Crucial Conversations Summary
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Crucial Conversations Summary and Model |  Kelly Patterson

Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

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Authors’ Perspectives

Kerry Patterson is co-author of four New York Times bestsellers: Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer. He has been featured in more than 150 print and radio programs, including MSN Career Builder, CNN, CLO Magazine, and Training Magazine.

Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, dynamic keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. Over the past thirty years, Joseph has delivered keynotes at major conferences, including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.

Ron McMillan is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Ron has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences. These include ones for the American Society of Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Management. Ron’s work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.

Al Switzler has served on the faculty of several universities. For example, the University of Michigan, Brigham Young University, Auburn University, and the University of Kentucky. These institutions have recognized Al with awards for innovation and outstanding teaching. Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Al has researched methods for driving rapid sustainable and measurable change in behaviors.


Crucial Conversations focuses on techniques that can help you hold the most important conversations in a positive space when surrounded by highly charged emotions. The authors’ findings are based on 25 years of research with 20,000 people in crucial dialogues.

What’s a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares?

The authors describe a crucial conversation as a dialogue where poor handling can significantly affect interpersonal relationships. These conversations can be personal or professional. These conversations are meaningful because when conversations involve clear and authentic communication, both parties become more fulfilled and empowered. 

The authors also explain that scientific research supports this idea that healthy communication is an element of overall health and satisfaction. Specifically, they talk about a study from 2012. In this study, the researchers found strong communication is the most critical factor concerning spouses who make it past the ten-year mark. Interestingly, the researchers found that natural compatibility actually prevented couples from having to develop effective communication. So, even the most perfectly matched couples failed to survive without the ability to manage conflict effectively. 

As well as romantic advantages, mastering crucial conversations is essential to education. The P21 Framework for 21st Century learning highlights the importance of students learning effective communication. This shows that communication is something that can and should be learned. 

The authors offer an example to showcase the effectiveness of effective communication. Specifically, they describe the aftermath of the 1994 shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts. After this tragedy, a nonprofit organization decided to bring three pro-life and three pro-choice advocates together to discuss abortion. This dialogue ended up lasting six years. After these six years, none of the advocates had changed their positions on abortion. Despite this, they reported having developed a far deeper understanding of the other side’s point of view. This example highlights a vital point: crucial conversations do not require one party to change their mind.

Mastering Crucial Conversations: The Power of Dialogue

The authors offer five tools you can implement to master crucial conversations and start utilizing the power of dialogue. These five tools are built on sharing the facts, inviting the other person’s perspective, and asking open-ended questions. The tools form the acronym STATE. 

  1. Share facts of the situation.
  2. Tell your story of the conclusions you have drawn from the facts.
  3. Ask for others’ perspectives and their conclusions drawn from the facts.
  4. Talk tentatively and distinguish your conclusions from fact.
  5. Encourage testing by asking open-ended questions about how your story might be incorrect.

The acronym STATE suggests that much of what we say is less important than how we say it. How we approach dialogue has a significant impact on the effectiveness of our communication. One effective approach to dialogue is to utilize storytelling. The authors explain that storytelling has become a popular tool for increasing trust within boardrooms. For example, an American real estate company has hired a narrative consultant to coach its employees on telling a short, heartfelt story. The aim of this training is for the employees to share these stories and connect. This connection creates team unity. The outcome of this training was a team where colleagues were able to relate to each other. The employees reported a greater sense of safety within the workplace and willing to tell the truth. 

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

The authors offer three steps to start focusing on what you really want. 

Start With Yourself

Remember that you are the only person you can directly control in any interaction. So, stop worrying about other people’s approach. Instead, start your journey to effective communication by changing your own approach.

Focus on What You Really Want

When you are in a high stake situation, it can be easy to change your motivation. For example, you may become embarrassed and try to save face by pretending you had a different motivation. When you notice you are feeling overwhelmed in a conversation, you must stop and notice these emotions. Respond to these emotions by slowing down and paying attention to your motives. As well as reorienting to your motives, you should also consider what your current behavior tells you about how your motives may have changed. Once you have done this, the authors suggest you question what you really want for yourself, others, and your relationship. The answers to these questions will guide you towards understanding the behaviors required to get what you really want.

Refuse the Fool’s Choice

As you start focusing on what you really want, your mind will become binary. It will start suggesting that you will have to choose between honesty and peace in your relationship. That said, you can have both of these. So, the authors suggest you use a specific formula to start challenging when your mind plays these tricks:

  • Clarify what you don’t want.
  • Combine what you don’t want with what you do want. 
  • Push yourself to search for options that will bring you into a dialogue. 

If you can follow this formula, then your crucial conversations will improve drastically.

Learn to Look: How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk

Safety is a vital component of a healthy conversation. When people don’t feel safe, they usually opt for silence. This silence can come in the form of masking, avoiding, or withdrawing. Alternatively, not feeling safe can encourage violence, which comes in the form of controlling, labeling, or attacking. 

A lack of safety is met by physical reactions in our bodies. This is the fight-or-flight instinct and heightens our emotions. Importantly, these emotions will impact the productivity of your conversations. 


The first way that an unsafe conversation can become unproductive is through silence. The authors explain that people responding to threats with silence will do so in one of three ways:

  1. Total withdrawal from the conversation.
  2. Comments that mask how they truly feel.
  3. Avoiding difficult questions.


The authors also suggest there are three ways that people can respond to unsafe conversations with violence:

  1. Controlling the dialogue through strong statements.
  2. Personal attacks.
  3. Dismissing an idea purely due to its source.

The best way to overcome these two roadblocks is to restore safety within the conversation.

Make it Safe: How to Make it Safe to Talk About Almost Anything

So, one of the key ways to improve your conversations is to make the environment safe. This means making it safe to talk about anything. Without doing so, silence and violence can prevent you from continuing your dialogue.

To identify the best approach to adopt, you must first consider what safety condition has been put at risk. The authors note that the two conditions are mutual purpose and mutual respect. 

Mutual purpose is the idea that others understand you are both working toward a common outcome. Taken deeper, this safety also relies on you caring about their interests and values. Mutual purpose breaks down when the other participant does not believe you care about their goals. 

Mutual respect is essential if you want to keep the other individual in the crucial conversation. Without respect, the other person will immediately leave the conversation.

Once you have identified which condition has been violated, you can go about tackling the issue.

Create Mutual Purpose

If mutual purpose has broken down, then it is your job to recreate this mutual purpose. So, make a public commitment to say in the conversation until everybody’s needs are met. This commitment relies on your willingness to understand the reason behind the other participant’s purpose. Once you have this reason, you can invent a mutual purpose that takes into account your real purpose. Then, you can start brainstorming with this mutual purpose in mind. 

Apologize or Contrast to Rebuild Mutual Respect

Apologizing is the first thing you should do to get things back on track. Your apology should include an acceptance of how you hurt the other person. As you make this apology, you should pay attention to whether the apology helped restore the conversation’s safety. If this fails, then you will need to utilize contrasting. Contrasting uses don’t/do statements that address two areas. First, the area where they believe you don’t respect them. Second, the area where they accept you do have respect for them. The authors offer this example of using the don’t/do contrasting:

“The last thing I wanted to do was communicate that I don’t value the work you’ve been doing. You have been invaluable to this project.”

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

“As much as others may need to change, or we may want them to change, the only person we can continually inspire, prod, and shape—with any degree of success—is the person in the mirror.” – Kerry Patterson

Conversations can also be derailed by your own emotions. The authors specifically talk about the strong emotion of anger and fear. When you are experiencing emotions, the first step is to take control of these emotions. You must remember that emotions do not happen to you. Instead, these emotions are created by you. If you cannot accept your control over your emotions, you will fall into a repetitive cycle. This cycle involves an event happening, convincing yourself of an untrue story behind the event, feeling an emotion, and then acting on these emotions. Often, you will respond to these emotions with silence or violence. 

You have two options when you notice your emotions. Either you can act on these emotions or choose to control them. The most skilled communicators are those who always decide to control their emotions. The authors offer two strategies for controlling these emotions. 

Retrace Your Path

The first strategy involves slowing down and analyzing your story. Specifically, consider what might be causing you to feel these strong emotions. After noticing the event or story causing these emotions, ask yourself whether your conclusions are backed by evidence. Often they won’t be. You must realize your story is only one of the possible explanations. So, try to think of alternative explanations for what happened that will not encourage strong emotions.

Tell the Rest of the Story

After you have challenged the truth of your initial story, you should replace it with a useful story. This is a story that creates emotions that are associated with productive actions. You can start constructing this useful story by:

  1. Identifying your role in the situation.
  2. Thinking about why the other person might have acted the way they did.
  3. Consider what you want out of the situation and what a person who wanted that result would do.

State My Path: How to Speak Persuasively Not Abrasively

“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.” – Kerry Patterson

You do not have to avoid honesty to keep peace within conversations. Often people will not speak up because they do not want to hurt someone’s feelings. On the other end of the spectrum, some people express their opinions too aggressively. You can and should find the middle ground of being honest while also maintaining productive conversations. 

Explore Others’ Paths: How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up

“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.” – Kerry Patterson

The goal of productive dialogue is never to persuade the other party your perspective is correct. Instead, it is about creating shared meaning. That said, you must have an awareness of healthy communication basics to avoid the potential ego battles. One of the most important basics is learning how to listen. Listening encourages the production of the mutual purpose spoken about earlier. 

Effective listening is reliant on two things. Firstly, it is reliant on your understanding of the other person’s path. If they are acting aggressively towards you and pushing for an ego battle, you should not react in the same way. Instead, consider why this person might have this type of reaction during crucial conversations. Through delving deeper, you can respond appropriately to this person when they blow up. Secondly, effective listening relies on your ability to maintain your mood. You must prevent sustained stress from taking over your life. Otherwise, you will not be in the right state of mind to think objectively when your conversation partner blows up.

Move to Action: How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results

Ideas may not be put into action if people are unsure of how the decision will be made. The authors highlight there are four types of decision-making:

  • Command – The authority makes the decision without the involvement of others, but they explain their reasoning.
  • Consult – The authority invites others to provide information to influence them before making a decision. Consultation is important when: many people are affected by the decision. It’s easy to gather the information, people care about the decision, and there are multiple options.
  • Vote – This is where an agreed-upon percentage swings the decision. It’s used when there are multiple strong options. It shouldn’t be used when people won’t support the outcome if it goes the way they oppose – the losers shouldn’t really care about the result. Never use voting instead of dialogue.
  • Consensus – Everyone honestly agrees with a decision and supports it. This is only used for high-stakes and complex issues. It’s important not to pretend that all participants will get their first choice.

Final Summary

Crucial conversations encourages readers to engage with crucial conversations in a deliberate and calculated manner. The authors provide seven principles that are at the core of getting the most out of crucial conversations and avoiding potential roadblocks:

1)  Start with the heart (i.e empathy and positive intent)

2)  Stay in dialogue

3)  Make it safe

4)  Don’t get hooked by emotion (or hook them)

5)  Agree a mutual purpose

6)  Separate facts from story

7)  Agree a clear action plan


We rate this book 4.4/5.

Our Score

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