Crucial Conversations

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

By Kerry Patterson

To hear more on this topic, listen to this podcast: The Tidbit: How to Have Difficult Conversations with Mike Malloy [jump to 5:40 to skip the intro and get straight to the conversation about these lessons]

Chapter 1 – What’s a Crucial Conversation?

A crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.

Chapter 2 – Mastering Crucial Conversations – The Power of Dialogue

Dialogue is the free flow of meaning between two or more people. Dialogue skills are learnable.

Fill the Pool of Shared Meaning. Make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool.

Chapter 3 – Start with the Heart

How to stay focused on what you want. Work on me first. You are the only person who can work on you anyway.

  • What do I really want for myself?

  • What do I really want for others?

  • What do I really want for the relationship?

  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Avoid either/or “Sucker’s Choice” questions – search for the elusive AND. Clarify what you really want. Clarify what you really don’t want. Present your brain with a more complex problem. How can I do what I want and avoid doing what I don’t want? This third set of options allows you to add to the shared pool of meaning and build on the relationship.

Chapter 4 – Learn to Look – How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk

Key Principle: Learn to Look

Watch for conditions – physical, emotional, behavioral – of safety. When it’s safe, you can say anything. When it’s unsafe, you and your partner start to go blind.

Silence and violence – how people deal with lack of safety. Silence is withholding from the shared pool of meaning through masking, avoiding, or withdrawing (i.e., leaving the room, situation, or dialogue). Violence is trying to force meaning in the pool through controlling, labeling, or attacking. Violence is not usually physical and can be seen by yelling, blaming, being defensive, or using profanity.

Learn to look at content and conditions. Look for when things become crucial. Learn to watch for safety problems. Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence. Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.

No one ever plans or schedules a crucial conversation, so you need to be ready to recognize them in any situation with any partner.

Chapter 5 – Make It Safe – How to Make It Safe to Talk About Almost Anything

When you recognize that you or your partner does not feel psychologically safe, step out. Make it safe. Step back in. Discontinue the conversation once someone does not feel safe – make it safe – then continue content.

Mutual Purpose is the first condition of safety. Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that we are working toward a common outcome in the conversation and that you care about their goals, interests, and values.

Watch for signs that Mutual Purpose is at risk. Do others believe you care about their goals in this conversation? Do they trust your motives? Remember the Mutual in Mutual Purpose.

Remember to Start with the Heart questions:

  • What do I want for myself?

  • What do I want for others?

  • What do I want for the relationship?

Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue.

Mutual Respect is the continuance condition of dialogue. If people don’t feel Mutual Respect, then the conversation becomes unsafe and dialogue stops. Do others believe you respect them? How can you demonstrate your respect throughout the conversation?

GREAT Prayer: Lord, help me to forgive those who sin differently than I.

When there is a lack of Mutual Purpose or Mutual Respect, step out of the conversation content. Apologize, Contrast, and/or CRIB. An apology is a statement that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing-or at least not preventing-pain or difficulty to others.

Bonus Resource: What It Takes to Give (and Receive) a Good Apology building on the 5 love languages, this article spells out the 5 apology languages:

  1. Expressing regret because you feel bad that your behavior hurt someone like “I’m sorry that I lost my temper and yelled at you” and never include a “but if you had not…” because then you’re blaming the other person for your behavior

  2. Accepting responsibility for your behavior like “I was wrong” or “I should not have done that”

  3. Making restitution like “I know I’ve hurt you deeply. I regret that. How can I make this up to you?”

  4. Genuinely repenting to express a desire to change like “I don’t like what I did. I don’t want to do it again. Can we put together a plan that will help me to stop doing this?”

  5. Requesting forgiveness like “I value our relationship, and I know I’ve hurt you. Will you forgive me?” Even if your actions may not be morally wrong, if they hurt the relationship or your partner, then in that sense it was wrong, and you can admit fault and apologize.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding. Contrasting is a don’t/do statement that:

  • Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or you have a malicious intent (the don’t part)

  • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do part)

  • Contrasting is not apologizing

  • Contrasting provides context and proportion

  • Use contrasting for prevention or first aid

  • Ex. I don't want you to feel like I don't love you anymore, and I do want to discuss your specific behavior that concerns me

CRIB (Commit, Recognize, Invent, Brainstorm) to Get to Mutual Purpose

  • Commit to Seek Mutual Purpose

  • Recognize the Purpose Behind the Strategy

  • Invent a Mutual Purpose

  • Brainstorm New Strategies Together

Chapter 6 – Master My Stories – How to Stay in Dialogue When You’re Angry, Scared, or Hurt

Emotions don’t just happen. Others don’t make you mad. You make you mad.

Stories create feelings. Stories explain what’s going on. Even if you don’t realize it, you are telling yourself stories. Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories.

“Nothing in this world is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare

Path to Action = See/hear –> Tell a story –> Feel –> Act

Retrace Your Path to Action

  • [Act] Notice your behavior. Am I in some form of silence or violence?

  • [Feel] Get in touch with your feelings. What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?

  • [Tell story] Analyze your stories. What story is creating these emotions?

  • [See/hear] Get back to the facts. What evidence do I have to support this story?

Watch for Three “Clever” Stories

  1. Victim Stories – “It’s Not My Fault

  2. Villain Stories – “It’s All Your Fault

  3. Helpless Stories – “There’s Nothing I Can Do

Solution: Tell the rest of the story

  1. Turn victims into actors – am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?

  2. Turn villains into humans – why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do what she is doing?

  3. Turn helpless into able – what do I really want? For me? For others? For the relationship?

What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

Chapter 7 – STATE My Path – How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively

Sharing risky meaning into the pool of shared meaning. The best at dialogue speak their minds completely. Do it in a safe way while being totally frank and completely respectful. Maintain safety with confidence, humility, and skill.

STATE (3 what skills Share/Tell/Ask, then 2 how skills Tentatively/Testing)

  1. Share your facts

    1. Facts are the least controversial

    2. Facts are the least insulting

    3. Begin your path with facts

  2. Tell your story

    1. It takes confidence

    2. Don’t pile it on

    3. Look for safety problems

    4. Use contrasting (I don't want to offend you, and I do want to discuss this specific thing)

  3. Ask for others’ paths

    1. Demonstrate humility

    2. Be open and respectful (no eye-rolling and checking your phone while they are talking)

  4. Tentatively talk

    1. Tentatively, not wimpy

    2. Goldilocks test to be just right

    3. Present ideas that are easier to try/test, then they are easier to buy

  5. Encourage testing

    1. Invite opposing views to try out

    2. Genuinely be willing to try ideas your partner suggests

    3. Encourage both sides to play devil's advocate

Chapter 8 – Explore Others’ Paths – How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up

Start with the Heart. Get ready to listen. Be sincere. Be curious. Stay curious. Ask why would a reasonable, rational, decent person say this? Be patient. Encourage others to retrace their path. Every sentence has a history. Break the (vicious) cycle .

Four Powerful Listening Techniques AMPP – Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, and Prime

  1. Ask to Get Things Rolling

  2. Mirror to Confirm Feelings

  3. Paraphrase to Acknowledge the Story (remain calm and don’t push too hard)

  4. Prime When You’re Getting Nowhere (guess – are you thinking…? it sounds like…? it feels like…?)

Remember Your ABCs

  1. Agree when you agree (don’t turn an agreement into an argument)

  2. Build when others leave out key pieces

  3. Compare when you differ – don’t suggest others are wrong – compare your two views “I think I see things differently. Please let me describe how.”

Chapter 9 – Move to Action – How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results

Dialogue is not decision-making. How are decisions going to be made? Are we ever going to decide?

Decide how to decide. Make it clear how decisions will be made. Who will be involved and why.

Four Methods of Decision Making

  1. Command – decisions are made without involving others

    1. Don’t pass out orders like Halloween candy

    2. When facing a command decision, ask which elements are flexible

    3. Explain why

  2. Consult – Input is gathered from the group, you announce what you're doing, and then a subset agrees, which is effective when:

    1. Many people will be affected,

    2. You can gather information relatively easily,

    3. People care about the decision

    4. There are many options, some of them controversial

    5. Share your final decision with all consultants to thank for their input

  3. Vote – An agreed upon percentage swings the vote

    1. Weigh the consequences (this creates winners and losers)

    2. Don’t cop out with a vote (we’ll never agree, so let’s just vote is bad)

    3. Know when to vote

    4. Vote to reduce a list of 20 to 5, and then use consensus to pick 1 of 5

  4. Consensus – Everyone comes to an agreement, and then supports the final decision

    1. Don’t force consensus onto everything

    2. Don’t pretend that everyone gets his or her first choice

    3. No martyrs

    4. Don’t take turns (Well, Tom got to pick last time, so I get to pick this time is bad)

    5. Don’t engage in post-decision lobbying (stick with firm decision once it’s made)

    6. Don’t say “I told you so” (when someone else’s first choice doesn’t work out)

How to Choose Best Method of Decision Making

  • Who cares? Determine who genuinely wants to be involved in the decision (if don’t care, don’t include)

  • Who knows? Identify who has the expertise you need to make the best decision

  • Who must agree? Whose cooperation, authority, or influence do you need?

  • How many people is it worth involving? Goal to involve the fewest number of people while still successful

Putting Decisions into Action

  • Who? Assign a name to every responsibility

  • Does What? Clearly define deliverables

  • By When? Set a deadline after consulting your calendar

  • How Will You Follow Up? Always agree on how often and by what method of follow up

Chapter 10 – Putting It All Together – Tools for Preparing and Learning

There are two primary levers in this book

  1. Learn to Look for Silence or Violence

  2. Make it Safe for Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect

Lord, help me to forgive those who sin differently than I.

Path to Action = See/hear –> Tell a story –> Feel –> Act


Share your facts Ask to Get Things Rolling Agree when you agree

Tell your story Mirror to Confirm Feelings Build when others leave out key pieces

Ask for others’ paths Paraphrase to Acknowledge the Story Compare when you differ

Tentatively talk Prime When You Need to Guess I think I see things differently. Please let me describe how.

Encourage testing

Decide how to decide – Command, Consult, Vote, or Consensus

Who? Does What? By When? How Will You Follow Up?

Style Under Stress Self-Assessment

Additional Tips for Mediating Conflict

  • Stay Calm

  • Listen to Understand

  • Accentuate the Positive

  • State Your Case Tactfully

  • Attack the Problem, Not the Person

  • Avoid the Blame Game

  • Focus on the Future, Not the Past

  • Ask the Right Kind of Questions

  • Pick Your Battles

  • Link Offers

  • Be Creative

  • Be Confident

  • Celebrate Agreement

  • Only one person talks at a time with no verbal abuse

  • Begin with a summary of their point of view, without comment or interruption from other party

  • What can the other person do more of? Less of? Stop doing? Start doing?

  • Expect individuals to proactively resolve conflicts as adults

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