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spike bullet September 2007 - Crucial Conversations

What are "Crucial Conversations"?
We’re on Our Worst Behavior
Why is That?
Here’s How This Works
Improve Your Organization
Solve Pressing Problems
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)

color bulletCrucial Conversations

The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation. 
C. Northcote Parkinson, In-Laws and Outlaws (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962)

What are "Crucial Conversations"?  

The authors of the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, define them this way in Chapter One of their book (excerpted here):

"The crucial conversations we’re referring to in the title of this book are interactions that happen to everyone.  They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life."  . . .  " When stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions start to run strong, casual conversations become crucial."

First, opinions vary.  For example, you’re talking with your boss about a possible promotion.  She thinks you’re not ready; you think you are.

Second, stakes are high. You’re in a meeting with four coworkers and you’re trying to pick a new marketing strategy.  You’ve got to do something different or your company isn’t going to hit its annual goals.

Third, emotions run strong. You’re in the middle of a casual discussion with your spouse and he or she brings up an "ugly incident" that took place at yesterday’s neighborhood block party.  Apparently not only did you flirt with someone at the party, but according to your spouse, "You were . . . "  You don’t remember flirting.  You simply remember being polite and friendly.  Your spouse walks off in a huff.

When we face crucial conversations, we can do one of three things:

  • We can avoid them.
  • We can face them and handle them poorly.
  • We can face them and handle them well.

We’re on Our Worst Behavior

But, do we handle them well?  When talking turns tough, do we pause, take a deep breath, announce to our inner selves, "Uh-oh, this discussion is crucial.  I’d better pay close attention" and then trot out our best behavior?  Or, when we’re anticipating a potentially dangerous discussion, do we step up to it rather than scamper away?  Sometimes.  Sometimes we boldly step up to hot topics, monitor our behavior and offer up our best work.  We mind our Ps and Qs.  Sometimes we’re just flat-out good.

And then we have the rest of our lives.  These are the moments when, for whatever reason, we either anticipate a crucial conversation or are in the middle of one and we’re at our absolute worst — we yell; we withdraw; we say things we later regret.  When conversations matter the most — that is, when conversations move from casual to crucial — we’re generally on our worst behavior.

Why is That?

We’re designed wrong.  When conversations turn from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble.  That’s because emotions don’t exactly prepare us to converse effectively.  Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.

For instance, consider a typical crucial conversation.  Someone says something you disagree with about a topic that matters a great deal to you and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  The hairs you can handle.  Unfortunately, your body does more.  Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidneys pump adrenaline into your bloodstream.  You don’t choose to do this.  Your adrenal glands do it and then you have to live with it.

And, that’s not all.  Your brain then diverts blood from activities it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting and running.  Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less.  As a result, you end up facing challenging conversations with the same equipment available to a rhesus monkey.

We’re under pressure.  Let’s add another factor.  Crucial conversations are frequently spontaneous.  More often than not, they come out of nowhere.  And since you’re caught by surprise, you’re forced to conduct an extraordinarily complex human interaction in real time — no books, no coaches and certainly no short breaks while a team of therapists runs to your aid and pumps you full of nifty ideas.

What do you have to work with?  The issue at hand, the other person and a brain that’s preparing to fight or take flight.  It’s little wonder that we often say and do things that make perfect sense in the moment, but later on seem, well, stupid.

"What was I thinking?" you wonder.

The truth is, you were real-time multitasking with a brain that was working another job.  You’re lucky you didn’t suffer a stroke.

We’re stumped.  Now let’s throw in one more complication.  You don’t know where to start.  You’re making this up as you go along because you haven’t often seen real-life models of effective communication skills.  

Let’s say that you actually planned for a tough conversation — maybe you’ve even mentally rehearsed.  You feel prepared and you’re as cool as a cucumber.  Will you succeed?  Not necessarily.  You can still screw up, because practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

This means that first you have to know what to practice.  Sometimes you don’t.  After all, you may have never actually seen how a certain problem is best handled.  You may have seen what not to do — as modeled by a host of friends, colleagues and, yes, even your parents.  In fact, you may have sworn time and again not to act the same way.

Left with no healthy models, you’re now more or less stumped.  So what do you do?  You do what most people do.  You wing it.  You piece together the words, create a certain mood and otherwise make up what you think will work — all the while multiprocessing with a half-starved brain.  It’s little wonder that when it matters the most, we’re often at our worst behavior.

We act in self-defeating ways.  In our doped-up, dumbed-down state, the strategies we choose for dealing with our crucial conversations are perfectly designed to keep us from what we actually want.  We’re our own worst enemies — and we don’t even realize it.  

Here’s How This Works

Let’s say that your significant other has been paying less and less attention to you.  You realize he or she has a busy job, but you still would like more time together.  You drop a few hints about the issue, but your loved one doesn’t handle it well.  You decide not to put on added pressure, so you clam up.  Of course, since you’re not all that happy with the arrangement, your displeasure now comes out through an occasional sarcastic remark.

"Another late night, huh?  Do you really need all of the money in the world?"

Unfortunately (and here’s where the problem becomes self-defeating), the more you snip and snap, the less your loved one wants to be around you.  So, your significant other spends even less time with you, you become even more upset and the spiral continues.  Your behavior is now actually creating the very thing you didn’t want in the first place.  You’re caught in an unhealthy, self-defeating loop.

Or consider what’s happening with your roommate Terry — who wears your and your other two roommates’ clothes (without asking) — and he’s proud of it.  In fact, one day while walking out the door, he glibly announced that he was wearing something from each of your closets.  You could see Taylor’s pants, Scott’s shirt, and, yes, even Chris’s new matching shoes-and-socks ensemble.  What of yours could he possibly be wearing?  Eww!

Your response, quite naturally, has been to bad-mouth Terry behind his back.  That is until one day when he overheard you belittling him to a friend and you’re now so embarrassed that you avoid being around him.  Now when you’re out of the apartment, he wears your clothes, eats your food and uses your computer out of spite.

Let’s try another example.  You share a cubicle with a four-star slob and you’re a bit of a neat freak.  In Odd Couple parlance, you’re Felix and he’s Oscar.  Your coworker has left you notes written in grease pencil on your file cabinet, in catsup on the back of a french-fry bag and in permanent marker on your desk blotter.  You, in contrast, leave him typed Post-it notes.  Typed!

At first, you sort of tolerated each other.  Then you began to get on each other’s nerves.  You started nagging him about cleaning up.  He started nagging you about your nagging.  Now, you’re beginning to react to each other.  Every time you nag, he becomes upset and, well, let’s say that he doesn’t exactly clean up.  Every time he calls you an "anal-retentive nanny," you vow not to give in to his vile and filthy ways.

What has come from all this bickering?  Now you’re neater than ever and your cubicle partner’s half of the work area is about to be condemned by the health department.  You’re caught in a self-defeating loop.  The more the two of you push each other, the more you create the very behaviors you both despise.

Other topics that could easily lead to disaster include:

  • Ending a relationship
  • Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes suggestive comments
  • Asking a friend to repay a loan
  • Giving the boss feedback about her behavior
  • Approaching a boss who is breaking his own safety or quality policies
  • Critiquing a colleague’s work
  • Asking a roommate to move out
  • Resolving custody or visitation issues with an ex-spouse
  • Dealing with a rebellious teen
  • Talking to a team member who isn’t keeping commitments
  • Discussing problems with sexual intimacy
  • Confronting a loved one about a substance abuse problem
  • Talking to a colleague who is hoarding information or resources
  • Giving an unfavorable performance review
  • Asking in-laws to quit interfering
  • Talking to a coworker about a personal hygiene problem.

Improve Your Organization

Okay, so individual careers may sink or swim based on crucial conversations, but how about organizations?  Surely, a soft-and-gushy factor such as how you talk to one another doesn’t have an impact on the not so soft-and-gushy bottom line.

For twenty-five years, we (the authors) explored this very issue.  We (and hundreds of others) searched for keys to organizational success.  Most of us studying the elusive topic figured that something as large as a company’s overall success would depend on something as large as a company’s strategy, structure or systems.

After all, organizations that maintain best-in-class productivity rely on elegant performance-management systems.  Widespread productivity couldn’t result from anything less, could it?  We weren’t alone in our thinking.  Every organization that attempted to bring about improvements — at least the companies we had heard of — began by revamping their performance-management systems.

Then we actually studied those who had invested heavily in spiffy new performance-management systems.  It turns out that we were dead wrong.  Changing structures and systems alone did little to improve performance.  For example, one study of five hundred stunningly productive organizations revealed that peak performance had absolutely nothing to do with forms, procedures and policies that drive performance management.

In fact, half of the high-flyers had almost no formal performance-management processes.

What’s behind their success?  It all comes down to how people handle crucial conversations.  Within high-performing companies, when employees fail to deliver on their promises, colleagues willingly and effectively step in to discuss the problem.  

  • In the worst companies, poor performers are first ignored and then transferred.
  • In good companies, bosses eventually deal with problems.
  • In the best companies, everyone holds everyone else accountable — regardless of level or position.  The path to high productivity passes not through a static system, but through face-to-face conversations at all levels.

Solve Pressing Problems  

The best companies in almost any critical area are the ones that have developed the skills for dealing effectively with conversations that relate to that specific topic.  For example:

  • Safety. When someone violates a procedure or otherwise acts in an unsafe way, the first person to see the problem, regardless of his or her position, steps up and holds a crucial conversation.
  • Productivity. If an employee underperforms, fails to live up to a promise, doesn’t carry his or her fair share, or simply isn’t productive enough, the affected parties address the problem immediately.
  • Diversity. When someone feels offended, threatened, insulted or harassed, he or she skillfully and comfortably, discusses the issue with the offending party.
  • Quality. In companies where quality rules, people discuss problems face-to-face when they first come up.
  • Every other hot topic. Companies that are best-in-class in innovation, teamwork, change management or any other area that calls for human interaction are best-in-class in holding the relevant crucial conversations.

Source:  Excerpted from Chapter One of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.  © Copyright 2002 Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission and per Usage Guidelines.  VitalSmarts, L.C., 

VitalSmarts™ also offers public training sessions and trainer certification programs across the U.S. that teach the techniques they have developed to help people improve their crucial conversations.

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