Crucial Conversations | Notes

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler. Crucial Conversations. McGraw Hill, 2012. (244 pages)


Most breakthroughs in life truly are “break-withs.” – Stephen Covey


We argued that the root cause of many — if not most — human problems lies in how people behave when others disagree with them about high-stakes, emotional issues. We suggested that dramatic improvements in organizational performance were possible if people learned the skills routinely practiced by those who have found a way to master these high-stakes, “crucial” moments. (xiii)

Ch.1: What’s a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares?

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. – George Bernard Shaw

The crucial conversations we’re referring to are interactions that happen to everyone. They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life. (1)

What is a crucial conversation?



The Law of Crucial Conversations

At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations — ones that we’re either not holding or not holding well. Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues. Period.

Most leaders get it wrong. They think that organizational productivity and performance are simply about policies, processes, structures, or systems. So when their software product doesn’t ship on time, they benchmark others’ development processes. Or when productivity flags, they tweak their performance management system. When teams aren’t cooperating, they restructure.

| Our research shows that these types of nonhuman changes fail more often than they succeed. That’s because the real problem never was in the process, system, or structure — it was in employee behavior. The key to real change lies not in implementing a new process, but in getting people to hold one another accountable to the process. And that requires Crucial Conversations skills. (13)

Ch.2: Mastering Crucial Conversations. The Power of Dialogue.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. – Martin Luther King Jr.

The mistake most of us make in our crucial conversations is we believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend. (22)

At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information. (23)

Ch.3: Start with Heart. How to Stay Focused on What You Really Want.

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret – Ambrose Bierce

That is, your own heart. If you can’t get yourself right, you’ll have a hard time getting dialogue right. (33)

Our motives usually change without any conscious thought on our part. When adrenaline does our thinking for us, our motives flow with the chemical tide. (42)


Here’s how people who are skilled at dialogue stay focused on their goals — particularly when the going get tough. (48)

Work on Me First, Us Second

  • Remember that the only person you can directly control is yourself.

Focus on What You Really Want

  • When you find yourself moving toward silence or violence, stop and pay attention to your motives.
  • Ask yourself: “What does my behavior tell me about what my motives are?”
  • Then, clarify what you really want. Ask yourself: “What do I want for myself? For others? For the relationship?”
  • And finally, ask: “How would I behave if this were what I really wanted?”

Refuse the Fool’s Choice

  • As you consider what you want, notice when you start talking yourself into a Fool’s Choice.
  • Watch to see if you’re telling yourself that you must choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing, and so on.
  • Break free of these Fool’s Choices by searching for the and.
  • Clarify what you don’t want, add it to what you do ant, and ask your brain to start searching for healthy options to bring you to dialogue.

Ch.4: Learn to Look. How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk.

I have known a thousand scamps; but I never met one who considered himself so. Self-knowledge isn’t so common. – Ouida

In truth, most of us do have trouble dual-processing (simultaneously watching for content and conditions — especially when both stakes and emotions are high. We get so caught up in what we’re saying that it can be nearly impossible to pull ourselves out of the argument in order to see what’s happening to ourselves and to others. (53)

…when you feel genuinely threatened, you can scarcely see beyond what’s right in front of you. (57)


When caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s difficult to see exactly what’s going on and why. When a discussion starts to become stressful, we often end up doing the exact opposite of what works. We turn to the less healthy components of our Style Under Stress. (71)

Learn to Look

To break from this insidious cycle, Learn to Look.

  • 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.

Ch.5: Make It Safe. How to Make It Safe to Talk About Almost Anything.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in baskets of silver. – Proverbs 25:11

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

…don’t aim for perfection. Aim for progress. (99)


Step Out

When others move to silence or violence, step out of the conversation and Make It Safe. When safety is resorted, go back to the issue at hand and continue the dialogue.

Decide Which Condition of Safety Is at Risk

  • Mutual Purpose. Do others believe you care about their goals in this conversation? Do they trust your motives?
  • Mutual Respect. Do others believe you respect them?

Apologize When Appropriate

  • When you’ve clearly violated respect, apologize.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

  • When others misunderstand either your purpose or your intent, use Contrasting. Start with what you don’t intend or mean. Then explain what you do intend or mean.

Create a Mutual Purpose

  • When you are at cross-purposes, use four skills to get back to Mutual Purpose:
  • Commit to seek Mutual Purpose.
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy.
  • Invent a Mutual Purpose.
  • Brainstorm new strategies.

Ch.6: Master My Stories. How to Stay in Dialogue When You’re Angry, Scared, or Hurt.

It’s not how you play the game, it’s how the game plays you.

No matter how comfortable it might make you feel saying it — others don’t make you mad. You make you mad. you make you scared, annoyed, or insulted. You and only you create your emotions. … You can act on them or be acted on by them. (104-105)

Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories. (111)

It’s particularly easy to act helpless when we turn others’ behavior into fixed and unchangeable traits. (119)


If strong emotions are keeping you stuck in silence or violence, try this.

Retrace Your Path

Notice your behavior. If you find yourself moving away from dialogue, ask yourself what you’re really doing.

  • Am I in some form of silence or violence?

Get in touch with your feelings. Learn to accurately identify the emotions behind your story.

  • What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?

Analyze your stories. Question your conclusions and look for other possible explanations behind your story.

  • What story is creating these emotions?

Get back to the facts. Abandon your absolute certainty by distinguishing between hard facts and your invented story.

  • What evidence do I have to support this story?

Watch for clever stories. Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories sit at the top of the list.

Tell the Rest of the Story


  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  • What do I really want?
  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

Ch.7: STATE My Path. How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively.

Outspoken by whom? – Dorothy Parker, when told that she was very outspoken

The best at dialogue speak their minds completely and do it in a way that makes it safe for others to hear what they have to say and respond to it as well. They are both totally frank and completely respectful. (133)


When you have a tough message to share, or when you are so convinced of your own rightness that you may push too hard, remember to STATE your path:

  • Share your facts. Start with the least controversial, most persuasive elements from your Path to Action.
  • Tell your story. Explain what you’re beginning to conclude.
  • Ask for others’ paths. Encourage others to share both their facts and their stories.
  • Talk tentatively. State your story as a story — don’t disguise it as a fact.
  • Encourage testing. Make it safe for others to express differing or even opposing views.

Ch.8: Explore Other’s Path. How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up.

One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears — by listening to them. – Dean Rusk

Every sentence has a history. (160)

Most arguments consist of battles over the 5 to 10 percent of the facts and stories that people disagree over. (171)


To encourage the free flow of meaning and help others leave silence or violence behind, explore their Paths to Action. Start with an attitude of curiosity and patience. This helps restore safety.

Then, use four powerful listening skills to retrace the other person’s Path to Action to its origins. (174)

  • Ask. Start by simply expressing interest in the other person’s views.
  • Mirror. Increase safety by respectfully acknowledging the emotions people appear to be feeling.
  • Paraphrase. As others begin to share part of their story, restate what you’ve heard to show not just that you understand, but also that it’s safe for them to share what they’re thinking.
  • Prime. If others continue to hold back, prime. Take your best guess at what they may be thinking and feeling.

As you begin to share your views, remember:

  • Agree. Agree when you share views.
  • Build. If others leave something out, agree where you share views, then build.
  • Compare. When you do differ significantly, don’t suggest others are wrong. Compare your two views.

Ch.9: Move to Action. How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results.

To do nothing is in every man’s power. – Samuel Johnson

To avoid violated expectations, separate dialogue from decision making. Make it clear how decisions will be made — who will be involved and why. (179)

Everybody’s business is nobody’s business. – English proverb


Decide How to Decide

Turn your successful crucial conversations into great decisions and united action by avoiding the two traps of violated expectations and inaction. (187)

  • Command. Decisions are made without involving others.
  • Consult. Input is gathered from the group and then a subset decides.
  • Vote. An agreed-upon percentage swings the decision.
  • Consensus. Everyone comes to an agreement and then supports the final decision.

Finish Clearly

Determine who does what by when. Make the deliverables crystal clear. Set a follow-up time. Record the commitments and then follow up. Finally, hold people accountable to their promises. (187)

Ch.10: Yeah, But. Advice for Tough Cases.

Good words are worth much and cost little – George Herbert

Ch.11: Putting It All Together. Tolls for Preparing and Learning.

I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don’t even invite me. – Dave Barry


Learn to Look. “Are we playing games or are we in dialogue?” (212)

Make It Safe. Do something to make others comfortable. And remember, virtually every skill we’ve covered in this book, from Contrasting to Priming, offers a tool for building safety. (213)


The current quality of your leadership and your life is fundamentally a function of how you are presently handling these moments. (222)

Afterword. What I’ve Learned About Crucial Conversations in the Past Ten Years.

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind. – William James

“…when it matters most, we often do our worst.”

If you do everything we tell you to do in this book, exactly the way we tell you to do it, and the other person doesn’t want to dialogue, dialogue will not take place.

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  1. Pingback: 2014 Global Leadership Summit | Notes & Reflections | vialogue

  2. Ann

    Great summary of the book! Could I have your permission to reprint this summary for a group of leaders I am meeting with?

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