Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

When we employ crucial conversation skills, we can elevate our capacity to influence decisions, improve relationships, and speak our minds in a way that gets heard.

A man and a woman discussing a serious topic.

We made a bold claim when we first published Crucial Conversations in 2002. We argued that the root cause of many—if not most—human problems lie in how people behave when we disagree 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 crucial conversations.

What Is a Crucial Conversation?

So what is a crucial conversation? A conversation turns crucial when:

  1. Opinions vary.
  2. Stakes are high.
  3. Emotions run strong.

The outcome could significantly impact a result and/or a relationship in your life. Examples include giving a boss feedback, dealing with a rebellious teen, talking to a coworker who made an offensive comment, or asking in-laws to quit interfering. Approaching these situations can cause significant stress, and failing to communicate effectively can have significant consequences.

But the fact is we CAN learn how to hold crucial conversations. Millions of readers and people who have taken our Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue course have shared their success stories—a woman who reunited with her estranged father; a nurse who saved a patient’s life; and many more.

Yet when most of us feel frustrated, concerned, upset, or discouraged, we either clam up because we’re scared to speak up or we lash out angrily—we choose silence to violence. Neither method gets an idea out into the open, where it can be made part of the collective view, and neither method helps improve working conditions or relationships.

Why do we routinely choose silence or violence? We go to silence because we dread crucial conversations. We fear them because our experience has taught us that bad things are likely to happen if we’re both emotional and honest. Better to let things go than risk a confrontation.

We go to violence because we’re so unskilled at holding crucial conversations. While research shows that the ability to hold crucial conversations is the key to influence, job effectiveness, and even marital success, most have little or no formal training on the topic. Unfortunately, we’ve developed our existing style by watching our parents, friends, and former bosses. When we do decide to speak up, we inevitably draw from the mediocre skills these role models exemplify and end up using sarcasm, caustic humor, guilt trips, debate tactics, and other forms of verbal violence. Eventually, we note that we’re in trouble for having said something, and we pull back into silence. We toggle from silence to violence and back again, and it’s not pleasant.

5 Tips to Increase Your Conversation Skills

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. When we employ crucial conversation skills, we can elevate our capacity to influence decisions, improve relationships, and speak our minds in a way that gets heard. Use the following tips to increase your skills:

  • Reverse your thinking. Most of us decide whether or not to speak up by considering the risks of doing so. Those who are best at crucial conversations don’t think about the risks of speaking up first. They think first about the risks of not speaking up. They realize that if they don’t share their unique views, they will have to live with the poor decisions that will be made due to holding back their informed opinions.
  • Change your emotions. The primary reason we do poorly in crucial conversations is that by the time we open our mouths, we’re irritated, angry, or disgusted with the other person’s views and opinions. Then, no matter how much we try to fake it, our negative judgments creep into the conversation. So before opening your mouth, open your mind. Separate people from the problem. Try to see others as reasonable, rational, and decent human beings—even if they hold a view you strongly oppose. Remember: The verdict will show on your face if you hold court in your head.
  • Help others feel safe. Often we believe that specific topics are destined to make others defensive. Skilled folks realize people don’t become defensive until they feel unsafe. Try starting your following high-stakes conversation by assuring the other person of your positive intentions and respect for them. When others feel respected and trust your motives, they let their guard down and begin to listen—even if the topic is unpleasant.
  • Invite dialogue. After you create a safe environment, confidently share your views. Once you’ve done so, invite differing opinions. This means you encourage the other person to disagree with you. Those who are best at crucial conversations aren’t just out to make their point; they want to learn. If your goal is to dump on others, they’ll resist you. If you are open to hearing others’ points of view, they’ll be more open to yours.
  • Learn to look. And finally, if you can’t remember anything else in the heat of the moment, ask yourself: “Are we in silence or violence?” If you are, do your best to return to healthy dialogue.

You can learn more about these skills and many others in a fully updated third edition of Crucial Conversations. This new edition also addresses issues that have come to the forefront of our society in recent years, including diversity and inclusion and how to hold virtual Crucial Conversations. In addition, you will learn how to:

  • Respond when someone initiates a Crucial Conversation with you
  • Identify and address the lag time between identifying a problem and discussing it
  • Communicate more effectively across digital mediums

When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, you have three choices:

  1. Avoid a crucial conversation and suffer the consequences.
  2. Handle the conversation poorly and suffer the consequences.
  3. Apply the lessons and strategies of Crucial Conversations and improve relationships and results.

Whether they take place at work or home, with your coworkers or your spouse, I hope these skills profoundly impact your career, your happiness, and your future.

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including the leadership and communication classic, “Crucial Conversations.” His work has been used by nearly half of the Forbes Global 2000 and has helped millions of people achieve better relationships and results. He cofounded Crucial Learning (formerly VitalSmarts), a learning and organization development firm offering courses in communication, performance, and leadership.