When discussing high-stakes topics, opinions often vary, leading emotions to run strong. What do you do at such times?

Some of us avoid the discussion and accept whatever the consequences may be. Others proceed with the discussion but handle it poorly. A few among us excel — and get the outcome we want.

You’ve probably seen these expert communicators in action at some point in your personal or professional history. Though rare, some people just seem to have the natural ability to navigate difficult conversations in an effortless manner that leaves all parties satisfied, regardless of how touchy the subject or how much disagreement exists. These people routinely express controversial opinions in an inoffensive manner, leading other parties — be they supervisors, peers or reports — to listen without becoming defensive or angry.

Imagine what you could achieve if you possessed the ability to say what’s on your mind, however difficult it may be, however many objections exist, and achieve the resolution you want. Also imagine what you may lose if you don’t master this skill: Research has shown that success in life, to a great extent, depends on the ability to communicate openly about difficult topics.

The good news: You can learn to master crucial conversations. In Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler — who have spent the past 25 years researching more that 20,000 communicators at hundreds of organizations — explain that expert communicators weren’t born with this skill; they learned it, and so can you. In this Executive Catalyst, we summarize Crucial Conversations.

Create a shared pool of meaning

We all enter conversations with our own opinions of the topic, which the authors of Crucial Conversations call our “personal pool of meaning.” But that means there are many pools of meaning in each conversation, depending on the number of participants in the conversation. Thus, it’s important to create a “shared pool of meaning.” In other words, encourage others to share their ideas, even if those ideas differ from your own. As the shared pool of meaning grows, participants are exposed to more information, which will ultimately help them make better choices. Moreover, when there’s a large shared pool of meaning, participants will be more likely to act on whatever decisions are made, because they’ve discussed all the options and can see why the chosen solution is the best one.


Next, begin with the right motives. People who are skilled at crucial conversations know what they want from the conversation, and despite constant opportunity to slip away from their goals, stick with them. This is important, because as a conversation unfolds, the emotion of the moment could lead you to become unfocused. For example, if you’re trying to decide on a location for an off-site meeting, and someone prefers a location that’s different from the one you prefer, you may find yourself getting defensive and arguing harder for your location. But is your goal getting what you want? Or is your goal finding a location that makes sense for everyone? Common distractions from your goal include wanting to win and seeking revenge. You’ll also want to avoid making “sucker’s choices,” which occurs when you feel like you have to choose between two distasteful options (such as fighting to fleeing). Dialogue, no matter what the circumstances are, is always an option.


Conversations begin to fail because participants feel unsafe: They feel as if their views aren’t being heard. As a result, they move down one of two unhealthy paths. They resort either to silence (withholding meaning from the shared pool) or violence (trying to force meaning into the shared pool).

The three most common forms of silence are masking, avoiding, and withdrawing.Masking is understating one’s opinion (often using sarcasm, sugarcoating and couching). Avoiding is steering away from sensitive subjects by talking without addressing the real issue. Withdrawing is removing oneself from a conversation altogether.

The three most common forms of violence are controlling, labeling, and attacking. Controlling is coercing others to accept your way of thinking by cutting them off, overstating your position or changing subjects. Labeling is describing people or ideas in a way that allows them to be dismissed under a general stereotype. Attacking is belittling or threatening.

It’s important, when engaging in a crucial conversation, to identify your style under stress so you can make an effort to avoid silence or violence. But it’s also important to notice when others move to silence or violence so you can take steps to make the conversation safe again.

According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, when others move to silence or violence, there is typically one of two conditions of safety at risk: mutual purpose or mutual respect. Mutual purpose means others believe you care about their goals. Mutual respect means others believe you respect them.

“People who are skilled at crucial conversations know what they want from the conversation, and despite constant opportunity to slip away from their goals, stick with them.”

Once you observe that one of these two conditions of safety is at risk, you’ll want to step out of the conversation. You could say, for example, “Can we change gears for a moment? I’d like to talk about X, and it would be good if we can both share what’s working and what isn’t.”

Keep in mind, though, that no one’s perfect, and if you’ve made a mistake that has hurt others (such as not letting your team know that meeting plans were changed), you’ll want to start with an apology. On the other hand, if you haven’t done anything wrong and others still feel disrespected, an apology isn’t appropriate. In these cases, you’ll want to rebuild mutual purpose or mutual respect by contrasting. Contrasting addresses others’ concerns, then confirms your respect or clarifies your purpose.

According to the authors of Crucial Conversations, when apologizing and contrasting don’t work, there’s one more technique that can make conversations safe: CRIB, which stands for commit to seek mutual purpose, recognize the purpose behind the strategy, invent a mutual purpose, and brainstorm new strategies. Decide that you’ll stay in the conversation until you come up with a solution that serves everyone; ask people why they want what they’re arguing for; see if you can invent a more motivating purpose; then search for a solution that serves everyone.

Move to action

Once you have a full pool of shared meaning, you’ll need to learn how to convert those ideas into actions. After establishing safety, this is the most difficult part of a conversation, because if you aren’t careful about how you clarify the conclusion of your conversation, expectations could later be violated.

What is a crucial conversation? A crucial conversation, according to Crucial Conversations, is a discussion in which the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong.

First, acknowledge that dialogue is not decision-making; it’s simply a process for getting all relevant ideas into the shared pool of meaning. Just because participants are all encouraged to share their ideas doesn’t mean they get to participate in the final decision.

Second, decide how decisions are going to be made. This will depend on whether you have a role of authority. If you’re in a position of authority, you can decide how to decide. If you’re not, involve participants in a dialogue about who gets to decide. Either way, it’s important to make it clear how decisions will be made and by whom.

To help you, there are four common ways of making decisions: command, consult, vote, and obtain consensus. Each represents a greater level of involvement, which decreases efficiency but increases commitment.

Commanding is making a decision yourself or turning the decision over to someone you trust, both without involving others. It’s best used when the stakes are low. If choosing this option, it’s good to ask which elements are flexible, then allow others to choose those that are. It also helps to explain your reasons; knowing the why makes the what easier.

“Conversations begin to fail because participants feel unsafe: They feel as if their views aren’t being heard.”

Consulting is gathering information from participants, then making your decision based on their input. This option is ideal when you can easily gather information, when many people will be affected, and when there are many options, some of them controversial. If choosing this option, it’s good to let the broader organization know with whom you’ll be consulting (so those who won’t be consulted can share their ideas with those who will be consulted) and report what you decide and why. Also, before choosing this option, be sure you’re genuine about it; if your mind is already made up, don’t go through the charade of involving others.

Voting is allowing an agreed-upon percentage of participants to make a decision. This option is best suited for situations where efficiency is the greatest value and you’re selecting from a number of good choices. You might use it to reduce lengthy lists — for example, use voting to reduce 20 items to five, then use obtaining consensus (see below) to select from the five.


Obtaining consensus is conversing until everyone agrees. This option, which can be time-consuming, should only be used with high-stakes issues or where everyone must support the choice. You wouldn’t use it, for example, to decide what color to paint the break room. If choosing this option, it’s good to acknowledge that not everyone will get his or her own way, since the goal is to come up with a solution that’s best for the group. Also, don’t every say “I told you so” when the chosen solution doesn’t work; own the failure as a group.

STATE to tackle the most sensitive topics. Five distinct skills — easily remembered with the acronym STATE — can help you talk about even the most sensitive topics. Share your facts. Tell your story. Ask for others’ facts and their stories. Talk tentatively. Encourage testing by making it safe for others to express differing or even opposing views.


It’s easy, after reading these steps, to think of many reasons why the skills we’ve summarized don’t apply to the situation you care about — but in reality, they apply to just about any problem you can imagine.

Our take

Crucial Conversations is a much-needed book that addresses a prevalent issue; I am consistently amazed by the number of people who fear having difficult conversations.

Many seemingly powerful high-level executives completely shy away from having difficult conversations. I’ve worked with numerous chief executive officers (CEOs), for example, who are so uncomfortable having powerful conversations that they avoid them or even send subordinates out to do the dirty work.

I have watched countless times as this lack of communication has extensively damaged organizations. Even if the executive realizes the consequences, however, he or she often still avoids taking corrective action or learning new ways of communicating. I find this surprising, given the organizational impact.

Executives shy away from crucial conversations for a number of reasons. The most common is a lack of comfort or competency. Others include hidden insecurities, a need to be liked, the fear of response, the need to maintain control, or unresolved family-of-origin issues.

Regardless of the reasons, leadership capacity is greatly diminished when one is limited in the breadth and scope of powerful interpersonal communications.  At Jody Michael Associates, our executive coaches will work privately with you to develop the requisite skills and enhance your performance and leadership.

“It’s easy, after reading these steps, to think of many reasons why the skills we’ve summarized don’t apply to the situation you care about — but in reality, they apply to just about any problem you can imagine.”