Book Review – Crucial Conversations By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler

Crucial Conversations written by Kerry Paterson, Joseph Grenny, Tom McMillan Al Switzler is a book about dialogue. About having healthy dialogue that generates positive results. But first what is a crucial conversation? According to the authors, a crucial conversation is a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong. The authors argument in the book is that those who can handle crucial conversations in a skilful way tend to be more productive and in the book the aim of the authors is to show us how to handle crucial conversations well. Hence the book is subtitled, Tools for talking when stakes are high. According to the authors handling crucial conversations properly not only benefits individuals and their relationships, but can be of benefit to organizations and even communities.

This is not a big book as it has 240 pages and 12 chapters. Also it’s not a very visually appealing book as it uses very little pictures and other graphic elements. But it’s written in a very engaging way with a good level of humour and right from the beginning of the book I was laughing. Following is a brief review of what you can expect to learn from each chapter.

Chapter 1: What’s a crucial conversation and who cares? This Chapter describes what a crucial conversation is in detail. It explains the value of being able to handle crucial conversations effectively using some practical examples.

Chapter 2: Mastering Crucial Conversations – The Power of Dialogue – This Chapter explores the power of dialogue which it defines as the free flow of meaning between two or more or people.

Chapter 3: Start With Heart – How to stay focused on what you really want – This is an important chapter which I really enjoyed reading. In relation to handling crucial conversations it looks at three Key skills:


  • Working on ourselves first because that’s who we can control.
  • Focus on what you really want.
  • Refuse the sucker’s choice. Sucker’s choice refers to the actions of attacking or withholding communication as a way of reacting in a crucial conversation.

Chapter 4: Learn To Look – How to notice when safety is at risk – This is a very important chapter as it introduces us to the concept of “dual processing” which is the ability to listen to the content of a conversation and at the same time look out for conditions that may imply the conversation is becoming unsafe.

Chapter 5: Make It Safe – How to make it safe to talk about almost anything – This chapter develops on the previous one. What do you do when you notice that a conversation has become unsafe? You step out of the conversation, make it safe and then step in again. Easier said than done, but some skills on how to do it are offered. Three skills discussed are:

  • To apologize
  • Contrasting which is about fixing misunderstanding through the use of do/don’t statements
  • CRIB, which is an acronym for Commit to seek mutual purpose, Recognize the purpose behind the strategy, Invent a mutual purpose and Brainstorm new strategies.

Using these skills helps to rebuild mutual respect and purpose when they are at risk (leading to a loss of safety) in a conversation.

Chapter 6: Master My Stories – How to stay in dialogue when you’re angry, hurt or scared – Another very interesting chapter with lots of useful information. The Focus here is on the stories we tell ourselves in response to a situation which makes us respond in a certain way. A framework is presented here which shows how we move from experience to action and it goes like this:

  • We see or hear something.
  • We create our own stories based on what we saw or heard.
  • The stories we create make us feel a certain way.
  • We then act on how we feel.

Personally I found this model very useful and it made me reflect a lot on how I feel with various experiences I have. The authors go a bit further by giving us two skills to manage our stories. First they challenge us to retrace our path which is about pausing to examine the story we are telling ourselves and then reframe the story to lead us to healthy actions.

Chapter 7: STATE my path – How to speak persuasively and not abrasively – Even when we create the safety conditions for dialogue, we still need to talk. When we discuss sensitive or potentially difficult topics, we can still talk in ways which don’t help us to achieve what we want to say in the dialogue. Here you will learn about five steps that can help to talk about challenging topics effectively. These five steps are defined by the acronym STATE and they are:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story
  • Ask for other paths
  • Talk tentatively
  • Encourage testing

Chapter 8: Explore Others Paths – How to listen when others blow up or clam up – Sometimes it may be difficult to get others to have a dialogue with us because of some history or how people feel about us. The easy thing to do is to back off. But it may be absolutely necessary to have that conversation. A great step to take in such situations is to explore the other person’s path. Simply put, understand the other person’s point of view and perception. Getting people to do this especially when they harbour negative feelings about us can be challenging, so we all need some skills. This chapter presents us with some actions to take in such situations. Firstly we need to be ready to listen and to listen we must do it sincerely, with an attitude of curiousity and patience. We can invite people to tell us their story using four skills described by the acronym AMPP which are:

  • Ask to get things rolling
  • Mirror to confirm feelings
  • Paraphrase to acknowledge the story
  • Prime when you are getting nowhere

If after hearing the person’s path you disagree with them, there are three things you can do which are:

  • Agree explicitly with aspects of their path you agree with.
  • Build on the aspects you disagree with.
  • Compare your path with the person’s if you totally disagree with them.

Chapter 9: Move to action – How to Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results – The core of this chapter is about teaching us how to make decisions. Four methods of decision making are discussed which are:

  • Command: making decisions without involving others.
  • Consult: collecting input from a group and then a subset of the group makes the final decision.
  • Vote: allowing people to vote to choose a decision.

Chapter 10: Putting it all together – Tools for preparing and learning – This in my own opinion is a brilliant chapter. It is a summary of all the lessons in the book and shows is how to apply them. It has a visual model showing how all the skills fit together and then a section titled, how to prepare for a crucial conversation. This section has a table titled, coaching for crucial conversations, which outlines each crucial conversation skills and how to use it. The chapter concludes with a practical example showing the crucial conversation skills in action.

Chapter 11: Yeah, but – Advice for Tough Cases – This is another practical chapter. It discussed how to use crucial conversation skills with tough cases. Seventeen cases are discussed. Lots of examples to learn from.

Chapter 12: Change your life – how to change ideas into Habits – This chapter contains some thoughts and ideas that can help us master crucial conversation skills and turn them into habits.

Overall I found this to be a highly practical book and at the same time enjoyable. There are lots of skills to learn from this book and I personally think it will be difficult to master all of them. I suggest that you pick at least three key skills relevant to your situation and focus on learning how to use them.

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