Chapter 10: Putting it All Together
  • Chapter 11: Yeah, But
  • Chapter 12: Change Your Life

The short and long-term impact is what makes a conversation crucial whereby “some element of your daily life could be forever altered for better or worse”. These conversations are about tough issues such as work promotions, intimacy challenges with your partner and perceived sexism in the workplace. These conversations are tough because emotions often run high preventing or hindering the development of a shared pool of meaning, a safe place whereby involved parties can openly share their differing views, biases, and assumptions without threat of attack.

The authors describe two very typical responses when we enter into such conversations unprepared: the tendency to turn to silence or violence. Silence consists of any act to withhold information from the shared pool of meaning and may be observed through masking, avoiding or withdrawing. Violence on the other hand consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control or compel others to take your point of view. Controlling, labeling and attacking are the most common “violent” approaches to sway someone to your way of thinking.

The authors recommend starting from the heart, which resonated with many of the book club attendees. Returning to our humanity and connecting in a meaningful way with another person is a good, but often very difficult place to start. As you engage in the conversation, the authors encourage you to notice when and if the conversation has become crucial and if so, to ensure you maintain its safety by not becoming silent or violent. We agreed, this is easier said than done.

Maintaining the safety of a conversation, while essential, can become incredibly difficult when your unconscious comes into play. The authors describe the challenge of navigating our reactions to certain comments and circumstances, as we often aren’t fully aware of the stories we tell ourselves.

For example, a colleague cuts you off during a meeting and you immediately feel irritated. Before you experienced the emotion of irritation, there was a lightening-speed story you told yourself (consciously or unconsciously) to explain why this person cut you off. What’s your story? The person is a jerk, they want to make you look bad, they always want the attention, they’re a narcissist; the list goes on. So what stories are you telling yourself and how are these getting in the way of getting back to the shared pool of meaning?

Having a crucial conversation, however, isn’t simply about having a feel-good chat, it’s about moving to action and leaving with a plan. The authors provide many tools for accomplishing this such as STATE: Share your facts; Tell your story; Ask for others’ path; and Encourage testing. Sharing facts as opposed to stories was a powerful concept to some readers, as they realized how often one can turn to story without much to go on. In addition, participants found the following strategies helpful: contrasting (clarifying what you’re not saying and then clarifying what you are trying to say); to not move too quickly to action before exploring the issue; and paying attention to when someone has shifted to silence or violence.

The group agreed: it’s difficult to think about and plan for conversations in advance. Furthermore, many crucial conversations happen on the fly, without you intending for them to take place; however, we agreed the tools presented in this book could come in handy and that perfect practice will make perfect, as the authors suggest.

This book is worth the read. It will force you to evaluate your go-to response when the going gets tough, and will encourage you to explore new ways of operating during difficult and high stakes conversations. Too often we walk away, or simply skim the surface of an issue and leave things unresolved for fear of hurting someone, demonstrating vulnerability, or losing control. The irony is that such actions will only lead to further hurt, distrust and difficulty. It’s time we stop walking away and start engaging in the tough stuff – the crucial conversations - as the benefits are truly endless.