Crucial conversation: “move to action”

If you are looking for affordable, custom-written, high-quality, and non-plagiarized papers, your student life just became easier with us. We are the ideal place for all your writing needs.

Order a Similar Paper Order a Different Paper

Discuss application of concepts in Chapter 7 in the attached book. Use appropriate grammar, sentence structure and word choice and correctly cite sources.  


“Relationships are the priority of life, and conversations are the

crucial element in profound caring of relationships. This book

helps us to think about what we really want to say. If you want

to succeed in both talking and listening, read this book.”

-Dr. Lloyd J. Ogilvie, chaplain, United States Senate

“Important, lucid, and practical, Crucial Conversations is a

book that will make a difference in your life. Learn how to flour­

ish in every difficult situation.”

-Robert E. Quinn, ME Tracy Collegiate Professor of

OBHRM, University of Michigan Business School

“I was personally and professionally inspired by this book-and

I’m not easily impressed. In the fast-paced world of IT, the success

of our systems, and our business, depends on crucial conversations

we have every day. Unfortunately, because our environment is so

technical, far too often we forget about the ‘human systems’ that

make or break us. These skills are the missing foundation piece.”

-Maureen Burke, manager of training,

Coca-Cola Enterprises, Inc.

“The book is compelling. Yes, I found myself in too many of their

examples of what not to do when caught in these worst-of-all­

worlds situations! GET THIS BOOK, WHIP OUT A PEN AND




helped me salvage several difficult situations and repair my

damaged self-esteem in others. I will need another copy pretty

soon. as I’m wearing out the pages in this one!”

-James Belasco. best-selling author of Flight of the Buffalo,

l!l1trl!prl!l1eur. professor. und l!xl!cutive director of the Financial

Tilllrs Knowkdgc Diuloguc

“Crucial Conversations is the most useful self-help book I have

ever read. I’m awed by how insightful, readable, well organized,

and focused it is. I keep thinking: ‘If only I had been exposed to

these dialogue skills 30 years ago … ‘”

-John Hatch, founder, FINCA International

“One of the greatest tragedies is seeing someone with incredible

talent get derailed because he or she lacks some basic skills.

Crucial Conversations addresses the number one reason execu­

tives derail, and it provides extremely helpful tools to operate in

a fast-paced, results-oriented environment.”

-Karie A. Willyerd, chief talent officer, Solectron

“The book prescribes, with structure and wit, a way to improve on

the most fundamental element of organizational learning and

growth-honest, unencumbered dialogue between individuals.

There are one or two of the many leadership/management

‘thought’ books on my shelf that are frayed and dog-eared from

use. Crucial Conversations will no doubt end up in the same con­


-John Gill, VP of Human Resources, Rolls Royce USA



Tools for Talking
When Stakes Are High


Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny,

Ron McMillan, and AI Switzler


New York ChIcago San FrancIsco LIsbon

London Madrzd MexIco CIty MIlan New DelhI

San Juan Seoul Singapore Sydney Toronto

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Crucial Conversations : tools for talking when stakes are high / Kerry
Patterson … [et al.].

p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-07-140194-6
1. International communication. 2. Interpersonal relations.

Patterson, Kerry, 1946-




A Division of The McGraw·Hill Companies



Copyright © 2002 by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. Except as permitted
under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be
reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a data base or
retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

29 30 31 32 33 34 35 DOC/DOC 0 9 8 7

ISBN 0-07-140194-6

This book was set in R Life Roman by Patricia Caruso of McGraw-Hill Professional’s
DTP composition unit in Hightstown, N.J.

Printed and bound by R.R. Donnelly & Sons Company.

McGraw-Hill books are available at special quantity discounts to use as premiums and
sales promotions, or for use in corporate training programs. For more information,
please write to the Director of Special Sales, Professional Publishing, McGraw-Hill,
Two Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121-2298. Or contact your local bookstore.

We dedicate this book to

Louise, Celia, Bonnie, and Linda-

whose support is abundant,

whose love is nourishin�

and whose patience is just shy of infinite.

And to our children

Christine, Rebecca, Taylofi Scott,

Aislinn, Carat Seth, Samue� Hyrum,

Ambefi Megan, Chase, Hayley, Bryn,

Ambefi Laura, Becca, Rachael, Benjamin,

Meridith, Lindsey, Kelley, Todd

who have been a wonderful source of learning.




CH. 1: What’s a Crucial Conversation?

And Who Cares? 1

CH. 2: Mastering Crucial Conversations

The Power of Dialogue 17

CH. 3: Start with Heart

How to Stay Focused on What You Really Want 27

CH. 4: Learn to Look

How to Notice When Safety Is at Risk 45

CH. 5: Make It Safe

How to Make It Safe to Talk about Almost Anything 65

CH. 6: Master My Stories

How to Stay in Dialogue When You ‘re Angry,

Scared, or Hurt 93


CH. 7: STATE My Path

How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively 119

CH. 8: Explore Others’ Paths

How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up 141

CH. 9: Move to Action

How to Turn Crucial Conversations

into Action and Results 161

CH. 10: Putting It All Together

Tools for Preparing and Learning 179

CH. 11: Yeah, But

Advice for Tough Cases 193

CH. 12: Change Your Life

How to Turn Ideas into Habits 215




This is a breakthrough book. That is exactly how I saw it when

I first read the manuscript. I so resonated with the importance,
power, and timeliness of its message that I even suggested to the

authors that they title it “Breakthrough Conversations.” But as I
read deeper, listened to the tapes, and experienced the insight
borne of years of experience with this material, I came to under­

stand why it is titled Crucial Conversations.

From my own work with organizations, including families,

and from my own experience, I have come to see that there are

a few defining moments in our lives and careers that make all
the difference. Many of these defining moments come from

“crucial” or “breakthrough” conversations with important peo­

ple in emotionally charged situations where the decisions made
take us down one of several roads, each of which leads to an

entirely different destination.

I can see the wisdom in the assertion of the great historian
Arnold Toynbee, who said that you can pretty well summarize all
of history-not only of society, but of institutions and of people­
in four words: Nothing fails like success. In other words, when
a challenge in life is met by a response that is equal to it, you
have success. But when the challenge moves to a higher level,

the old, once successful response no longer works-it fails;
thus, nothing fails like success.


The challenge has noticeably changed for our lives, our fami­
lies, and our organizations. Just as the world is changing at

frightening speed and has become increasingly and profoundly
interdependent with marvelous and dangerous technologies, so,
too, have the stresses and pressures we all experience exponen­

tially increased. This charged atmosphere makes it all the more
imperative that we nourish our relationships and develop tools,
skills, and enhanced capacity to find new and better solutions to

our problems.
These newer, better solutions will not represent “my way” or

“your way”-they will represent “our way.” In short, the solu­
tions must be synergistic, meaning that the whole is greater than
the sum of the parts. Such synergy may manifest itself in a bet­
ter decision, a better relationship, a better decision-making
process, increased commitment to implement decisions made,

or a combination of two or more of these.
What you learn is that “crucial conversations” transform peo­

ple and relationships. They are anything but transacted; they
create an entirely new level of bonding. They produce what
Buddhism calls “the middle way” -not a compromise between
two opposites on a straight-line continuum, but a higher middle

way, like the apex of a triangle. Because two or more people

have created something new from genuine dialogue, bonding
takes place-just like the bonding that takes place in family or

marriage when a new child is created. When you produce some­
thing with another person that is truly creative, it’s one of the
most powerful forms of bonding there is. In fact the bonding is
so strong that you simply would not be disloyal in his or her

absence, even if there were social pressure to join others in bad­

The sequential development of the subject matter in this book
is brilliant. It moves you from understanding the supernal power


of dialogue, to clarifying what you really want to have happen and
focusing on what actually is happening, to creating conditions of
safety, to using self-awareness and self-knowledge. And finally, it
moves you to learning how to achieve such a level of mutual
understanding and creative synergy that people are emotionally
connected to the conclusions reached and are emotionally willing

and committed to effectively implementing them. In short, you
move from creating the right mind- and heart-set to developing
and utilizing the right skill-set.

In spite of the fact that I have spent many years writing and
teaching similar ideas, I found myself being deeply influenced,
motivated, and even inspired by this material-learning new ideas,
going deeper into old ideas, seeing new applications, and broaden­
ing my understanding. I’ve also learned how these new techniques,
skills, and tools work together in enabling crucial conversations
that truly create a break with the mediocrity or mistakes of the
past. Most breakthroughs in life truly are “break-withs.”

When I first put my hands on this book, I was delighted to see
that dear friends and colleagues had drawn on their entire lives
and professional experiences to not only address a tremendously
important topic, but also to do it in a way that is so accessible, so

fun, so full of humor and illustration, so full of common sense
and practicality. They show how to effectively blend and use both
intellectual (1.0.) and emotional intelligence (E.O.) to enable
crucial conversations.

I remember one of the authors having a crucial conversation
with his professor in college. The professor felt that this student

was neither paying the price in class nor living up to his potential.
This student, my friend, listened carefully, restated the professor’s

concern, expressed appreciation for the professor’s affirmation of
his potential , and then smilingly and calmly said, “My focus is on


other priorities, and the class is just not that important to me at
this time. I hope you can understand.” The teacher was taken

aback, but then started to listen. A dialogue took place, new
understanding was achieved, and the bonding was deepened.

I know these authors to be outstanding individuals and
remarkable teachers and consultants, and have even seen them
work their magic in training seminars-but I didn’t know if they
could take this complex topic and fit it into a book. They did. I

encourage you to really dig into this material, to pause and think
deeply about each part and how the parts are sequenced. Then

apply what you’ve learned, go back to the book again, learn
some more, and apply your new learnings. Remember, to know

and not to do is really not to know.
I think you’ll discover, as have I, that crucial conversations, as

powerfully described in this book, reflect the insight of this
excerpt of Robert Frost’s beautiful and memorable poem, “The

Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth; . . .

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I­

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Stephen R. Covey


We are deeply grateful to many.

First, to our colleagues at VitalSmarts, we express apprecia­
tion for creativity, discipline, competence, and friendship.
Thanks to Charla Allen, James Allred, Mike Carter, Benson
Dastrup, Kevin Koger, Kevin Sheehan, Jed Thompson, Mindy

Waite, and Yan Wang.
Also we appreciate our colleagues for their indispensable help

in teaching and testing these ideas: Bemell Christensen, Larry
Myler, Bev Roesch, and Steve Willis.

And to our associate friends who have worked hard to change
lives and organizations with these concepts-and provided

invaluable feedback for refining them: Mike Allen, Karol Bailey,
Pat Banks, Mike Cook, Brint Driggs, Simon Lia, Mike Miller, Jim

Munoa, Stacy Nelson, Larry Peters, Betsy Pickren, Mike
Quinlan, Ron Ragain, James Sanwick, Kurt Southam, Neil
Staker, Joe Thigpen, and Michael Thompson.

Thanks to our agent, Michael Broussard, for getting us the
opportunity to share our message. And thanks to our editor,
Nancy Hancock, a world-class partner in producing this book

and a master of crucial conversations.
And one final, sweeping, large thanks. So many have helped

us over the years, that we add this admittedly blanket thanks to
the clients, colleagues, friends, teachers, and associates on
whose shoulders we stand.


The void created by the failure to communicate

is soon filled with poison, drive� and



What’s a Crucial

And Who Cares?

When people first hear the term “crucial conversation,” many

conjure up images of presidents, emperors, and prime ministers
seated around a massive table while they debate the future of the

world. Although it’s true that such discussions have a wide­
sweeping and lasting impact, they’re not the kind we have in

mind. 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.

Now, what makes one of your conversations crucial as opposed
to plain vanilla? 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 practically making out.” You don’t remember flirting.

You simply remember being polite and friendly. Your spouse
walks off in a huff.

And speaking of the block party, at one point you’re making
small talk with your somewhat crotchety and always colorful

neighbor about his shrinking kidneys when he says, “Speaking of
the new fence you’re building . . . ” From that moment on you

end up in a heated debate over placing the new fence-three
inches one way or the other. Three inches ! He finishes by threat­
ening you with a lawsuit, and you punctuate your points by men­

tioning that he’s not completely aware of the difference between
his hind part and his elbow. Emotions run really strong.

What makes each of these conversations crucial-and not sim­

ply challenging, frustrating, frightening, or annoying-is that the
results could have a huge impact on the quality of your life. In each
case, some element of your daily routine could be forever altered

for better or worse. Clearly a promotion could make a big differ­
ence. Your company’s success affects you and everyone you work
with. Your relationship with your spouse influences every aspect of

your life. Even something as trivial as a debate over a property line
affects how you get along with your neighbor. If you handle even a
seemingly insignificant conversation poorly, you establish a pattern
of behavior that shows up in all of your crucial conversations.

By definition, crucial conversations are about tough issues.

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to back away from discussions
we fear will hurt us or make things worse. We’re masters at avoid­
ing these tough conversations. Coworkers send email to caI.:h

other when they should walk down the hall and talk turkey. Bosses
leave voice mail in lieu of meeting with their direct reports. Family
members change the subject when an issue gets too risky. We (the
authors) have a friend who learned through a voice-mail message
that his wife was divorcing him. We use all kinds of tactics to
dodge touchy issues.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you know how to handle
(even master) crucial conversations, you can step up to and effec­

tively hold tough conversations about virtually any topic.

Crucial Conversation (kroo shel kan’viir sa’shen) n
A discussion between two or more people where ( 1 ) stakes are

high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.


Just because we’re in the middle of a crucial conversation (or

maybe thinking about stepping up to one) doesn’t mean that
we’re in trouble or that we won’t fare well. In truth, 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.

That seems simple enough. Walk away from crucial conversa­
tions and suffer the consequences. Handle them poorly and suf­
fer the consequences. Or handle them well.

“I don’t know,” you think to yourself. “Given the three choic­
es, I’ll go with handling them well.”

We’re on Our Worst Behavior

But do we handle them wel l? When talking turns tough, do we
pause, takc a deep brcuth, unnl.>uncc to our innerselves, “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 poten­

tially dangerous discussion, do we step up to it rather than scam­
per away? Sometimes. Sometimes we boldly step up to hot topics,
monitor our behavior, and offer up our best work. We mind our
Ps and Os. 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 conver­
sation 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 tum 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 gen­
tle 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 activi­
ties 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


We’re under pressure. Let’s add another factor. Crucial con­
versations 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 lit­
tle 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 effec­
tive 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

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 con­

versations are perfectly designed to keep us from what we actu­

ally 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 dis­
pleasure 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 spi­

ral 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 blot­

ter. 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.

Some Common Crucial Conversations

In each of these examples of unhealthy self-perpetuation, the

stakes were moderate to high, opinions varied, and emotions ran
strong. Actually, to be honest, in a couple of the examples the
stakes were fairly low at first, but with time and growing emo­
tions, the relationship eventually turned sour and quality of life
suffered-making the risks high.

These examples, of course, are merely the tip of an enormous

and ugly iceberg of problems stemming from crucial conversations


that either have been avoided or have gone wrong. Other topics
that could easily lead to disaster include

• Ending a relationship

• Talking to a coworker who behaves offensively or makes sugges­
tive 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


• 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 infonnation or resources

• Giving an unfavorable performance review

• Asking in-laws to quit interfering

• Talking to a coworker about a personal hygiene problem


Let’s say that either you avoid tough issues or when you do bring

them up, you’re on your worst behavior. What’s the big deal?
How high are the stakes anyway? Do the consequences of a
fouled-up conversation extend beyond the conversation itself?

Should you worry?


Actually, the effects of conversations gone bad can be both
devastating and far reaching. Our research has shown that strong

relationships, careers, organizations, and communities all draw
from the same source of power-the ability to talk openly about
high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics.

So here’s the audacious claim. Master your crucial conversa­
tions and you’ll kick-start your career, strengthen your relation­
ships, and improve your health. As you and others master high­
stakes discussions, you’ll also vitalize your organization and your

Kick-Start Your Career

Could the ability to master crucial conversations help your career?
Absolutely. Twenty-five years of research with twenty thousand
people and hundreds of organizations has taught us that individu­
als who are the most influential-who can get things done, and at

the same time build on relationships-are those who master their

crucial conversations.
For instance, high performers know how to stand up to the

boss without committing career suicide. We’ve all seen people

hurt their careers over tough issues. You may have done it your­
self. Fed up with a lengthy and unhealthy pattern of behavior, you
finally speak out-but a bit too abruptly. Oops. Or maybe an

issue becomes so hot that as your peers twitch and fidget them­
selves into a quivering mass of potential stroke victims, you
decide to say something. It’s not a pretty discussion-but some­
body has to have the guts to keep the boss from doing something
stupid. (Gulp.)

As it turns out, you don’t have to choose between being hon­
est and being effective. You don’t have to choose between candor
and your career. People who routinely hold crucial conversations

and hold them well are able to express controversial and even


risky opinions in a way that gets heard. Their bosses, peers, and
direct reports listen without becoming defensive or angry.

What about your career? Are there crucial conversations that
you’re not holding or not holding well? Is this undermining your
influence? And more importantly, would your career take a step

forward if you could improve how you’re dealing with these

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 some­
thing 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

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, pro­
cedures, and policies that drive performance management. In


fact, half of the highflyers 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 com­
panies, when employees fail to deliver on their promises, col­
leagues 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 deal­
ing 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, regard­
less of his or her position, steps up and holds a crucial con­


• 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

• 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.

• Ellery other hot topic. Companies that are best-in-class in inno­

vation. teamwork, change management, or any other area that


calls for human interaction are best-in-class in holding the rel­
evant crucial conversations.

What’s the relationship between success in a key area and crucial
conversations? Companies that make impressive improvements
in key performance areas (and eventually master them) are gen­
erally no different than others in their efforts to improve. They
conduct the same awareness training, print the same banners,
and make the same speeches. They differ in what happens when
someone does something wrong. Rather than waiting for a poli­
cy to kick in or a leader to take charge, people step up, speak up,
and thrive. Equally important, if it’s a leader who seems to be out
of line, employees willingly speak up, the problem is solved, and
the company moves on.

So what about you? Is your organization stuck in its progress
toward some important goal? If so, are there conversations that
you’re either avoiding or botching? And how about the people
you work with? Are they stepping up to or walking away from
crucial conversations? Could you take a big step forward by
improving how you deal with these conversations?

Improve Your Relationships

Consider the impact crucial conversations can have on your
relationships. Could failed crucial conversations lead to failed
relationships? As it turns out, when you ask the average person
what causes couples to break up, he or she usually suggests that
it’s due to differences of opinion. You know, people have differ­
ent theories about how to manage their finances, spice up their
love lives, or rear their children. In truth, everyone argues about
important issues. But not everyone splits up. It’s how you argue
that matters.

For example, when Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman
(two noted marriage scholars) examined couples in the throes of


heated discussions, they learned that people fall into three cate­

gories-those who digress into threats and name-calling, those
who revert to silent fuming, and those who speak openly, hon­
estly, and effectively.

Mter watching dozens of couples, the two scholars predicted

relationship outcomes and tracked their research subjects’ rela­

tionships for the next ten years. Sure enough, they had predicted

nearly 90 percent of the divorces that occurred.2 Over time, cou­
ples who found a way to state their opinions about high-stakes,

controversial, and emotional issues honestly and respectfully

remained together. Those who didn’t, split up.
Now, what about you? Think of your own important relation­

ships. Are there a few crucial conversations that you’re current­

ly avoiding or handling poorly? Do you walk away from some

issues only to come charging back into others? Do you hold in

ugly opinions only to have them tumble out as sarcastic remarks

or cheap shots? How about your significant other or family

members? Are they constantly toggling from seething silence to
subtle but costly attacks? When it matters the most (after all,

these are your cherished loved ones), are you on your worst

behavior? If so, you definitely have something to gain by learn­

ing more about how to handle crucial conversations.

Revitalize Your Community

Next, let’s look at our neighborhoods and communities. If the fate

of an organization is largely determined by how pivotal conver­
sations are habitually handled, why should the communities that

surround them be any different? The truth is, they aren’t.
The difference between the best communities and the good or

the worst is not the number of problems they have. All commu­

nities face problems. Once again, the difference lies in how they
deal with problems. In the best communities, key individuals


and groups find a way to engage in healthy dialogue. They talk
through important issues. In contrast, communities that fail to
improve play costly games. During community meetings peo­
ple insult one another, become indignant, and act as if indi­

viduals with differing views are sick or deranged. Battles

In addition to how people behave in public forums, private

behavior affects community health as well. Take, for example,

the problem of crime. You might be shocked to discover a rather
tragic statistic. Not everyone in prison is a career criminal who

was born into a horrible family, then shaped by abuse and neg­
lect into a seething sociopath. In fact, over half of the people

who are convicted of violent crimes are first-time offenders who

commit crimes against friends or loved ones.3

How could this be? Violence is often preceded by prolonged
periods of silence. Most inmates once held a job, paid their

bills, and remembered their friends’ birthdays. Then one day,
after allowing unresolved problems to build up and then boil
over, they attacked a friend, loved one, or neighbor. That’s
right, convicted first-time offenders are often not career crimi­

nals . They’re our frustrated neighbors. Since they don’t know
what to say or how to say it, they opt for force. In this case, the
inability to work through tough issues devastates individuals,
ruins families, and poisons communities.

What about where you live? What crucial issues does your
community face? Are there conversations that people are not
holding or not holding well that keep you from progress? Is
crime skyrocketing? Do your community meetings look more
like the Jerry Springer show than an energetic forum for

healthy communication? If so, both you and the community
have a lot to gain by focusing on how you handle high-stakes


Improve Your Personal Health

If the evidence so far isn’t compelling enough to focus your
attention on crucial conversations, what would you say if we told
you that the ability to master high-stakes discussions is a key to
a healthier and longer life?

Immune systems. Consider the ground breaking research done
by Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Dr. Ronald Glaser. They studied
the immune systems of couples who had been married an aver­
age of forty-two years by comparing those who argued constantly
with those who resolved their differences effectively. It turns out
that arguing for decades doesn ‘f lessen the destructive blow of
constant conflict. Quite the contrary. Those who routinely failed
their crucial conversations had far weaker immune systems than
those who found a way to resolve them well.4 Of course, the
weaker the immune system, the worse their health.

Life-threatening diseases. In perhaps the most revealing of all
the health-related studies, a group of subjects who had contracted
malignant melanoma received traditional treatment and then
were divided into two groups. One group met weekly for only six
weeks; the other did not. Facilitators taught the first group of
recovering patients specific communication skills. (When it’s
your life that’s at stake, could anything be more crucial?)

After meeting only six times and then dispersing for five years,
the subjects who learned how to express themselves effectively

had a higher survival rate-only 9 percent succumbed as opposed
to almost 30 percent in the untrained groUp.5 Think about the
implications of this study. Just a modest improvement in ability to
talk and connect with others corresponded to a two-thirds
decrease in the death rate.

We could go on for pages about how the ability to hold cru­

cial conversations has an impact on your personal health. The
evidence is mounting every day. Nevertheless, most people find


this claim a bit over the top. “Come on,” they chide. “You’re say­

ing that the way you talk or don’t talk affects your body? It could
kill you?”

The short answer is yes. The longer answer suggests that the
negative feelings we hold in, the emotional pain we suffer, and

the constant battering we endure as we stumble our way through
unhealthy conversations slowly eat away at our health. In some
cases the impact of failed conversations leads to minor problems.
In others it results in disaster. In all cases, failed conversations
never make us happier, healthier, or better off.

So how about you? What are the specific conversations that
gnaw at you the most? Which conversations (if you held them or

improved them) would strengthen your immune system, help
ward off disease, and increase your quality of life and well-being?


When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions start to run
strong, casual conversations become crucial. Ironically, the more
crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well.
The consequences of either avoiding or fouling up crucial con­
versations can be severe. When we fail a crucial conversation,
every aspect of our lives can be affected-from our careers, to
our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health.

As we learn how to step up to crucial conversations-and

handle them well-with one set of skills we can influence virtu­
ally every domain of our lives.

What is this all-important skill-set? What do people who sail
through crucial conversations actually do? More importantly,
can we do it too?


Give me a lever long enough

and I shall move the world.




The Power of Dialogue

We (the authors) didn’t always spend our time noodling over
crucial conversations. In fact, we started our research into orga­
nizational and personal excellence by studying a slightly different
topic. We figured that if we could learn why certain people were
more effective than others, then we could learn exactly what they

did, clone it, and pass it on to others.

To find the source of success, we started at work. We asked
people to identify who they thought were their most effective


colleagues. In fact, over the past twenty-five years, we’ve asked
over twenty thousand people to identify the individuals in their

organizations who could really get things done. We wanted to
find those who were not just influential, but who were far more
influential than the rest.

Each time, as we compiled the names into a list, a pattern

emerged. Some people were named by one or two colleagues.
Some found their way onto the lists of five or six people. These

were the good at influence, but not good enough to be widely

identified as top performers. And then there were the handful

who were named thirty or more times. These were the best-the
clear opinion leaders in their areas . Some were managers and

supervisors. Many were not.

One of the opinion leaders we became particularly interested

in meeting was named Kevin. He was the only one of eight vice

presidents in his company to be identified as exceedingly influ­

ential. We wanted to know why. So we watched him at work.

At first, Kevin didn’t do anything remarkable. In truth, he looked

like every other VP. He answered his phone, talked to his direct

reports, and continued about his pleasant, but routine, routine.

The Startling Discovery

After trailing Kevin for almost a week, we began to wonder if he

really did act in ways that set him apart from others or if his

influence was simply a matter of popularity. And then we fol­
lowed Kevin into a meeting.

Kevin, his peers, and their boss were deciding on a new loca­
tion for their offices-would they move across town, across the
state, or across the country? The first two execs presented their

arguments for their top choices, and as expected, their points were
greeted by penetrating questions from the full team. No vague

claim went unclarified, no unsupported reasoning unquestioned.


Then Chris, the CEO, pitched his preference-one that was
both unpopular and potentially disastrous. However, when peo­

ple tried to disagree or push back on Chris, he responded poorly.
Since he was the big boss, he didn’t exactly have to browbeat
people to get what he wanted. Instead, he became slightly defen­
sive. First he raised an eyebrow. Then he raised his finger. Finally

he raised his voice-just a little. It wasn’t long until people
stopped questioning him, and Chris’s inadequate proposal was
quietly accepted.

Well almost. That’s when Kevin spoke up. His words were

simple enough-something like, “Hey Chris, can I check some­
thing out with you?”

The reaction was stunning-everyone in the room stopped
breathing. But Kevin ignored the apparent terror of his col­
leagues and plunged on ahead. In the next few minutes he in
essence told the CEO that he appeared to be violating his own
decision-making guidelines. He was subtly using his power to
move the new offices to his hometown.

Kevin continued to explain what he saw happening, and when

he finished the first crucial minutes of this delicate exchange,
Chris was quiet for a moment. Then he nodded his head. “You’re

absolutely right,” he finally concluded. “I have been trying to
force my opinion on you. Let’s back up and try again.”

This was a crucial conversation, and Kevin played no games

whatsoever. He didn’t resort to silence like his colleagues, nor

did he try to force his arguments on others. As a result, the team
chose a far more reasonable location and Kevin’s boss appreci­
ated his candor.

When Kevin was done, one of his peers turned to us and said,
“Did you see how he did that? If you want to know how he gets

things done, figure out what he just did.”
So we did. In fact, we spent the next twenty-five years discov­

ering what Kevin and people like him do. What typically set


them apart from the rest of the pack was their ability to deal with
crucial conversations. When talking turned tough and stakes
were high, they excelled. But how? Kevin wasn’t that different.
He did step up to a tough issue and help the team make a better
choice, but what exactly did he do? Did he possess learnable

skills, or was what he did more magical than manageable?
To answer these questions, first, let’s explore what Kevin was

able to achieve. This will help us see where we’re trying to go. Then
we’ll examine the dialogue tools effective communicators routinely

use and learn to apply them to our own crucial conversations.


If you’ve seen the movie City Slickers, you may remember a scene
where the crusty character Curly explains that if you want to suc­

ceed in life you have to do one thing. Then, in typical Hollywood
fashion, he explains that he’s not about to tell you what that one
thing is. You have to figure it out yourself.

We won’t pull a Curly. We’ll reveal the one thing. When it

comes to risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled
people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves

and others) out into the open.
That’s it. At the core of every successful conversation lies the

free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly

express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their
theories. They willingly and capably share their views, even when
their ideas are controversial or unpopular. It’s the one thing, and
it’s precisely what Kevin and the other extremely effective com­
municators we studied were routinely able to achieve.

Now, to put a label on this spectacular talent-it’s called dia­

di·a·logue or di·a·log (di’ a-lOg”, -log) n
The free flow of meaning between two or more people.



Despite the fact that we’ve shared the one thing, we’re still left
with two questions. First, how does this free flow of meaning lead
to success? Second, what can you do to encourage meaning to

flow freely?

We’ll explain the relationship between the free flow of mean­
ing and success right here and now. The second question-what
you must do to stay in dialogue, no matter the circumstances­
takes the rest of the book.

Fill ing the Pool of Shared Meaning

Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings,

theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique
combination of thoughts and feelings makes up our personal
pool of meaning. This pool not only informs us but also propels

our every action.
When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by defi­

nition we don’t share the same pool. Our opinions differ. I

believe one thing, you another. I have one history, you another.
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.

As the Pool of Shared Meaning grows, it helps people in
two ways. First, as individuals are exposed to more accurate

and relevant information, they make better choices. In a very
real sense, the Pool of Shared Meaning is a measure of a
group’s IQ. The larger the shared pool, the smarter the deci­
sions. And even though many people may be involved in a
choice. when people openly and freely share ideas, the


increased time investment is more than offset by the quality of
the decision.

On the other hand, we’ve all seen what happens when the
shared pool is dangerously shallow. When people purposefully
withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people
can do collectively stupid things.

For example, a client of ours shared the following story.
A woman checked into the hospital to have a tonsillectomy,

and the surgical team erroneously removed a portion of her foot.
How could this tragedy happen? In fact, why is it that ninety­
eight thousand hospital deaths each year stem from human
error?! In part because many health-care professionals are afraid
to speak their minds. In this case, no less than seven people won­
dered why the surgeon was working on the foot, but said noth­
ing. Meaning didn’t freely flow because people were afraid to
speak up.

Of course, hospitals don’t have a monopoly on fear. In every
instance where bosses are smart, highly paid, confident, and out­
spoken (i.e., most of the world), people tend to hold back their
opinions rather than risk angering someone in a position of power.

On the other hand, when people feel comfortable speaking up
and meaning does flow freely, the shared pool can dramatically
increase a group’s ability to make better decisions. Consider what
happened to Kevin’s group. As everyone on the team began to
explain his or her opinion, people formed a more clear and com­
plete picture of the circumstances.

As they began to understand the whys and wherefores of dif­
ferent proposals, they built off one another. Eventually, as one
idea led to the next, and then to the next, they came up with an
alternative that no one had originally thought of and that all
wholeheartedly supported. As a result of the free flow of mean­
ing, the whole (final choice) was truly greater than the sum of the
original parts. In short:


The Pool of Shared Meaning

is the birthplace of synergy.

Not only does a shared pool help individuals make better

choices, but since the meaning is shared, people willingly act on

whatever decisions they make. As people sit through an open

discussion where ideas are shared, they take part in the free flow

of meaning. Eventually they understand why the shared solution
is the best solution, and they’re committed to act. For example,

Kevin and the other VPs didn’t buy into their final choice simply

because they were involved; they bought in because they under­

Conversely, when people aren’t involved, when they sit back

quietly during touchy conversations, they’re rarely committed to

the final decision. Since their ideas remain in their heads and

their opinions never make it into the pool, they end up quietly

criticizing and passively resisting. Worse still, when others force

their ideas into the pool, people have a harder time accepting the

information. They may say they’re on board, but then walk away
and follow through halfheartedly. To quote Samuel Butler, “He

that complies against his will is of his own opinion still.”

The time you spend up front establishing a shared pool of

meaning is more than paid for by faster, more committed action

later on.
For example, if Kevin and the other leaders had not been

committed to their relocation decision, terrible consequences
would have followed. Some people would have agreed to move;

others would have dragged their feet. Some would have held

heated discussions in the hallways. Others would have said noth­
ing and then quietly fought the plan. More likely than not, the
team would have been forced to meet again, discuss again, and

decide again-since only one person favored the decision and the

decision affected everyone.


Now, don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that every
decision be made by consensus or that the boss shouldn’t take
part in or even make the final choice. We’re simply suggesting

that whatever the decision-making method, the greater the
shared meaning in the pool, the better the choice-whoever

makes it.
Every time we find ourselves arguing, debating, running away,

or otherwise acting in an ineffective way, it’s because we don’t
know how to share meaning. Instead of engaging in healthy dia­
logue, we play silly and costly games.

For instance, sometimes we move to silence. We play Salute
and Stay Mute. That is, we don’t confront people in positions of
authority. Or at home we may play Freeze Your Lover. With this
tortured technique we give loved ones the cold shoulder in order
to get them to treat us better (what’s the logic in that?).

Sometimes we rely on hints, sarcasm, innuendo, and looks of
disgust to make our points. We play the martyr and then pretend
we’re actually trying to help. Afraid to confront an individual, we
blame an entire team for a problem-hoping the message will hit
the right target. Whatever the technique, the overall method is
the same. We withhold meaning from the pool. We go to silence.

On other occasions, not knowing how to stay in dialogue, we
rely on violence-anything from subtle manipulation to verbal
attacks. We act like we know everything, hoping people will

believe our arguments. We discredit others, hoping people won’t
believe their arguments. And then we use every manner of force
to get our way. We borrow power from the boss; we hit people
with biased monologues. The goal, of course, is always the
same-to compel others to our point of view.

Now, here’s how the various elements fit together. When stakes
are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, we’re often at
our worst. In order to move to our best, we have to find a way to
explain what is in each of our personal pools of meaning-


especially our high-stakes, sensitive, and controversial opinions,

feelings, and ideas-and to get others to share their pools. We
have to develop the tools that make it safe for us to discuss these

issues and to come to a shared pool of meaning. And when we do,
our lives change.


And now for the really good news. The skills required to master
high-stakes interactions are quite easy to spot and moderately
easy to learn. First consider the fact that a well-handled crucial
conversation all but leaps out at you. In fact, when you see some­
one enter the dangerous waters of a high-stakes, high-emotion,
controversial discussion-and the person does a particularly

good job-your natural reaction is to step back in awe. “Wow! ”
is generally the first word out of your mouth. What starts as a
doomed discussion ends up with a healthy resolution. It can take

your breath away.
More importantly, not only are dialogue skills easy to spot, but

they’re also fairly easy to learn. That’s where we’re going next.

We’ve isolated and captured the skills of the dialogue-gifted
through twenty-five years of nonstop “Wow! ” research. First we

followed around Kevin and dozens like him. Then, when conver­
sations turned crucial, we took detailed notes. Afterward we
compared our observations, tested our hypotheses, and honed

our models until we found the skills that consistently explain the
success of brilliant communicators. Finally, we combined our

philosophies, theories, models, and skills into a package of learn­

able tools-tools for talking when stakes are high.
Now we’re ready to share what we’ve learned. Stay with us as

we explore how to transform crucial conversations from fright­

ening events into interactions that yield success and results. It’s
the mosl important set of ski l ls you’ll ever master.



Here’s what we’ll focus on in the remainder of the book.
First, we’ll explore the tools people use to help create the con­

ditions of dialogue. The focus is on how we think about problem
situations and what we do to prepare for them. As we work on
ourselves, watch for problems, examine our own thought
processes, discover our own styles, and then catch problems
before they get out of hand, everyone benefits. As you read on,

you will learn how to create conditions in yourself and others

that make dialogue the path of least resistance.

Next, we’ll examine the tools for talking, listening, and acting

together. This is what most people have in mind when they think
of crucial conversations. How do I express delicate feedback?
How do I speak persuasively, not abrasively? And how about lis­
tening? Or better still, what can we do to get people to talk when
they seem nervous? And how do we move from thought to

action? As you read on, you will learn the key skills of talking,

listening, and acting together.

Finally, we’ll tie all of the theories and skills together by pro­

viding both a model and an extended example. Then, to see if
you can really do what it takes, we provide seventeen situations
that would give most of us fits-even people who are gifted at

dialogue. As you read on, you will master the tools for talking

when stakes are high.


More than any time in history mankind faces a

crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter

hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us

pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.


Start with Heart
How to Stay Focused

on What You Really Want

It’s time to tum to the how of dialogue. How do you encourage

the flow of meaning in the face of differing opinions and strong
emotions? Given the average person’s track record, it can’t be all
that easy. In fact, given most people’s long-standing habit of cost­
ly behaviors, it’ll probably require a lot of effort. The truth is,

people can change. In fact, thousands of people we (the authors)
have worked with over the past decades have made lasting

improvements. But it requires work. You can’t simply drink a
magic potion and walk away renewed. Instead, you’ll need to

take a long hard look at yourself.
I n fact, this is the first principle of dialogue-Start with

l leart. That is, your own heart. If you can’t get yourself right,


you’ll have a hard time getting dialogue right. When conversa­
tions become crucial you’ll resort to the forms of communication
that you’ve grown up with-debate, silent treatment, manipula­
tion, and so on.


Let’s start with a true story. Two young sisters and their father scur­

ry into their hotel room after spending a hot afternoon at Disney­
land. Given the repressive heat, the girls have consumed enough
soda pop to fill a small barrel. As the two bursting kids enter their
room, they have but one thought-to head for the head.

Since the bathroom is a one-holer, it isn’t long until a fight
breaks out. Both of the desperate children start arguing, pushing,

and name-calling as they dance around the tiny bathroom. Event­
ually one calls out to her father for help.

“Dad, 1 got here first ! ”
” I know, but 1 need to go worse! ”
“How do you know? You’re not in my body. 1 didn’t even go

before we left this morning!”
“You’re so selfish.”

Dad proposes a plan. “Girls, I’m not going to solve this for
you. You can stay in the bathroom and figure out who goes first

and who goes second. There’s only one rule. No hitting.”
As the two antsy kids begin their crucial conversation, Dad

checks his watch. He wonders how long it’ll take. As the minutes
slowly tick away, he hears nothing more than an occasional out­
burst of sarcasm. Finally after twenty-five long minutes, the toi­
let flushes. One girl comes out. A minute later, another flush and
out walks her sister. With both girls in the room, Dad asks, “Do
you know how many times both of you could have gone to the

bathroom in the time it took you to work that out?”
The idea had not occurred to the little scamps, but the instant

it does, it’s obvious what both immediately conclude.


“Lots of times, if she hadn’t been such a jerk.”

“Listen to her. She’s calling me names when she could have
just waited. She always has to have her way!”


Laugh as we may at this story, these two kids behave no differ­
ently from the rest of us. When faced with a failed conversation,
most of us are quick to blame others. If others would only

change, then we’d all live happily ever after. If others weren’t so
screwed up, we wouldn’t have to resort to silly games in the first

place. They started it. It’s their fault, not ours. And so on.
Although it’s true that there are times when we are merely

bystanders in life’s never-ending stream of head-on collisions,

rarely are we completely innocent. More often than not, we do
something to contribute to the problems we’re experiencing.

People who are best at dialogue understand this simple fact and

tum it into the principle “Work on me first.” They realize that not
only are they likely to benefit by improving their own approach,
but also that they’re the only person they can work on anyway. 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.

There’s a certain irony embedded in this fact. People who

believe they need to start with themselves do just that. As they
work on themselves, they also become the most skilled at dia­
logue. So here’s the irony. It’s the most talented, not the least tal­
ented, who are continually trying to improve their dialogue
skills. As is often the case, the rich get richer.


Okay, let’s assume we need to work on our own personal dia­
lugue ski l ls . Instead of buying this book and then handing it to a


loved one or coworker and saying: “You’ll love this, especially

the parts that I’ve underlined for you,” we’ll try to figure out how
we ourselves can benefit. But how? Where do we start? How can

we stay clear of unhealthy games?
Although it’s difficult to describe the specific order of events

in an interaction as fluid as a crucial conversation, we do know
one thing for certain: Skilled people Start with Heart. That is,
they begin high-risk discussions with the right motives, and they
stay focused no matter what happens.

They maintain this focus in two ways. First, they’re steely-eyed
smart when it comes to knowing what they want. Despite con­
stant invitations to slip away from their goals, they stick with
them. Second, skilled people don’t make Sucker’s Choices

(either/or choices) . Unlike others who justify their unhealthy
behavior by explaining that they had no choice but to fight or
take flight, the dialogue-smart believe that dialogue, no matter

the circumstances, is always an option.
Let’s look at each of these important heart-based assumptions

in turn.


To see how the desires of our hearts can affect our ability to stay
in dialogue, let’s take a look at a real-life example.

Greta, the CEO of a mid-sized corporation, is two hours into

a rather tense meeting with her top leaders. For the past six
months she has been on a personal campaign to reduce costs.
Little has been accomplished to date, so Greta calls the meeting.

Surely people will tell her why they haven’t started cutting costs.
After all, she has taken great pains to foster candor.

Greta has just opened the meeting to questions when a man­
ager haltingly rises to his feet, fidgets, stares at the floor, and
then nervously asks if he can ask a very tough question. The way


the fellow emphasizes the word very makes it sound as if he’s
about to accuse Greta of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The frightened manager continues.
“Greta, you’ve been at us for six months to find ways to cut

costs. I’d be lying if I said that we’ve given you much more than

a lukewarm response. If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about
one thing that’s making it tough for us to push for cost cuts.”

“Great. Fire away,” Greta says as she smiles in response.
“Well, while you’ve been asking us to use both sides of our paper

and forego improvements, you’re having a second office built.”
Greta freezes and turns bright red. Everyone looks to see what

will happen next. The manager plunges on ahead.
“The rumor is that the furniture alone will cost $ 1 50,000. Is

that right?”
So there we have it. The conversation has just turned crucial.

Someone has just poured a rather ugly tidbit into the pool of

meaning. Will Greta continue to encourage honest feedback, or
will she shut the fellow down?

We call this a crucial conversation because how Greta acts
during the next few moments will not only set people’s attitudes
toward the proposed cost cutting, but will also have a huge

impact on what the other leaders think about her. Does she walk
the talk of openness and honesty? Or is she a raging hypocrite­
like so many of the senior executives who came before her?

Will We Get Hooked?

How Greta behaves during this crucial conversation depends a
great deal on how she handles her emotions while under attack.
Sure, when she’s giving a speech or writing a memo, she’s all for

candor. She’s a veritable cheerleader for candor. But what about

now? Will Greta thank the fellow for taking a huge risk and
being honest?


If she’s like most of us, Greta will defend herself. When we’re
in the throes of high-stakes conversations, new (and less healthy)
motives often supplant our original, more noble ones. If you are
standing in front of a potentially hostile crowd, it’s a good bet
you will change your original goal to the new goal of protecting
your public image.

“Excuse me,” you might respond. “I don’t think that my new
office is an appropriate topic for this forum.”

Bang. You’re dead. In one fell swoop you’ve lost buy-in,
destroyed any hope for candor in this particular conversation,

and confirmed everyone’s suspicion that you want honesty-but
only as long as it makes you look good.


In reality, Greta didn’t give in to her raging desire to defend her­
self. After being accused of not following her own advice, at first
she looked surprised, embarrassed, and maybe even a little
upset. Then she took a deep breath and said: “You know what?
We need to talk about this. I’m glad you asked the question. It’ll
give us a chance to discuss what’s really going on.”

And then Greta talked turkey. She explained that she felt the
office was necessary but admitted that she had no idea what it

would cost. So she sent someone to check the numbers.

Meanwhile, she explained that building the office was a response
to marketing’s advice to boost the company’s image and improve

client confidence. And while Greta would use the office, it would
be primarily a hosting location for marketing. When she saw the
figures for the office, Greta was stunned and admitted that she
should have checked the costs before signing a work order. So
then and there she committed to drawing up a new plan that

would cut costs by half or canceling the project entirely.


Later that day we asked Greta how she had been able to keep
her composure under fire. We wanted to know exactly what had
been going on in her head. What had helped her move from
embarrassment and anger to gratitude?

“It was easy,” Greta explained. “At first I did feel attacked,
and I wanted to strike back. To be honest, I wanted to put that
guy in his place. He was accusing me in public and he was

“And then it struck me,” she continued. “Despite the fact that I
had four hundred eyeballs pinned to me, a rather important ques­
tion hit me like a ton of bricks: ‘What do I really want here?'”

Asking this question had a powerful effect on Greta’s think­
ing. As she focused on this far more important question, she
quickly realized that her goal was to encourage these two hun­
dred managers to embrace the cost-reduction efforts-and to
thereby influence thousands of others to do the same.

As Greta contemplated this goal, she realized that the biggest
barrier she faced was the widespread belief that she was a hyp­
ocrite. On the one hand, she was calling for others to sacrifice.
On the other, she appeared to be spending discretionary funds for
her own comfort. It was at that moment that she was no longer
ashamed or angry, but grateful. She couldn’t have asked for a bet­
ter opportunity to influence these leaders than the one offered up
by this penetrating question. And so she moved to dialogue.

Refocus your brain. Now, let’s move to a situation you might
face. You’re speaking with someone who completely disagrees
with you on a hot issue. How does all of this goal stuff apply? As
you begin the discussion, start by examining your motives. Going
in, ask yourself what you really want.

Also, as the conversation unfolds and you find yourself start­

i ng to, say, defer to the boss or give your spouse the cold shoul­
der, pay attention to what’s happening to your objectives. Are


you starting to change your goal to save face, avoid embarrass­
ment, win, be right, or punish others? Here’s the tricky part. Our
motives usually change without any conscious thought on our
part. When adrenaline does our thinking for us, our motives flow
with the chemical tide.

In order to move back to motives that allow for dialogue, you
must step away from the interaction and look at yourself­
much like an outsider. Ask yourself: “What am I doing, and if I
had to guess, what does it tell me about my underlying motive?”
As you make an honest effort to discover your motive, you
might conclude: “Let’s see. I’m pushing hard, making the argu­
ment stronger than I actually believe, and doing anything to
win. I’ve shifted from trying to select a vacation location to try­
ing to win an argument.”

Once you call into question the shifting desires of your heart,
you can make conscious choices to change them. “What I really
want is to genuinely try to select a vacation spot we can all
enjoy-rather than try to win people over to my ideas.” Put suc­
cinctly, when you name the game, you can stop playing it.

But how? How do you recognize what has happened to you,
stop playing games, and then influence your own motives? Do
what Greta did. Stop and ask yourself some questions that
return you to dialogue. You can ask these questions either when

you find yourself slipping out of dialogue or as reminders when
you prepare to step up to a crucial conversation. Here are some
great ones:

What do I really want for myself?

What do I really want for others?

What do I really want for the relationship?

Once you’ve asked yourself what you want, add one more
equally telling question:


How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Find your bearings. There are two good reasons for asking these
questions. First, the answer to what we really want helps us to
locate our own North Star. Despite the fact that we’re being tempt­
ed to take the wrong path by ( 1 ) people who are trying to pick a
fight, (2) thousands of years of genetic hardwiring that brings our
emotions to a quick boil, and (3) our deeply ingrained habit of try­
ing to win, our North Star returns us to our original purpose.

“What do I really want? Oh yeah, I guess it’s not to make
the other person squirm or to preen in front of a crowd. I
want people to freely and openly talk about what it’ll take

to cut costs.”

Take charge of your body. The second reason for asking what
we really want is no less important. When we ask ourselves what
we really want, we affect our entire physiology. As we introduce
complex and abstract questions to our mind, the problem-solv­
ing part of our brain recognizes that we are now dealing with

intricate social issues and not physical threats. When we present
our brain with a demanding question, our body sends precious
blood to the parts of our brain that help us think, and away from
the parts of our body that help us take flight or begin a fight.

Asking questions about what we really want serves two
important purposes. First, it reminds us of our goal. Second, it
juices up our brain in a way that helps us keep focused.

Common Deviations

As we step up to a crucial conversation, fully intending to stim­
u late the flow of meaning, many of us quickly change our origi­

I la l objectives to much less healthy goals. For instance, when
Greta fel l under public attack, her immediate reaction was to do


whatever it took to save face. Other common, but not·all-that­

healthy, objectives include wanting to win, seeking revenge, and
hoping to remain safe.

Wanting to win. This particular dialogue killer sits at the top
of many of our lists. Heaven only knows that we come by this
deadly passion naturally enough. Half of the lV programs we
watch make heroes out of people who win at sports or game
shows. Ten minutes into kindergarten we learn that if we want
to get the teacher’s attention, we have to spout the right answer.

That means we have to beat our fellow students at the same
game. This desire to win is built into our very fiber before we’re

old enough to know what’s going on.
Unfortunately, as we grow older, most of us don’t realize that

this desire to win is continually driving us away from healthy dia­
logue. We start out with the goal of resolving a problem, but as
soon as someone raises the red flag of inaccuracy or challenges
our correctness, we switch purposes in a heartbeat.

First we correct the facts. We quibble over details and point
out flaws in the other person’s arguments.

“You’re wrong! We’re not spending anywhere near a hun­
dred and fifty thousand dollars on the furniture. It’s the
redesign of the office that’s costing so much, not the fur­

Of course, as others push back, trying to prove their points,
it’s not long until we change our goal from correcting mistakes
to winning.

If you doubt this simple allegation, think of the two antsy

young girls as they stared each other down in the cramped bath­
room. Their original goal was simple enough-relief. But soon,
caught up in their own painful game, the two set their jaws and
committed to doing whatever it took to win-even if it brought
them a fair amount of personal discomfort.


Seeking revenge. Sometimes, as our anger increases, we move
from wanting to win the point to wanting to harm the other per­
son. Just ask Greta. “To heck with honest communication!” she
thinks to herself. “I’ll teach the moron not to attack me in pub­
lic.” Eventually, as emotions reach their peak, our goal becomes
completely perverted. We move so far away from adding mean­
ing to the pool that now all we want is to see others suffer.

“I can’t believe that you’re accusing me of squandering
good money on a perfectly fine office. Now, if nobody else
has any intelligent questions, let’s move on!”

Everyone immediately clams up and looks at the floor. The
silence is deafening.

Hoping to remain safe. Of course, we don’t always fix mis­

takes, aggressively discredit others, or heartlessly try to make

them suffer. Sometimes we choose personal safety over dialogue.

Rather than add to the pool of meaning, and possibly make

waves along the way, we go to silence. We’re so uncomfortable

with the immediate conflict that we accept the certainty of bad

results to avoid the possibility of uncomfortable conversation.

We choose (at least in our minds) peace over conflict. Had this

happened in Greta’s case, nobody would have raised concerns

over the new office, Greta never would have learned the real

issue, and people would have continued to drag their feet.


Now, let’s add one more tool that helps us focus on what we real­
ly want. We’ll start with a story.

The faculty of Beaumont High School is hashing out possible

curriculum changes in an after-school meeting that’s been going
on for hours. It’s finally the science department’s turn to present.

Roycc, a chemistry tcacher who’s been at Beaumont for


thirty-three years, considers himself the elder statesman of
the school. He’s much more fond of war stories than he is of
neutrons and electrons, but the administration kind of turns
a blind eye, because the guy’s a fixture.

At the principal’s cue, Royce clears his throat and begins to

yammer on incoherently about the similarities between curricu­

lum development and battle preparations. His antics are so

embarrassing that the audience quietly heaves their shoulders as

they futilely try to stifle their laughter.

Next, it’s Brent’s, the new guy’s, turn. A couple of weeks ago,

the principal asked him to outline the science department’s pro­

posed curriculum changes. Brent met with his colleagues (even

Royce), gathered suggestions, and came ready to present.

As Brent begins, Royce starts demonstrating bayonet offen­

sives with a yardstick, and Brent snaps. Slamming his fist on the

table, he shouts, “Am I the only one who wonders why we even

allow this fosil to talk? Did he miss a pill or something?”

A room full of stunned faces turns toward Brent. Realizing

that his colleagues must think he’s possessed, Brent utters those

words we’ve all come to hate, “Hey, don’t look at me like that!

I’m the only one around who has the guts to speak the truth.”
What a tactic. Brent slams Royce in public, and then instead

of apologizing or maybe simply fading into the shadows, he

argues that what he just did was somehow noble.

Two ugly options. This pernicious strategy is particularly well

suited for keeping us off track. It’s known as a Sucker’s Choice.

In order to justify an especially sordid behavior, we suggest that

we’re caught between two distasteful options. Either we can be

honest and attack our spouse, or we can be kind and withhold

the truth. Either we can disagree with the boss to help make a

better choice-and get shot for it-or we can remain quiet,

starve the pool, and keep our job. Pick your poison.


What makes these Sucker’s Choices is that they’re always
set up as the only two options available. It’s the worst of
either/or thinking. The person making the choice never sug­
gests there’s a third option that doesn’t call for unhealthy
behavior. For example, maybe there’s a way to be honest and

respectful. Perhaps we can express our candid opinion to our
boss and be safe.

Those offering up a Sucker’s Choice either don’t think of a
third (and healthy) option-in which case it’s an honest but
tragic mistake-or set up the false dichotomy as a way of jus­
tifying their unattractive actions. “I’m sorry, but I just had to
destroy the guy’s self-image if I was going to keep my integrity.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was the right thing to do.”

Open Yourself to Change

Not only do Sucker’s Choices set us up to take ineffective
actions, but they close us down to change. They present our
brain with problems easily solved with restricted blood flow.
After all, if we are simply choosing between fight and flight,
who needs much creative thought?

They also keep us stuck in ineffective strategies by justifying
our attacking or retreating behaviors. Why alter our behavior
when we’re the only one savvy enough to keep quiet? “Stand
up to my boss? What turnip wagon did you just fall off?” “Tell
my spouse that her parental style is too controlling? No way.
I ‘ll pay for years.” In a similar vein, why would you ever change
when you think you’re the only one around with an ounce of
integrity? “Somebody has to state the ugly truth. It’s the only
way I can look myself in the mirror.”

I n summary, Sucker’s Choices are simplistic tradeoffs that
keep us r rom thinking creatively of ways to get to dialogue, and

that justify our silly games.


So how do we break away from perverted logic that keeps us

trapped in hurtful behavior?

Search for the Elusive And

The best at dialogue refuse Sucker’s Choices by setting up new
choices. They present themselves with tougher questions­
questions that turn the either/or choice into a search for the all­
important and ever-elusive and. (It is an endangered species,
you know.) Here’s how this works.

First, clarify what you really want. You’ve got a head start if
you’ve already Started with Heart. If you know what you want
for yourself, for others, and for the relationship, then you’re in
position to break out of the Sucker’s Choice.

“What I want is for my husband to be more reliable. I’m
tired of being let down by him when he makes commit­
ments that I depend on.”

Second, clarify what you really don’t want. This is the key to
framing the and question. Think of what you are afraid will
happen to you if you back away from your current strategy of
trying to win or stay safe. What bad thing will happen if you
stop pushing so hard? Or if you don’t try to escape? What hor­
rible outcome makes game-playing an attractive and sensible

“What I don’t want is to have a useless and heated conver­
sation that creates bad feelings and doesn’t lead to change.”

Third, present your brain with a more complex problem.

Finally, combine the two into an and question that forces you to
search for more creative and productive options than silence and


“How can I have a candid conversation with my husband
about being more dependable and avoid creating bad feel­
ings or wasting our time?”

It’s interesting to watch what happens when people are pre­

sented with and questions after being stuck with Sucker’s

Choices. Their faces become reflective, their eyes open wider,

and they begin to think. With surprising regularity, when people
are asked: “Is it possible that there’s a way to accomplish both?”

they acknowledge that there very well may be.

Is there a way to tell your peer your real concerns and not insult

or offend him?

Is there a way to talk to your neighbors about their annoying

behavior and not come across as self-righteous or demanding?

Is there a way to talk with your loved one about how you’re

spending money and not get into an argument?


Some people find this whole line of thinking comically unrealis­

tic. From their point of view, Sucker’s Choices aren’t false

dichotomies; they’re merely a reflection of an unfortunate reality.

“You can’t say something to the boss about our upcoming

move. It’ll cost you your job.”

To these people we say: Remember Kevin? He, and almost every

other opinion leader we’ve ever studied, has what it takes to speak
up and maintain respect. Maybe you don’t know what Kevin did or

what you need to do-but don’t deny the existence of Kevin or peo­

ple l ike him. There is a third set of options out there that allows you

tu add meaning to the pool and build on the relationship.


When we (the authors) are in the middle of an on-site work­
shop and we suggest there are alternatives to Sucker’s Choicesj
someone invariably says: “Maybe you can speak honestly and

still be heard in other organizations, but if you try it here, you’ll
be eaten alive!” Or the flip side: “You’ve got to know when to
fold if you want to survive for another day.” Then in a hail of “I’ll
say!” and “Here, here! ” many nod in agreement.

At first, we thought that maybe there were places where dia­
logue couldn’t survive. But then we learned to ask: “Are you say­
ing there isn’t anyone you know who is able to hold a high-risk
conversation in a way that solves problems and builds relation­
ships?” There usually is.


Here’s how people who are skilled at dialogue stay focused on
their goals-particularly when the going gets tough.

Work on Me First

• Remember that the only person you can directly control is


Focus on What You Real ly Want

• When you find yourself moving toward silence or violencej
stop and pay attention to your motives.

• Ask yourself: “What does my behavior tell me about what

my motives are?”

• Then, clarify what you really want. Ask yourself: “What do
I want for myself? For others? For the relationship?”

• And finally, ask: “How would I behave if this were what I
really wanted?”


Refuse the Sucker’s Choice

• As you consider what you want, notice when you start talking

yourself into a Sucker’s Choice.

• Watch to see if you’re telling yourself that you must choose
between peace and honesty, between winning and losing,
and so on.

• Break free of these Sucker’s Choices by searching for the

• Clarify what you don’t want, add it to what you do want,
and ask your brain to start searching for healthy options to

bring you to dialogue.

I have known a thousand scampsi
but I never met one who considered himself so.

Self-knowledge isn’t 50 common.

learn to look
How to Notice When Safety

Is at Risk

Let’s start this chapter by visiting a crucial conversation. You’ve
just ended a heated debate with a group of people you supervise.
What started out as a harmless discussion about your new shift
rotations ended up as a nasty argument. Mter an hour of carping

and complaining, you finally went to your separate comers.
You’re now walking down the hall wondering what happened.

In a matter of minutes an innocent discussion had transformed
into a crucial conversation, and then into a failed conversation­
and you can’t recall why. You do remember a tense moment
when you started pushing your point of view a bit too hard
(okay, maybe way too hard) and eight people stared at you as if

you had just bitten the head off a chicken. But then the meeting
ended .


What you don’t realize is that two of your friends are walking
down the hallway in the opposite direction conducting a play-by­
play of the meeting. They do know what took place.

“It happened again. The boss started pushing so hard for per­
sonal agenda items that we all began to act defensively. Did you
notice how at one point all of our jaws dropped simultaneously?
Of course, I was just as bad as the boss. I spoke in absolutes,
only pointed out facts that supported my view, and then ended
with a list of outlandish claims. I got hooked like a marlin.”

Later that day as you talk to your friends about the meeting,
they let you in on what happened. You were there, but somehow
you missed what actually happened.

“That’s because you were so caught up in the content of the
conversation,” your buddy explains. “You cared so deeply about
the shift rotation that you were blind to the conditions. You
know-how people were feeling and acting, what tone they were
taking, stuff like that.”

“You saw all that while still carrying on a heated conversa­
tion?” you ask.

“Yeah,” your coworker explains, “I always dual-process. That
is, when things start turning ugly, I watch the content of the con­
versation along with what people are doing. I look for and exam­
ine both what and why. If you can see why people are becoming
upset or holding back their views or even going silent, you can
do something to get back on track.”

“You look at the ‘conditions,’ and then you know what to do to
get back on track?”

“Sometimes,” your friend answers. “But you’ve got to learn
exactly what to look for.”

“It’s a form of social first aid. By watching for the moment a con­
versation starts turning unhealthy, you can respond quickly. The
sooner you catch a problem, the sooner you’ll be able to work your
way back to healthy dialogue, and the less severe the damage.”


You can’t believe how obvious this advice is-and yet you’ve

never thought of such a thing. Weirder still, your friend has. In
fact, he has a whole vocabulary for what’s going on during a cru­
cial conversation. It’s as if you’ve been speaking another language.


In truth, most of us do have trouble dual-processing (watching
for content and conditions)-especially when it comes to a cru­
cial conversation. When both stakes and emotions are high, we
get so caught up in what we’re saying that it can be nearly impos­

sible to pull ourselves out of the argument in order to see what’s

happening to ourselves and to others. Even when we are startled
by what’s going on, enough so that we think: “Yipes ! This has
turned ugly. Now what?” we may not know what to look for in

order to turn things around. We may not see enough of what’s

How could that be? How could we be smack-dab in the mid­

dle of a heated debate and not really see what’s going on? A
metaphor might help. It’s akin to going fly fishing for the first

time with an experienced angler. Your buddy keeps telling you to
cast your fly six feet upstream from that brown trout “just out
there.” Only you can’t see a brown trout “just out there.” He can.
That’s because he knows what to look for. You think you do. You

think you need to look for a brown trout. In reality, you need to
look for a brown trout that’s under water while the sun is reflect­
ing in your eyes . You have to look for elements other than the
thing that your dad has stuffed and mounted over the fireplace.
I t takes both knowledge and practice to know what to look for

and then actually see it.
So what do you look for when caught in the middle of a cru­

cia l conversation? What do you need to see in order to catch
problems before they become too severe? Actually, it helps to
watch fot’ three d ifferent cond i t ions : the moment a conversation


turns crucial, signs that people don’t feel safe (silence or vio­

lence), and your own Style Under Stress. Let’s consider each of
these conversation killers in turn.

learn to Spot Crucial Conversations

First, stay alert for the moment a conversation turns from a rou­
tine or harmless discussion into a crucial one. In a similar vein,

as you anticipate entering a tough conversation, pay heed to the
fact that you’re about to enter the danger zone. Otherwise, yoti
can easily get sucked into silly games before you realize what’s
happened. And as we suggested earlier, the further you stray off
track, the harder it can be to return.

To help catch problems early, reprogram your mind to pay
attention to the signs that suggest you’re in a crucial conversa­
tion. Some people first notice physical signals-their stomach

gets tight or their eyes get dry. Think about what happens to your
body when conversations get tough. Everyone is a little bit dif·
ferent. What are your cues? Whatever they are, learn to look at

them as signs to step back, slow down, and Start with Heart before
things get out of hand.

Others notice their emotions before they notice signs in theit
body. They realize they are scared, hurt, or angry and are begin­
ning to react to or suppress these feelings. These emotions can
also be great cues to tell you to step back, slow down, and take
steps to turn your brain back on.

Some people’s first cue is not physical or emotional, but

behavioral. It’s like an out-of-body experience. They see them­
selves raising their voice, pointing their finger like a loaded
weapon, or becoming very quiet. It’s only then that they realize
how they’re feeling.

So take a moment to think about some of your toughest con­
versations. What cues can you use to recognize that your brain


is beginning to disengage and you’re at risk of moving away from

healthy dialogue?

learn to look for Safety Problems

If you can catch signs that the conversation is starting to tum cru­
cial-before you get sucked so far into the actual argument that
you can never withdraw from the content-then you can start
dual-processing immediately. And what exactly should you watch

for? People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on
safety. They pay attention to the content-that’s a given-and
they watch for signs that people are afraid. When friends, loved
ones, or colleagues move away from healthy dialogue (freely
adding to the pool of meaning)-either forcing their opinions

into the pool or purposefully keeping their ideas out of the pool­
they immediately tum their attention to whether or not others feel

When it’s safe, you can say anything. Here’s why gifted com­
municators keep a close eye on safety. Dialogue calls for the free
flow of meaning-period. And nothing kills the flow of meaning

like fear. When you fear that people aren’t buying into your
ideas, you start pushing too hard. When you fear that you may
be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding. Both
these reactions-to fight and to take flight-are motivated by
the same emotion: fear. On the other hand, if you make it safe
enough, you can talk about almost anything and people wi1l lis­
ten. If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated,
you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

Think about your own experience. Can you remember receiv­
ing really blistering feedback from someone at some point in your

l i fe, but in this instance you didn’t become defensive? Instead,
you absorbed the feedback. You reflected on it. You allowed it to
influence you. If so, ask yourself why. Why in this instance were


you able to absorb potentially threatening feedback so well? If
you’re like the rest of us, it’s because you believed that the other
person had your best interest in mind. In addition, you respected
the other person’s opinion. You felt safe receiving the feedback
because you trusted the motives and ability of the other person.
You didn’t need to defend yourself from what was being said.

On the other hand, if you don’t feel safe, you can’t take any
feedback. It’s as if the pool of meaning has a lid on it. “What do
you mean I look good? Is that some kind of joke? Are you rib­

bing me?” When you don’t feel safe, even well-intended com­
ments are suspect.

When it’s unsafe, you start to go blind. By carefully watching

for safety violations, not only can you see when dialogue is in
danger, but you can also reengage your brain. As we’ve said
before, when your emotions start cranking up, key brain func­
tions start shutting down. Not only do you prepare to take flight,
but your peripheral vision actually narrows. In fact, when you

feel genuinely threatened, you can scarcely see beyond what’s
right in front of you. Similarly, when you feel the outcome of a
conversation is being threatened, you have a hard time seeing
beyond the point you’re trying to make. By pulling yourself out
of the content of an argument and watching for fear, you reen­

gage your brain and your full vision returns.
Don’t let safety problems lead you astray. Let’s add a note of

caution. When others begin to feel unsafe, they start doing nasty
things. Now, since they’re feeling unsafe, you should be thinking
to yourself: “Hey, they’re feeling unsafe. I need to do some­

thing-maybe make it safer.” That’s what you should be think­
ing. Unfortunately, since others feel unsafe, they may be trying to
make fun of you, insult you, or bowl you over with their argu­
ments. This kind of aggressive behavior doesn’t exactly bring out
the diplomat in you. So instead of taking their attack as a sign
that safety is at risk, you take it at its face-as an attack. ” I’m


under attack! ” you think. Then you respond in kind. Or maybe
you try to escape. Either way you’re not dual-processing and

then pulling out a skill to restore safety. Instead, you’re becom­

ing part of the problem as you get pulled into the fight.
Imagine the magnitude of what we’re suggesting here. We’re

asking you to recode silence and violence as signs that people are
feeling unsafe. We’re asking you to fight your natural tendency

to respond in kind. We’re asking you to undo years of practice,
maybe even eons of genetic shaping that prod you to take flight
or pick a fight (when under attack), and recode the stimulus.
“Ah, that’s a sign that the other person feels unsafe.” And then
what? Do something to make it safe. In the next chapter we’ll
explore how. For now, simply learn to look for safety and then be
curious, not angry or frightened.

Si lence and Violence

As people begin to feel unsafe, they start down one of two
unhealthy paths. They move either to silence (withholding mean­
ing from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the
pool). That part we know. But let’s add a little more detail. Just
as a little knowledge of what to look for can tum blurry water
into a brown trout, knowing a few of the common forms of
silence and violence helps you see safety problems when they
fi rst start to happen. That way you can step out, restore safety,
and return to dialogue-before the damage is too great.


Si lence consists of any act to purposefully withhold information

from the pool of meaning. It’s almost always done as a means of
avoiding potential problems, and it always restricts the flow of

meaning. Methods range from playing verbal games to avoiding
u person entirely. The three most common forms of silence are

masking. avoiding, and withdrawing.


• Masking consists of understating or selectively showing our
true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching are some
of the more popular forms.

“J think your idea is, uh, brilliant. Yeah, that’s it. J just worry

that others won’t catch the subtle nuances. Some ideas come

before their time, so expect some, uh, minor resistance. ”

Meaning: Your idea is insane, and people will fight it with their
last breath.

“Oh yeah, that’ll work like a charm. Offer people a discount,

and they’ll drive all the way across town just to save six cents

on a box of soap. Where do you come up with this stuff?”

Meaning: What a dumb idea.

• Avoiding involves steering completely away from senSItIve
subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.

“How does your new suit look? Well, you know that blue’s my

favorite color. ”

Meaning: What happened? Did you buy your clothes at the

“Speaking of ideas for cost cutting-did you see Friends last

night? Joey inherited a bunch of money and was buying stu­

pid stuff. It was a hoot. ”

Meaning: Let’s not talk about how to cut costs. It always leads
to a fight.

• Withdrawing means pulling out of a conversation altogether.
We either exit the conversation or exit the room.

“Excuse me. I’ve got to take this call. ”

Meaning: I’d rather gnaw off my own arm than spend one
more minute in this useless meeting.


“Sorry, I’m not going to talk about how to split up the phone

bill again. I’m not sure our friendship can stand another bat­

tle. ” (Exits.)

Meaning: We can’t talk about even the simplest of topics with­
out arguing.


Violence consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince,
control, or compel others to your point of view. It violates safety

by trying to force meaning into the pool. Methods range from
name-calling and monologuing to making threats. The three most
common forms are controlling, labeling, and attacking.

• Controlling consists of coercing others to your way of thinking.
It’s done through either forcing your views on others or domi­

nating the conversation. Methods include cutting others off,
overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, changing sub­
jects, or using directive questions to control the conversation.

‘There’s not a person in the world who hasn ‘t bought one of

these things. They’re the perfect gift. ”

Meaning: I can’t justify spending our hard-earned savings on

this expensive toy, but I really want it.

“We tried their product, but it was an absolute disaster. Every­

one knows that they can ‘t deliver on time and that they offer the

worst customer service on the planet. ”

Meaning: I’m not certain of the real facts so I’ll use hyperbole
to get your attention.

• Labeling is putting a label on people or ideas so we can dis­

miss them under a general stereotype or category .

.. Your ideas are practically Neanderthal. Any thinking person

would follow my plan. ”


Meaning: I can’t argue my case on its merits.

“You’re not going to listen to them are you? For crying out loud!

First, they’re from headquarters. Second, they’re engineers. Need

I say more?”

Meaning: If I pretend that all people from headquarters and all
engineers are somehow bad and wrong, I won’t have to explairl
anything .

• Attacking speaks for itself. You’ve moved from winning the

argument to making the person suffer. Tactics include belittling
and threatening.

“Try that stupid little stunt and see what happens. ”

Meaning: I will get my way on this even if I have to bad-mouth
you and threaten some vague punishment.

“Don’t listen to a word Jim is saying. I’m sorry Jim, but I’m on
to you. You’re just trying to make it better for your team while

making the rest of us suffer. I’ve seen you do it before. You’re

a real jerk, you know that? I’m sorry, but someone has to have

the guts to tell it like it is. ”

Meaning: To get my way I’ll say bad things about you and then
pretend that I’m the only one with any integrity.

look for Your Style Under Stress

Let’s say you’ve been watching for both content and conditions!
You’re paying special attention to when a conversation turns cru­
cial. To catch this important moment, you’re looking for signs

that safety is at risk. As safety is violated, you even know to
watch for various forms of silence and violence. So are you now
fully armed? Have you seen all there is to see?

Actually, no. Perhaps the most difficult element to watch
closely as you’re madly dual-processing is your own behavior.


Frankly, most people have trouble pulling themselves away from
the tractor beam of the argument at hand. Then you’ve got the
problem other people present as they employ all kinds of tactics.
You’ve got to watch them like a hawk. It’s little wonder that pay­
ing close attention to your own behavior tends to take a back­

seat. Besides, it’s not like you can actually step out of your body
and observe yourself. You’re on the wrong side of your eyeballs.

Low selfmonitors. The truth is, we all have trouble monitor­
ing our own behavior at times. We usually lose any semblance of
social sensitivity when we become so consumed with ideas and
causes that we lose track of what we’re doing. We try to bully
our way through. We speak when we shouldn’t. We do things
that don’t work-all in the name of a cause. We eventually
become so unaware that we become a bit like this fellow of Jack
Handy’s invention.

«People were always talking about how mean this guy was
who lived on our block. But I decided to go see for myself.
I went to his door, but he said he wasn’t the mean guy, the
mean guy lived in that house over there. ‘No, you stupid
idiot, ‘ I said, ‘that’s my house. ‘”

Unfortunately, when you fail to monitor your own behavior,
you can look pretty silly. For example, you’re talking to your
spouse about the fact that he or she left you sitting at the auto
repair shop for over an hour. After pointing out that it was a sim­
ple misunderstanding, your spouse exclaims: “You don’t have to
get angry.”

Then you utter those famous words: “I’m not angry!”
Of course, you’re spraying spit as you shout out your denial,

and the vein on your forehead has swelled to the size of a teenage
python . You, quite naturally, don’t see the inconsistency in your
response. You’re in the middle of the whole thing, and you don’t
upprcciatc i t onc bit whcn your spouse laughs at you.


You also play this denial game when you ingenuously answer
the question, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” you whimper. Then you shuffle your feet,
stare at the floor, and look wounded.

Become a Vig i la nt Self- Mon itor

What does it take to be able to step out of an argument and
watch for process-including what you yourself are doing and
the impact you’re having? You have to become a vigilant self­

monitor. That is, pay close attention to what you’re doing and

the impact it’s having, and then alter your strategy if necessary.
Specifically, watch to see if you’re having a good or bad impact
on safety.

Your Style Under Stress Test

What kind of a self-monitor are you? One good way to increase
your self-awareness is to explore your Style Under Stress. What
do you do when talking turns tough? To find out, fill out the sur­
vey on the following pages. Or, for easier scoring, visit www.cru­
cia1conversations.comlsus. It’ll help you see what tactics you

typically revert to when caught in the midst of a crucial conver­
sation. It’ll also help you determine which parts of this book can
be most helpful to you.

Instructions. The following questions explore how you typi­

cally respond when you’re in the middle of a crucial conversa­
tion. Before answering, pick a specific relationship at work or at
home. Then answer the items while thinking about how you typ­
ically approach risky conversations in that relationship.

T F 1 . At times I avoid situations that might bring me into

contact with people I’m having problems with.


T F 2. I have put off returning phone calls or emails
because I simply didn’t want to deal with the person
who sent them.

T F 3 . Sometimes when people bring up a touchy or awk-
ward issue, I try to change the subject.

T F 4. When it comes to dealing with awkward or stress-
ful subjects, sometimes I hold back rather than

give my full and candid opinion.

T F 5 . Rather than tell people exactly what I think, some-
times I rely on jokes, sarcasm, or snide remarks to
let them know I’m frustrated.

T F 6. When I’ve got something tough to bring up, some-
times I offer weak or insincere compliments to soft-
en the blow.

T F 7 . In order to get my point across, I sometimes exag-

gerate my side of the argument.

T F 8. If I seem to be losing control of a conversation, I
might cut people off or change the subject in order
to bring it back to where I think it should be.

T F 9. When others make points that seem stupid to me,

I sometimes let them know it without holding back
at all.

T F 1 0. When I’m stunned by a comment, sometimes I say
things that others might take as forceful or attack-
ing-comments such as “Give me a break! ” or
“That’s ridiculous ! ”

T F 1 1 . Sometimes when things get heated, I move from

arguing against others’ points to saying things that
might hurt them personally.


T F 1 2 . If I get into a heated discussion, I’ve been known

to be tough on the other person. In fact, the person
might feel a bit insulted or hurt.

T F 1 3. When I’m discussing an important topic with others,
sometimes I move from trying to make my point to

trying to win the battle.

T F 1 4. In the middle of a tough conversation, I often get
so caught up in arguments that I don’t see how I’m

coming across to others.

T F 1 5 . When talking gets tough and I do something hurt-

ful, I’m quick to apologize for mistakes.

T F 1 6. When I think about a conversation that took a bad
tum, I tend to focus first on what I did that was
wrong rather than focus on others’ mistakes.

T F 1 7 . When I’ve got something to say that others might

not want to hear, I avoid starting out with tough
conclusions, and instead start with facts that help
them understand where I’m coming from.

T F 1 8. I can tell very quickly when others are holding

back or feeling defensive in a conversation.

T F 1 9. Sometimes I decide that it’s better not to give harsh
feedback because I know that it’s bound to cause

real problems.

T F 20. When conversations aren’t working, I step back

from the fray, think about what’s happening, and

take steps to make it better.

T F 2 1 . When others get defensive because they misunder-
stand me, I quickly get us back on track by clarify-
ing what I do and don’t mean.


T F 22. There are some people I’m rough on because, to be
honest, they need or deserve what I give them.

T F 23. I sometimes make absolute statements like “The
fact is . . . ” or “It’s obvious that . . . ” to be sure I
get my point across.

T F 24. If others hesitate to share their views, I sincerely

invite them to say what’s on their mind, no matter
what it is.

T F 25. At times I argue hard for my view-hoping to keep
others from bringing up opinions that would be a
waste of energy to discuss.

T F 26. Even when things get tense, I adapt quickly to
how others are responding to me and try a new

T F 27. When I find that I’m at cross-purposes with some-
one, I often keep trying to win my way rather than
looking for common ground.

T F 28. When things don’t go well, I’m more inclined to
see the mistakes others made than notice my own


T F 29. After I share strong opinions, I go out of my way
to invite others to share their views, particularly

opposing ones.

T F 30. When others hesitate to share their views, I do
whatever I can to make it safe for them to speak


T F 3 1 . Sometimes I have to discuss things I thought had
been settled because I don’t keep track of what was
discussed before.


T F 32. I find myself in situations where people get their

feelings hurt because they thought they would have
more of a say in final decisions than they end up

T F 33. I get frustrated sometimes at how long it takes

some groups to make decisions because too many
people are involved.

Style U nder Stress Score

Please fill out the score sheets in Figures 4-1 and 4-2. Each

domain contains two to three questions. Next to the question

number is either a (T) or an (F) . For example, under “Masking,”

question 5 on Figure 4- 1 , you’ll find a (T) . This means that if you

answered it true, check the box. With question 1 3 on Figure 4-2,

on the other hand, you’ll find an (F) . Only check that box if you
answered the question false-and so on.

Your Style Under Stress score (Figure 4- 1 ) will show you

which forms of silence or violence you turn to most often. Your

Dialogue Skills score (Figure 4-2) is organized by concept and

chapter so you can decide which chapters may benefit you the


What You r Score Means

Your silence and violence scores give you a measure of how fre­

quently you fall into these less-than-perfect strategies. It’s actu­
ally possible to score high in both. A high score (one or two
checked boxes per domain) means you use this technique fairly

often. It also means you’re human. Most people toggle between
holding back and becoming too forceful.

The seven domains in Figure 4-2 reflect your skills in each of

the corresponding seven skill chapters. If you score high (two or


S i l e n ce D V i o l e n ce D

Masking Controll ing

o 5 (T) o 7 (T)

o 6 (T) o 8 (T)

Avoiding Labeling

o 3 (T) o 9 (T)

o 4 (T) o 1 0 (T)

Withdrawing Attacking

o 1 (T) o 1 1 (T)

o 2 (T) o 1 2 (T)

Figure 4- 1 . Score Sheet for Style Under Stress Assessment

three boxes) in one of these domains, you’re already quite skilled

in this area. If you score low (zero or one), you may want to pay
special attention to these chapters.

Since these scores represent how you typically behave during
stressful or crucial conversations, they can change. Your score
doesn’t represent an inalterable character trait or a genetic

propensity. It’s merely a measure of your behavior-and you can
change that. In fact, people who take this book seriously will

practice the skills contained in each chapter and eventually they
wil l change. And when they do, so will their lives.

What next? Now that you’ve identified your own Style Under
Stress. you have a tool that can help you Learn to Look. That is,
as you enter a touchy conversation, you can make a special effort


Ch 3: Start with Heart Ch 7: STATE My Path

o 1 3 (F) D o 1 7 (T) D
o 1 9 (F) o 23 (F)

o 25 (F) o 29 (T)

Ch 4: Learn to Look Ch 8: Explore Others’

o 1 4 (F) D Paths D o 1 8 (T)
o 20 (T)

o 24 (T) o 26 (T)
o 30 (T)

Ch 5: Make It Safe Ch 9: Move to Action

o 1 5 (T) D o 31 (F) D
o 21 (T) o 32 (F)

o 27 (F) o 33 (F)

Ch 6: Master My

D Stories

o 1 6 (T)

o 22 (F)

o 28 (F)

Figure 4-2. Score Sheet for Dialogue Skills Assessment

to avoid some of your silence or violence habits. Also, when
you’re in the middle of a crucial conversation, you can be more
conscious of what to watch for.


When caught up in a crucial conversation, it’s difficult to see
exactly what’s going on and why. When a discussion starts to
become stressful, we often end up doing the exact opposite of
what works. We tum to the less healthy components of our Style
Under Stress.


learn to look

To break from this insidious cycle, Learn to Look.

• Learn to look at content and conditions.

• Look for when things become crucial.

• Learn to watch for safety problems.

• Look to see if others are moving toward silence or violence.

• Look for outbreaks of your Style Under Stress.


They had ltved together {or so many years that

they mistook their arguments for conversation.


Make It Safe
How to Make It Safe to Talk

about Almost Anything

The last chapter contained a promise: If you spot safety risks as
they happen, you can step out of the conversation, build safety,

and then find a way to dialogue about almost anything. In this
chapter we’ll fulfill that promise by teaching what it takes to
restore safety.

To get started, let’s examine a situation where safety is at risk.
We’ll eavesdrop on a couple as they try to discuss one of the
most delicate of topics-physical intimacy.

First a little background. Jotham thinks he and Yvonne are inti­
mate with each other far too seldom. Yvonne is satisfied with their
physical relationship. For years the two have acted out rather than
talked out their concerns. When Jotham wants to be amorous and


Yvonne doesn’t respond, he goes to silence. He pouts, says almost
nothing, and avoids Yvonne for the next few days.

Yvonne knows what’s going on with Jotham. Occasionally
she’ll go along with him even when she’s not feeling particularly
romantic. She does this in hopes of avoiding Jotham’s pouting.

Unfortunately, she then feels resentful toward Jotham, and it’s
much longer before she feels genuinely romantic toward him.

So here’s the game. The more Jotham insists and pouts, the less

attractive and interesting he is to Yvonne. The more Yvonne suc­
cumbs and then resents, the less she’s interested in the entire rela­
tionship. The more both of them act out rather than talk out this
crucial conversation, the more likely they are to end up going
their separate ways. Yvonne has decided to broach the subject
with Jotham. Rather than waiting until they’re both upset, she’s
picked a time when they’re relaxing on the couch. Here goes.

YVONNE: Jotham, can we talk about what happened last

night-you know, when I told you that I was tired?

JOTHAM: I don’t know if I’m in the mood.

YVONNE: What’s that supposed to mean?

JOTHAM: I’m sick and tired of you deciding when we do
what !

YVONNE: (walks out)


Okay, let’s look at Yvonne. She tried to tackle a tough topic.

Good for her. She was already uncomfortable and her partner
took a cheap shot at her. Some help he was. Now what should
she do? How can she get back to honest and healthy dialogue?

What do you do when you don’t feel like it’s safe to share what’s
on your mind?


The key is to step out of the content of the conversation. Don’t

stay stuck in what’s being said. Yvonne exited because she was

focused on what Jotham was saying. If she had been looking at

Jotham’s behavior, she would have spotted his use of sarcasm­

a form of masking. Rather than talking out his concern, he’s tak­

ing a potshot. Why would he do that? Because he doesn ‘t feel

safe using dialogue. But Yvonne missed this point.
Now, we’re not suggesting that Jotham’s behavior is acceptable,

or that Yvonne should put up with it. But first things first-Start

with Heart. The first question is: “What do I really want?”

If you really want to have a healthy conversation about a topic

that will make or break your relationship, then for a moment or

two you may have to set aside confronting the current issue­

i.e., Jotham’s sarcasm.

Yvonne’s challenge here is to build safety-enough so that she

can talk about their physical relationship, about the way Jotham

is dealing with it, or about any other concerns. But if she doesn’t

make it safe, all she’s going to get is a continuation of the silence
and violence games.

So, what should she do?

In these circumstances, the worst at dialogue do what both

Jotham and Yvonne did. Like Jotham, they totally ignore the cry­
ing need for more safety. They say whatever is on their minds­

with no regard for how it will be received. Or like Yvonne, they

conclude the topic is completely unsafe and move to silence.

The good realize that safety is at risk, but they fix it in exactly

the wrong way. They try to make the subject more palatable by

sugarcoating their message. “Oh, honey, I really want to be with

you but I’m under a lot of pressure at work, and the stress makes

i t hard for me to enjoy our time together. ” They try to make

th ings safer by watering down their content. This strategy, of

l:ourse, avoids the real problem, and it never gets fixed.


The best don’t play games. They know that dialogue is the free
flow of meaning-with no pretending, sugarcoating, or faking.
So they do something completely different. They step out of the
content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.

Once you’ve spotted safety problems, you can talk about the

most challenging of topics by stepping out of the content and

building enough safety that almost anything becomes discussable.

For example: “Can we change gears for a minute? I’d like to talk

about what happens when we’re not romantically in sync. It would

be good if we could both share what’s working and what isn’t. My

goal isn’t to make you feel guilty, and I certainly don’t want to

become defensive. What I’d really love is for us to come up with a

solution that makes us both satisfied in our relationship.”


Now, let’s look at a couple of pieces that help us establish safety­

even when the topic is high risk, controversial, and emotional. The

first step to building more safety is to understand which of the two

conditions of safety is at risk. Each requires a different solution.

Mutual Purpose

Why Ta l k i n the Fi rst Place?

Remember the last time someone gave you difficult feedback and

you didn’t become defensive? Say a friend said some things to

you that most people might get upset over. In order for this per­

son to be able to deliver the delicate message, you must have

believed he or she cared about you, or about your goals and

objectives. That means you trusted his or her purposes so you

were willing to listen to some pretty tough feedback.

Crucial conversations often go awry not because of the con­

tent of the conversation, but because others believe that the


painful and pointed content means that you have a malicious

intent. How can they feel safe when they believe you’re out to do

them harm? Soon, every word out of your mouth is suspect.

Consequently, the first condition of safety is Mutual Purpose.

Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that we are working

toward a common outcome in the conversation, that we care

about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. We

believe they care about ours. Consequently, Mutual Purpose is

the entry condition of dialogue. Find a shared goal and you have

both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.

For example, if Jotham believes that Yvonne’s purpose in rais­

ing this topic is to make him feel guilty or to get her way, this

conversation is doomed from the outset. If he believes she really

cares about making things better for him and herself, she may
have a chance.

Watch for signs that Mutual Purpose is at risk. How do we

know when the safety problem we’re seeing is due to a lack of

Mutual Purpose? It’s actually fairly easy to spot. First and fore­

most, when purpose is at risk, we end up in debate. When others

start forcing their opinions into the pool of meaning, it’s often

because they figure that we’re trying to win and they need to do

the same. Other signs that purpose is at risk include defensiveness,

hidden agendas (the silence form of fouled-up purpose) , accusa­

tions, and circling back to the same topic. Here are some crucial

questions to help us determine when Mutual Purpose is at risk:

• Do others believe I care about their goals in this conversation?

• Do they trust my motives?

Remember the Mutual in Mutual Purpose. Just a word to the
wise. Mutual Purpose is not a technique. To succeed in crucial
conversations, we must really care about the interests of others­
not jus t our own . The purpose has to be truly mutual. If our goal


is to get our way or manipulate others, it will quickly become

apparent, safety will be destroyed, and we’ll be back to silence

and violence in no time. Before you begin, examine your motives.

Ask yourself the Start with Heart questions:

• What do I want for me?

• What do I want for others?

• What do I want for the relationship?

Look for the mutuality. Let’s see how Mutual Purpose applies

to a tough example-one where, at first glance, it might appear

as if your purpose is to make things better for yourself. How can

you find Mutual Purpose in this? Let’s say you’ve got a boss who

frequently fails to keep commitments. How could you tell the

boss you don’t trust him? Surely there’s no way to say this with­

out the boss becoming defensive or vengeful, because he knows

that your goal is merely to make your life better.

To avoid disaster, find a Mutual Purpose that would be so

motivating to the boss that he’d want to hear your concerns. If

your only reason for approaching the boss is to get what you

want, the boss will hear you as critical and selfish-which is what

you are. On the other hand, if you try to see the other person’s

point of view, you can often find a way to draw the other person

willingly into even very sensitive conversations. For example, if

the boss’s behavior is causing you to miss deadlines he cares

about, or incur costs he frets over, or lose productivity that he

worries about, then you’re onto a possible Mutual Purpose.

Imagine raising the topic this way: “I’ve got some ideas for

how I can be much more reliable and even reduce costs by a few

thousand dollars in preparing the report each month. It’s going

to be a bit of a sensitive conversation-but I think it will help a

great deal if we can talk about it.”


Mutual Respect

W i l l We Be Able to Remain i n Dialogue?

While it’s true that there’s no reason to enter a crucial conversaM

tion if you don’t have Mutual Purpose, it’s equally true that you

can’t stay in the conversation if you don’t maintain Mutual

Respect. Mutual Respect is the continuance condition of dia­

logue. As people perceive that others don’t respect them, the

conversation immediately becomes unsafe and dialogue comes to

a screeching halt.

Why? Because respect is like air. If you take it away, it’s all

people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect

in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the origi·

nal purpose-it is now about defending dignity.

For example, you’re talking with a group of supervisors

about a complicated quality problem. You really want to see

the problem resolved once and for all. Your job depends on it.

Unfortunately, you also think the supervisors are overpaid and

underqualified. You firmly believe that not only are they in

over their heads, but they do stupid things all the time. Some

of them even act unethically.

As the supervisors throw out ideas, you roll your eyes. The dis ..

respect you carry in your head creeps out in one unfortunate ges·

ture. And it’s all over. What happens to the conversation despite

the fact that you still share a common objective? It tanks. They

take shots at your proposals. You add insulting adjectives in

describing theirs. As attention turns to scoring points, everyone

loses. Your Mutual Purpose suffers for a lack of Mutual Respect.

Telltale signs. To spot when respect is violated and safety takes

a turn south, watch for signs that people are defending their dig­

nity. Emotions are the key. When people feel disrespected, they

become highly charged. Their emotions tum from fear to anger.


Then they resort to pouting, name-calling, yelling, and making

threats. Ask the following question to determine when Mutual

Respect is at risk:

• Do others believe I respect them?

Ca n You Respect People You Don’t Respect?

Some people fear they’ll never be able to maintain Mutual

Purpose or Mutual Respect with certain individuals or in certain

circumstances. How, they wonder, can they share the same pur­

pose with people who come from completely different back­

grounds or whose morals or values differ from theirs? What do

you do, for example, if you’re upset because another person has

let you down? And if this has repeatedly happened, how can you

respect a person who is so poorly motivated and selfish?

Yvonne is struggling with this exact point. There are times

when she doesn’t even like Jotham. She sees him as whiny and self­

centered. How can you speak respectfully with someone like that?

Dialogue truly would be doomed if we had to share every

objective or respect every element of another person’s character

before we could talk. If this were the case, we’d all be mute. We

can, however, stay in dialogue by finding a way to honor and

regard another person’s basic humanity. In essence, feelings of

disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are differ­

ent from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking

for ways we are similar. Without excusing their behavior, we try

to sympathize, even empathize, with them.

A rather clever person once hinted how to do this in the form

of a prayer-“Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently

than I.” When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s eas­

ier to find a way to respect others. When we do this, we feel a

kinship, a sense of mutuality between ourselves and even the

thorniest of people. It is this sense of kinship and connection to


others that motivates us to enter tough conversations, and it

eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.

Consider the following example. A manufacturing company has

been out on strike for over six months. Finally, the union agrees to

return to work, but the represented employees have to sign a con­

tract that is actually worse than what they were originally demand­

ing. The first day back it’s clear that although people will work,

they won’t do so with a smile and a spring in their step. Everyone

is furious. How are people ever going to move ahead?

Concerned that although the strike is over, the battle isn’t, a

manager asks one of the authors to lend a hand. So he meets with

the two groups of leaders (both managers and union heads) and

asks them to do one thing. Each group is to go into a separate

room and write out its goals for the company on flip-chart-sized

paper. For two hours each group feverishly lays out what it wants

in the future and then tapes the lists to the wall. When they fin­

ish their assignment, the groups then swap places with the goal of

finding anything-maybe just a morsel-but anything they might

have in common.

After a few minutes the two groups return to the training

room. They’re positively stunned. It was as if they had written

the exact same lists. They didn’t merely share the shadow of an

idea or two. Their aspirations were nearly identical. All wanted

a profitable company, stable and rewarding jobs, high-quality

products, and a positive impact on the community. Given a

chance to speak freely and without fear of attack, each group

laid out not simply what it wanted, but what virtually every per­

son wanted.

This experience caused each group to seriously question how

i t had seen the other side. The groups began to see others as

morc similar to themselves. They realized the petty and political

tactics thc others had used were embarrassingly similar to the


ones they themselves had employed. The “sins” of others were

different from their own more because of the role they played

than because of a fundamental blight on their character. They

restored Mutual Respect, and dialogue replaced silence and vio­

lence for the first time in decades .


When you see that either Mutual Respect or Purpose is at risk,

we’ve suggested that you shouldn’t ignore it. We’ve also argued

that you should be able to find a way to both find Mutual

Purpose and enjoy Mutual Respect-even with people who are

enormously different.

But how? What are you supposed to actually do? We’ve

shared a few modest ideas (mostly things to avoid) , so let’s get

into three hard-hitting skills that the best at dialogue use:

• Apologize

• Contrast


Each skill helps rebuild either Mutual Respect or Mutual

Purpose. First, we’ll study them in action. Then, we’ll see if they

might help Yvonne get things back on track.

Where were you ? You’re talking with a group of hourly em­

ployees who worked all night preparing for a factory tour. You

were supposed to bring the division vice president by, and the

team members were then going to update him on a new process

they’ve put into place. They’re proud of some improvements

they’ve recently made-enough so that they willingly worked

straight through the night to finish the last details.

Unfortunately, when it came time to swing by their area, the

visiting VP dropped a bomb. He laid out a plan you’re convinced


would hurt quality and potentially drive away your biggest cus­

tomers. Since you only had another hour with the VP, you chose

to talk through the issue rather than conduct the tour. Your

future depended on that particular conversation. Fortunately,

you were able to avert the plan. Unfortunately, you forgot to get

word to the team that had worked so hard.

As you walked back to your office after escorting the execu­

tive to his car, you bumped into the team. Bleary-eyed and disap­

pointed, all six of them were now fuming. No visit, no phone

call, and now it was clear from the way you were sprinting on by

that you weren’t even going to stop and give them a simple expla­



That’s when things started turning ugly. “We pulled an all­

nighter, and you didn’t even bother to come by! That’s the last

time we’re busting our hump for you !”

Time stands still. This conversation has just turned crucial.

The employees who had worked so hard are obviously upset.

They feel disrespected.

But you miss that point. Why? Because now you feel disre­

spected. They’ve attacked you. So you stay stuck in the content

of the conversation-thinking this has something to do with the

factory tour.

“I had to choose between the future of the company and the

plant tour. 1 chose our future, and I’d do it again if 1 had to.”

Now both you and they are fighting for respect. This is getting

you nowhere fast. But what else could you do?

Instead of getting hooked and fighting back, break the cycle.

Sec their aggressive behavior for what it is-a sign of violated

sa rety-then step out of the conversation, build safety, and step

back into the content. Here’s how.


Apologize When Appropriate

When you’ve made a mistake that has hurt others (e.g., you didn’t

call the team) , start with an apology. An apology is a statement

that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing-or

at least not preventing-pain or difficulty to others.

”I’m sorry I didn’t give you a call when I learned that we

wouldn’t be coming by. You worked all night, it would have

been a wonderful chance to showcase your improvements,

and I didn’t even explain what happened. I apologize.”

Now, an apology isn’t really an apology unless you experience a

change in heart. To offer a sincere apology, your motives have to

change. You have to give up saving face, being right, or winning

in order to focus on what you really want. You have to sacrifice a

bit of your ego by admitting your error. But like many sacrifices,

when you give up something you value, you’re rewarded with

something even more valuable-healthy dialogue and better

results. Then watch to see if this sincere show of respect has

helped restore safety. If it has, you can now explain the details of

what happened. If it hasn’t, you’ll need to use one of the more

advanced skills that follow in the next few pages. In any case, first

make it safe; then return to the issue.

When your behavior has given someone clear cause to doubt

your respect or commitment to Mutual Purpose, your conversa­

tion will end up in silly game-playing and frustrating misunder­

standings until you offer a sincere apology.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

Sometimes others feel disrespected during crucial conversations

even though we haven’t done anything disrespectful. Sure, there

are times when respect gets violated because we behave in clearly

hurtful ways. But just as often, the insult is entirely unintended.


The same can happen with Mutual Purpose. You can start by

innocently sharing your views, but the other person believes your

intention is to beat him or her up or coerce him or her into accept­

ing your opinion. Clearly an apology is not appropriate in these cir­

cumstances. It would be disingenuous to admit you were wrong

when you weren’t. How, then, can you rebuild Mutual Purpose or

Mutual Respect in order to make it safe to get back to dialogue?

When others misinterpret either your purpose or your intent,

step out of the argument and rebuild safety by using a skill called


Contrasting is a don’tldo statement that:

• Addresses others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that

you have a malicious purpose (the don’t part) .

• Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the do

part) .

For example:

[The don’t part] “The last thing I wanted to do was com­

municate that I don’t value the work you put in or that I

didn’t want to share it with the VP.

[The do part] I think your work has been nothing short of

spectacular. ”

Now that you’ve addressed the threat to safety, you can return

to the issue of the visit itself and move to remediation:

“Unfortunately, just when I was starting to make the trip out

here, an issue came up with the VP that I needed to address

right then and there, or it could have cost us a huge piece of

our business. I tell you what-I’ll see if I can get him down

here sometime tomorrow to review your work. He’ll be here

for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Let’s see if we can show off

t he process impl’Ovcments you came up with.”


Of the two parts of Contrasting, the don’t is the more

important because it deals with the misunderstanding that has

put safety at risk. The employees who worked so hard are act­

ing on the belief that you don’t appreciate thejr efforts and

didn’t care enough to keep them informed-when the opposite

was true. So you address the misunderstanding by explaining

what you don’t intend. Once you’ve done this, and safety

returns to the conversation, then you can explain what you do

intend. Safety first.

Let’s go back to Yvonne and Jotham. Yvonne is trying to get

the conversation going, and Jotham suspects her motives. Let’s

see how Contrasting might help her.

YVONNE: I think it makes things worse when you withdraw

and won’t talk to me for days at a time.

JOTHAM: SO you expect me not only to put up with regular

rejection, but also to be sociable and happy when I do?

Jotham appears to believe that Yvonne’s motive is to reshape him.

It’s unsafe. Mutual Purpose is at risk. Rather than responding to

his sarcasm, she should step out of the content and clarify her real


YVONNE: I don’t want to suggest that this problem is yours.

The truth is, I think it’s ours . I’m not trying to put the

burden on you. I don’t even know what the solution is.

What I do want is to be able to talk so that we can under­

stand each other better. Perhaps that will help me change

how I’m responding to you, too.

laTHAM: I know where this is going. We talk, I continue to

get rejected, but you get to feel good about yourself

because “we’ve communicated.” Have you been watching

Oprah again?


Obviously Jotham still believes that Yvonne merely wants to con­

firm that their existing relationship is okay and if she does, she’ll

be able to continue to reject Jotham-but feel good about it.

lotham still feels unsafe. So Yvonne continues to step out and

build safety, using Contrasting.

YVONNE: Seriously, Honey. I’m not interested in discussing

why our current relationship is really okay. I can see that

it isn’t. I merely want to talk about what each of us likes

and doesn’t like. That way we’ll be able to see what we

need to improve and why. My only goal is to come up

with some ideas that will make both of us happy.

JOTHAM: (Changing tone and demeanor) Really? I’m sorry

to be so insecure about this. I know I’m being a bit selfish

about things, but I don’t know how to make myself feel


Contrasting is not apologizing. It’s important to understand

that Contrasting is not apologizing. It is not a way of taking back

something we’ve said that hurt others’ feelings. Rather, it is a

way of ensuring what we said didn’t hurt more than it should

have. Once Yvonne clarified her genuine goals (and not merely

some trumped-up goal that appeals to lotham), lotham felt safer

acknowledging his own contribution, and the two were back in


Contrasting provides context and proportion. When we’re in

the middle of a touchy conversation, sometimes others hear what

we’re saying as bigger or worse than we intend. For example, you

talk with your assistant about his lack of punctuality. When you

share your concern, he appears crushed.

At this point you could be tempted to water down your con­

lent-“You know it’s really not that big a deal.” Don’t do it.

Don’t take back what you’ve said. Instead, put it in context. For


instance, at this point your assistant may believe you are com­

pletely dissatisfied with his performance. He believes that your

view of the issue at hand represents the totality of your respect

for him. If this belief is incorrect, use Contrasting to clarify

what you don’t and do believe. Start with what you don’t


“Let me put this in perspective. I don’t want you to think

I’m not satisfied with the quality of your work. I want us to

continue working together. I really do think you’re doing a

good job. This punctuality issue is important to me, and I’d

just like you to work on that. If you will be more attentive

to that, there are no other issues.”

Use Contrasting for prevention or first aid. Contrasting is use­

ful both as a prevention and as first aid for safety problems. So

far our examples have been of the first-aid type. Someone has

taken something wrong, and we’ve intervened to clarify our true

purpose or meaning.

When we’re aware that something we’re about to drop into

the pool of meaning could create a splash of defensiveness, we

use Contrasting to bolster safety-even before we see others

going to either silence or violence.

“I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate the time

you’ve taken to keep our checkbook balanced and up to

date. I do appreciate it, and I know I certainly couldn’t have

done nearly as well. I do, however, have some concerns

with how we’re using the new electronic banking system.”

When people misunderstand and you start arguing over the

misunderstanding, stop. Use Contrasting. Explain what you

don’t mean until you’ve restored safety. Then return to the

conversation. Safety first.


You Try

Let’s practice. Read the situations below and then come up with

your own Contrasting statements. Remember, contrast what you

don’t want or intend with what you actually do want or intend.

Say it in a way that helps make it safe for the other person.

Angry roommate. You asked your roommate to move her

things in the refrigerator off your shelves and onto her shelves.

You thought it was no big deal, simply a request to share the

space evenly. You have no hidden agenda. You like this roommate

a great deal. She came back with: “There you go again, telling me

how to run my life. I can’t change the vacuum cleaner bag with­

out you jumping in and giving me advice.”

Formulate a Contrasting statement.

I don’t want __________________ _

I do want ___________________ _

Touchy employee. You’re about to talk to Jacob, an employee

who continually blows up when people try to give him feedback.

Yesterday a coworker told Jacob that she’d prefer it if he would

clean up after himself in the lunchroom (something that every­

one else does), and Jacob blew up. You’ve decided to say some­

thing. Of course, you’ll be giving him feedback, and that’s what

usually sets him off, so you’ll need to be careful up front. You’ll

want to set the right tone and lay out the context carefully. After

all, you like Jacob a lot. Everyone does. He has a great sense of

humor and is the most competent and hard-working employee

around. If he could only be less touchy.

Formulate a Contrasting statement.

I don’t want __________________ _

I do want


Chatty teenager. Your teenage nephew moved in with you

when his father (your brother) passed away and your sister-in­

law could no longer handle him. He was starting to hang with

the wrong crowd. He has always gotten along with you, and

things have been going well except in one area: He spends hours

on the phone and Internet-most of his waking hours. In light of

what he could be doing, you’re not really disturbed, but it has

been hard for you to make calls and check your email. You said

something to him about cutting back his time on the phone and

online, and he came back with: “Please don’t send me to a youth

home! I’ll be good ! I promise. I’ll stop talking to my friends; just

don’t send me away.”

Formulate a contrasting statement.

I don’t want. ___________________ _

I do want ___________________ _


Let’s add one more skill. Sometimes we find ourselves in the

middle of a debate because we clearly have different purposes.

There is no misunderstanding here. Contrasting won’t do the

trick. We need something sturdier for this job.

For instance, you’ve just been offered a promotion that will

help propel your career along a faster track and bring you a great

deal more authority, and it pays enough to help soften the blow

of displacement. That last part is important because you’ll have

to move the family across the country and your spouse and kids

love where you currently live.

You expected your spouse to have feelings of ambivalence

over the move, but he or she doesn’t seem to be bivaling even a

tiny bit. To your spouse the promotion is a bad news/bad news

event. First, you have to move, and second, you’ll work even


longer hours . That whole thing about more money and power

doesn’t seem to be compensating. Now what?

The worst at dialogue either ignore the problem and push

ahead or roll over and let others have their way. They opt for

either competition or submission. Both strategies end up making

winners and losers, and the problem continues long beyond the

initial conversation.

The good at dialogue move immediately toward compromise.

For example, the couple facing the transfer sets up two house­

holds-one where one spouse will be working and one where

the family currently lives. Nobody really wants this arrangement,

and frankly, it’s a pretty ugly solution that’s bound to lead to

more serious problems, even divorce. While compromise is

sometimes necessary, the best know better than to start there.

The best at dialogue use four skills to look for a Mutual Purpose.

The four skills they use form the acronym CRIB .

.commit to Seek Mutual Purpose

As is true with most dialogue skills, if you want to get back to dia­

logue, you have to Start with Heart. In this case, you have to agree

to agree. To be successful, we have to stop using silence or vio­

lence to compel others to our view. We must even surrender false

dialogue, where we pretend to have Mutual Purpose (calmly argu­

ing our side until the other person gives in) . We Start with Heart

by committing to stay in the conversation until we come up with

a solution that serves a purpose we both share.

This can be tough. To stop arguing, we have to suspend our

bel ief that our choice is the absolute best and only one, and that

we’ l l never be happy until we get exactly what we currently

want . We have to open our mind to the fact that maybe, just

maybe, there is a different choice out there-one that suits



We also have to be willing to verbalize this commitment even

when our partner seems committed to winning. We act on faith

that our partner is stuck in silence or violence because he or she

feels unsafe. We assume that if we build more safety-by

demonstrating our commitment to finding a Mutual Purpose­

the other person will feel more confident that dialogue could be

a productive avenue.

So next time you find yourself stuck in a battle of wills, try this

amazingly powerful but simple skill. Step out of the content of

the struggle and make it safe. Simply say, “It seems like we’re

both trying to force our view. I commit to stay in this discussion

until we have a solution both of us are happy with.” Then watch

whether safety takes a turn for the better .

.Recognize the Purpose behind the Strategy

Wanting to come up with a shared goal is a wonderful first step,

but it’s not enough. Once we’ve had a change of heart, we need

to change our strategy. Here’s the problem we have to fix: When

we find ourselves at an impasse, it’s because we’re asking for one

thing and the other person is asking for something else. We think

we’ll never find a way out because we equate what we’re asking

for with what we want. In truth, what we’re asking for is the

strategy we’re suggesting to get what we want. We confuse wants

or purpose with strategies. That’s the problem.

For example, I come home from work and say that I want to

go to a movie. You say that you want to stay home and relax.

And so we debate: movie, TV, movie, read, etc. We figure we’ll

never be able to resolve our differences because going out and

staying home are incompatible.

In such circumstances we can break the impasse by asking

others, “Why do you want that?” In this case,


“Why do you want to stay home?”

“Because I’m tired of running around and dealing with the

hassle of the city.”

“So you want peace and quiet?”

“Mostly. And why do you want to go to a movie?”

“So I can spend some time with you away from the kids .”

Before you can agree on a Mutual Purpose, you must know

what people’s real purposes are. So step out of the content of the

conversation-which is generally focused on strategies-and

explore the purposes behind them.

When you do this, new options become possible. When you

release your grip on your strategy and focus on your real pur­

pose, you open up the possibility of finding new alternatives that

can serve Mutual Purpose.

“You want peace and quiet, and I want time with you away

from the kids . So if we can come up with something that is

quiet and away, we’ll both be happy. Is that right?”

“Absolutely. What if we were to take a drive up the

canyon and . . . ”

Invent a Mutual Purpose

Sometimes when we recognize the purposes behind our strategies,

we discover that we actually have compatible goals. From there

you simply come up with common strategies. But we’re not always

so lucky. For example, you find out that your genuine wants and

goals cannot be served except at the expense of the other person’s.

I n this case you cannot discover a Mutual Purpose, so you must

actively invent one.

To invent a Mutual Purpose, move to more encompassing goals.

Find an objective that is more meaningful or more rewarding than


the ones that divide the various sides . For instance, you and your

spouse may not agree on whether or not you should take the pro­

motion, but you can agree that the needs of your relationship

and the children come before career aspirations. By focusing on

higher and longer-term goals, you can find a way to transcend

short-term compromises, build Mutual Purpose, and get to dia­


Ilrainstorm New Strategies

Once you’ve built safety by finding a shared purpose, you should

now have enough safety to return to the content of the conver­

sation. It’s time to step back into the dialogue and brainstorm

strategies that meet everyone’s needs . If you’ve committed to

finding something everyone can agree on, and surfaced what you

really want, you’ll no longer be spending your energy on unpro­

ductive conflict. Instead, you’ll be actively coming up with

options that can serve everyone.

Suspend judgment and think outside the box for new alterna­

tives . Can you find a way to work in a job that is local and still

meets your career goals? Is this job with this company the only

thing that will make you happy? Is a move really necessary in

this new job? Is there another community that could offer your

family the same benefits? If you’re not willing to give creativity

a try, it’ll be impossible for you to jointly come up with a mutu­

ally acceptable option. If you are, the sky’s the limit.

CRIB to Get to Mutual Purpose

So when you sense that you and others are working at cross­

purposes, here’s what you can do. First, step out of the content

of the conflict. Stop focusing on who thinks what. Then CRIB

your way to Mutual Purpose.


• Qommit to seek Mutual Purpose. Make a unilateral public

commitment to stay in the conversation until you come up

with something that serves everyone.

“This isn ‘t working. Your team is arguing to stay late and

work until we’re done, and my team wants to go home and

come back on the weekend. Why don’t we see if we can come

up with something that satisfies everyone?”

• Recognize the purpose behind the strategy. Ask people why

they want what they’re pushing for. Separate what they’re

demanding from the purpose it serves .

“Exactly why don ‘t you want to come in Saturday morning?

We’re feeling fatigued and are worried about safety issues and

a loss of quality. Why do you want to stay late? ”

• Invent a Mutual Purpose. If after clarifying everyone’s pur­

poses you are still at odds, see if you can invent a higher or

longer-term purpose that is more motivating than the ones

that keep you in conflict.

“I certainly don ‘t want to make winners and losers here. It’s

far better if we can come up with something that doesn ‘t make

one team resent the other one. We’ve voted before or flipped a

coin, and the losers just ended up resenting the winners. I’m

more worried about how we feel about each other than any­

thing else. Let’s make sure that whatever we do, we don ‘t

drive a wedge in our working relationship. ”

• B.rainstorm new strategies. With a clear Mutual Purpose, you

can join forces in searching for a solution that serves everyone.

“So we need to come up with something that doesn’t jeopard­

ize safety and quality and allows your team to attend their col­

league’s wedding on Saturday. My team members don ‘t care

abuut the game a bit. What if we were to work the morning and


early afternoon, and then you come in after the game and take

over from there? That way we’ll be able . . . ”


Let’s end where we started. Yvonne is going to try to move to

dialogue with Jotham. Let’s see how she does at making it safe in

her crucial conversation. First, she’ll use Contrasting to prevent

misunderstanding of her purpose.

YVONNE: Jotham, I’d like to talk about our physical relation­

ship. I’m not doing it to put you on the spot or to suggest

the problem is yours. I’m completely clear that it’s as

much my problem as yours. I’d really like to talk about

it so we can make things better for both of us.

JOTHAM: What’s there to talk about? You don’t want it. I

want it. I’ll try to deal with it.

YVONNE: I think it’s more complicated than that. The way

you act sometimes makes me want to be with you even less.

JOTHAM: If that’s how you feel, why are we pretending we

have a relationship at all?

Okay, what just happened? Remember, we’re exploring

Yvonne’s side of the conversation. She’s the one initiating the

talk. Clearly there’s a lot Jotham could be doing to make things go

better. But she’s not Jotham. What should Yvonne do? She should

focus on what she really wants: to find a way to make things bet­

ter for both of them. Consequently, she shouldn’t respond to the

content of Jotham’s discouraging statement. Rather, she should

look at the safety issue behind it. Why is Jotham starting to with­

draw from the conversation? Two reasons:

• The way Yvonne made her point sounded to him like she was

blaming him for everything.


• He believes her concern in one small area reflects her total

feelings toward him.

So she’ll apologize and use Contrasting to rebuild safety.

YVONNE: I’m sorry I said it that way. I’m not blaming you

for how I feel or act. That’s my problem. I don’t see this

as your problem. I see it as our problem. Both of us may

be acting in ways that make things worse. I know I am at


laTHAM: I probably am too. Sometimes I pout because I’m

hurting. And I also do it hoping it’ll make you feel bad.

I’m sorry about that, too.

Notice what just happened. Since Yvonne dealt well with the

safety issue and kept focused on what she really wanted out of

this conversation, Jotham returned to the conversation. This is

far more effective than if Yvonne had gone into blaming.

Let’s continue.

JOTHAM: I just don’t see how we can work this out. I’m

wired for more passion than you are-it seems like the

only solution is for me to put up with it the way it is or

for you to feel like a sex slave.

The problem now is one of Mutual Purpose. Jotham thinks he

and Yvonne are at cross-purposes. In his mind, there is no pos­

sibility of a mutually satisfactory solution. Rather than move to

compromise or fight for her way, Yvonne will step out of the

issue and CRIB to get to Mutual Purpose.

YVONNE: [Commit to seek Mutual Purpose] No, that isn’t

what I want at all. I don’t want anything with you that

isn’t great for both of us. I just want to find a way to have

us both feel close. appreciated. and loved.


laTHAM: That’s what I want, too. It just seems like we get

those feelings in different ways.

(Notice how lotham is leaving the game behind and joining

the dialogue. Safety-specifically Mutual Purpose-is making

this possible.)

YVONNE: [Recognize the purpose behind the strategy] Maybe

not. What makes you feel loved and appreciated?

laTHAM: Making love with you when you really want to

makes me feel loved and appreciated. And you?

YVONNE: When you do thoughtful things for me. And, I

guess, when you hold me-but not always sexually.

laTHAM: You mean, if we’re just cuddling that makes you

feel loved?

YVONNE: Yes. And sometimes-I guess when I think

you’re doing it because you love me-sex does that for

me, too.

JOTHAM: [Invent a Mutual Purpose] So we need to find

ways to be together that make both of us feel loved and

appreciated. Is that what we’re looking for here?

YVONNE: Yes. I really want that, too.

laTHAM: [Brainstorm new strategies] Well, what if we . . .


Reading a complicated interaction like this one might lead to two

reactions. First, you might think, “Wow, these ideas could actu­

ally work ! ” And at the same time, you could be thinking, “But

there’s no way I could think that clearly in the middle of that

kind of delicate conversation! ”


We admit that it’s pretty easy for us to put all the skills together

when we’re sitting at a computer typing a script. But the good

news is, that’s not where these examples came from. They came

from real experiences. People do act like this all the time. In fact,

you do on your best days.

So don’t overwhelm yourself by asking whether you could

think this clearly during every heated and emotional conver­

sation. Merely consider whether you could think a little more

clearly during a few crucial conversations. Or prepare in advance.

Before a crucial conversation begins, think about which skills will

help you most. Remember, when it comes to these high-stakes

conversations, a little progress can produce a lot of benefit.

Finally, as is the case with most complicated problems, don’t

aim for perfection. Aim for progress. Learn to slow the process

down when your adrenaline gets pumping. Carry a few of the

questions we’re suggesting with you as you go. Pick the ones that

you think are most relevant to the topic at hand. And watch

yourself get better a little at a time.


Step Out

When others move to silence or violence, step out of the con­

versation and Make It Safe. When safety is restored, go back to

the issue at hand and continue the dialogue.

Decide Which Condition of Safety Is at Risk

• Mutual Purpose. Do others believe you care about their goals

in this conversation? Do they trust your motives?

• Mutual Respect. Do others believe you respect them?


Apologize When Appropriate

• When you’ve clearly violated respect, apologize.

Contrast to Fix Misunderstanding

• When others misunderstand either your purpose or your

intent, use Contrasting. Start with what you don ‘t intend or

mean. Then explain what you do intend or mean.

CRIB to Get to Mutual Purpose

• When you are at cross-purposes, use four skills to get back to

Mutual Purpose:

• .commit to seek Mutual Purpose.

• Recognize the purpose behind the strategy.

• Invent a Mutual Purpose.

• B.rainstorm new strategies.

It’s not how you play the game,

it’s how the game plays you.

Master My Stories
How to Stay in Dialogue When
You’re Angr}’t Scared, or Hurt

At this point you may be saying to yourself, “How am I supposed

to remember to do all this stuff-especially when my emotions

are raging like hot magma?”

This chapter explores how to gain control of crucial conver­

sations by learning how to take charge of your emotions. By

learning to exert influence over your own feelings, you’ll place

yourself in a far better position to use all the tools we’ve

explored thus far.


How many times have you heard someone say: “He made me

mad ! “,? How many times have you said it? For instance, you’re


sitting quietly at home watching TV and your mother-in-law (who

lives with you) walks in. She glances around and then starts pick­

ing up the mess you made a few minutes earlier when you

whipped up a batch of nachos. This ticks you off. She’s always

smugly skulking around the house, thinking you’re a slob.

A few minutes later when your spouse asks you why you’re so

upset, you explain, “It’s your mom again. I was lying here enjoy­

ing myself when she gave me that look, and it really got me

going. To be honest, I wish she would quit doing that. It’s my

only day off, I’m relaxing quietly, and then she walks in and

pushes my buttons.”

“Does she push your buttons?” your spouse asks. “Or do


That’s an interesting question.

One thing’s for certain. No matter who is doing the button

pushing, some people tend to react more explosively than others­

and to the same stimulus, no less. Why is that? For instance, what

enables some people to listen to withering feedback without flin­

ching, whereas others pitch a fit when you tell them they’ve got a

smear of salsa on their chin? Why is it that sometimes you your­

self can take a verbal blow to the gut without batting an eye, but

other times you go ballistic if someone so much as looks at you



To answer these questions, we’ll start with two rather bold (and

sometimes unpopular) claims. Then, having tipped our hand, we’ll

explain the logic behind each claim.

Claim One. Emotions don’t settle upon you like a fog. They

are not foisted upon you by others. No matter how comfortable

it might make you feel saying it-others don’t make you mad.

You make you mad. You and only you create your emotions.


Claim Two. Once you’ve created your emotions, you have only

two options: You can act on them or be acted on by them. That

is, when it comes to strong emotions, you either find a way to

master them or fall hostage to them.

Here’s how this all unfolds.


Consider Maria, a copywriter who is currently hostage to some

pretty strong emotions. She and her colleague Louis just

reviewed the latest draft of a proposal with their boss. During

the meeting, they were supposed to be jointly presenting their

latest ideas. But when Maria paused to take a breath, Louis took

over the presentation, making almost all the points they had

come up with together. When the boss turned to Maria for input,

there was nothing left for her to say.

Maria has been feeling humiliated and angry throughout this

project. First, Louis took their suggestions to the boss and dis­

cussed them behind her back. Second, he completely monopo­

lized the presentation. Consequently, Maria believes that Louis is

downplaying her contribution because she’s the only woman on

the team.

She’s getting fed up with his “boys’ club” mentality. So what

does she do? She doesn’t want to appear “oversensitive,” so most

of the time she says nothing and just does her job. However, she

does manage to assert herself by occasionally getting in sarcastic

jabs about the way she’s being treated.

“Sure I can get that printout for you. Should I just get your

coffee and whip up a bundt cake while I’m at it?” she mutters,

and rolls her eyes as she exits the room.

Louis, in tum, finds Maria’s cheap shots and sarcasm puz­

z l ing. He’s not sure what has Maria upset but is beginning to

despise her smug attitude and hostile reaction to most everything


he does. As a result, when the two work together, you could cut

the tension with a knife.

What’s Making Maria Mad?

The worst at dialogue fall into the trap Maria has fallen into.

Maria is completely unaware of a dangerous assumption she’s

making. She’s upset at being overlooked and is keeping a pro­

fessional silence. She’s assuming that her emotions and behavior

are the only right and reasonable reactions under the circum­

stances. She’s convinced that anyone in her place would feel the

same way.

Here’s the problem. Maria is treating her emotions as if they are

the only valid response. Since, in her mind, they are both justified

and accurate, she makes no effort to change or even question

them. In fact, in her view, Louis caused them. Ultimately, her

actions (saying nothing and taking cheap shots) are being driven

by these very emotions. Since she’s not acting on her emotions, her

emotions are acting on her-controlling her behavior and driving

her deteriorating relationship with Louis. The worst at dialogue

are hostages to their emotions, and they don’t even know it.

The good at dialogue realize that if they don’t control their

emotions, matters will get worse. So they try something else.

They fake it. They choke down reactions and then do their best

to get back to dialogue. At least, they give it a shot.

Unfortunately, once they hit a rough spot in a crucial conver­

sation, their suppressed emotions come out of hiding. They show

up as tightened jaws or sarcastic comments. Dialogue takes a hit.

Or maybe their paralyzing fear causes them to avoid saying what

they really think. Meaning is cut off at the source. In any case,

their emotions sneak out of the cubbyhole they’ve been crammed

into and find a way into the conversation. It’s never pretty, and

it always kills dialogue.


The best at dialogue do something completely different. They

aren’t held hostage by their emotions, nor do they try to hide or

suppress them. Instead, they act on their emotions. That is, when

they have strong feelings, they influence (and often change) their

emotions by thinking them out. As a result, they choose their

emotions, and by so doing, make it possible to choose behaviors

that create better results.

This, of course, is easier said than done. How do you rethink

yourself from an emotional and dangerous state into one that

puts you back in control?

Where should Maria start? To help rethink or gain control of

our emotions, let’s see where our feelings come from in the first

place. Let’s look at a model that helps us first examine and then

gain control of our own emotions.

Consider Maria. She’s feeling hurt but is worried that if she

says something to Louis, she’ll look too emotional, so she alter­

nates between holding her feelings inside (avoiding) and taking

cheap shots (masking).

As Figure 6-1 demonstrates, Maria’s actions stem from her feel­

ings. First she feels and then she acts. That’s easy enough, but it

Feel –…… Act
hurt silence

worried cheap

Figure 6-1 . How Feelings Drive Actions


begs the question: What’s causing Maria’s feelings in the first


Is it Louis’s behavior? As was the case with the nacho-mother­

in-law, did Louis make Maria feel insulted and hurt? Maria

heard and saw Louis do something, she generated an emotion,

and then she acted out her feelings-using forms of masking and


So here’s the big question: What happens between Louis act­

ing and Maria feeling? Is there an intermediate step that turns

someone else’s actions into our feelings? If not, then it has to be

true that others make us feel the way we do.

Stories Create Feelings

As it turns out, there is an intermediate step between what oth­

ers do and how we feel. That’s why, when faced with the same

circumstances, ten people may have ten different emotional

responses. For instance, with a coworker like Louis, some might

feel insulted whereas others merely feel curious. Some become

angry and others feel concern or even sympathy.

What is this intermediate step? Just after we observe what

others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell

ourselves a story. That is, we add meaning to the action we

observed. To the simple behavior we add motive. Why were they

doing that? We also add judgment-is that good or bad? And

then, based on these thoughts or stories, our body responds with

an emotion.

Pictorially it looks like the model in Figure 6-2. We call this

model our Path to Action because it explains how emotions,

thoughts, and experiences lead to our actions.

You’ll note that we’ve added telling a story to our model. We

observe, we tell a story, and then we feel. Although this addition

complicates things a bit, it also gives us hope. Since we and only

See! Tell a Feel Hear —…. Story –….

Figure 6-2. The Path to Action


we are telling the story, we can take back control of our own

emotions by telling a different story. We now have a point of

leverage or control. If we can find a way to control the stories we

tell, by rethinking or retelling them, we can master our emotions

and, therefore, master our crucial conversations.


“Nothing in this world is good or bad,

but thinking makes it so. ”


Stories explain what’s going on. Exactly what are our stories?

They are our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what

we see and hear. They’re theories we use to explain why, how,

and what. For instance, Maria asks: “Why does Louis take over?

l ie doesn’t trust my ability to communicate. He thinks that

because I’m a woman, people won’t listen to me.”

Our stories also help explain how. “How am I supposed to

j uuge al l of this? Is this a good or a bad thing? Louis thinks I’m

incompetent. and this is bad.”


Finally, a story might also include what. “What should I do

about all this? If I say something, he’ll think I’m a whiner or

oversensitive or militant, so it’s best to clam up.”

Of course, as we come up with our own meaning or stories, it

isn’t long until our body responds with strong feelings or emo­

tions-they’re directly linked to our judgments of right/wrong,

good/bad, kind/selfish, fair/unfair, etc. Maria’s story yields anger

and frustration. These feelings, in turn, drive Maria to her

actions-toggling back and forth between clamming up and tak­

ing an occasional cheap shot (see Figure 6-3) .

Even if you don’t realize it, you are telling yourself stories.

When we teach people that it’s our stories that drive our emotions

and not other people’s actions, someone inevitably raises a hand

and says, “Wait a minute! I didn’t notice myself telling a story.

When that guy laughed at me during my presentation, I just felt

angry. The feelings came first; the thoughts came second.”

Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast. When we

believe we’re at risk, we tell ourselves a story so quickly that we

don’t even know we’re doing it. If you don’t believe this is true,

ask yourself whether you always become angry when someone


Tell a
Story Feel

Louis He doesn’t hurt $ilenoe
makes all -……. trust mel -…….womed -“””‘Cheap the points, thinkS I’m shots meets prt- weak. If I
vately With speak up
the boss I’U Jook too


Figure 6-3. Maria’s Path to Action


laughs at you. If sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t,

then your response isn ‘t hardwired. That means something goes

on between others laughing and you feeling. In truth, you tell a

story. You may not remember it, but you tell a story.

Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of sto­

ries. Stories are just that, stories. These fabrications could be

told in any of thousands of different ways . For instance, Maria

could just as easily have decided that Louis didn’t realize she

cared so much about the project. She could have concluded that

Louis was feeling unimportant and this was a way of showing he

was valuable. Or maybe he had been burned in the past because

he hadn’t personally seen through every detail of a project. Any

of these stories would have fit the facts and would have created

very different emotions.

If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us. People

who excel at dialogue are able to influence their emotions during

crucial conversations. They recognize that while it’s true that at

first we are in control of the stories we tell-after all, we do make

them up of our own accord-once they’re told, the stories con­

trol us. They control how we feel and how we act. And as a result,

they control the results we get from our crucial conversations.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can tell different stories

and break the loop. In fact, until we tell different stories, we

cannot break the loop.

If you want improved results from your crucial conversations,

change the stories you tell yourself-even while you’re in the

middle of the fray.


What’s the most effective way to come up with different stories?

The best at dialogue find a way to first slow down and then take

charge of their Path to Action. Here’s how.


Retrace Your Path

To slow down the lightning-quick storytelling process and the

subsequent flow of adrenaline, retrace your Path to Action-one

element at a time. This calls for a bit of mental gymnastics. First

you have to stop what you’re currently doing. Then you have to

get in touch with why you’re doing it. Here’s how to retrace your


• [Act] Notice your behavior. Ask:

Am I in some form of silence or violence?

• [Feel] Get in touch with your feelings.

What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?

• [Tell story] Analyze your stories.

What story is creating these emotions?

• [See/hear] Get back to the facts.

What evidence do I have to support this story?

By retracing your path one element at a time, you put yourself

in a position to think about, question, and change any one or

more of the elements.

Notice You r Behavior

Why would you stop and retrace your Path to Action in the first

place? Certainly if you’re constantly stopping what you’re doing

and looking for your underlying motive and thoughts, you won’t

even be able to put on your shoes without thinking about it for

who knows how long. You’ll die of analysis paralysis.

Actually, you shouldn’t constantly stop and question your

actions. If you Learn to Look (as we suggested in Chapter 4) and

note that you yourself are slipping into silence or violence, you

have good reason to stop and take stock.


But looking isn’t enough. You must take an honest look at

what you’re doing. If you tell yourself a story that your violent

behavior is a “necessary tactic,” you won’t see the need to recon­

sider your actions. If you immediately jump in with “they started

it,” or otherwise find yourself rationalizing your behavior, you

also won’t feel compelled to change. Rather than stop and review

what you’re doing, you’ll devote your time to justifying your

actions to yourself and others.

When an unhelpful story is driving you to silence or violence,

stop and consider how others would see your actions. For exam­

ple, if the 60 Minutes camera crew replayed this scene on

national television, how would you look? What would they tell

about your behavior?

Not only do those who are best at crucial conversations notice

when they’re slipping into silence or violence, but they are also

able to admit it. They don’t wallow in self-doubt, of course, but

they do recognize the problem and begin to take corrective

action. The moment they realize that they’re killing dialogue,

they review their own Path to Action.

Get I n Touch with You r Fee l ings

As skilled individuals begin to retrace their own Path to Action,

they immediately move from examining their own unhealthy

behavior to exploring their feelings or emotions. At first glance

this task sounds easy. “I’m angry ! ” you think to yourself. What

could be easier?

Actually, identifying your emotions is more difficult than you

might imagine. In fact, many people are emotionally illiterate.

When asked to describe how they’re feeling, they use words such

as “bad” or “angry” or “frightened”-which would be okay if

t hese were accurate descriptors, but often they’re not.

I ndividuals say they’re angry when, in fact, they’re feeling a mix

01′ embarrassment and surprise. Or they suggest they’re unhappy


when they’re feeling violated. Perhaps they suggest they’re upset

when they’re really feeling humiliated and cheated.

Since life doesn’t consist of a series of vocabulary tests, you

might wonder what difference words can make. But words do

matter. Knowing what you’re really feeling helps you take a more

accurate look at what is going on and why. For instance, you’re

far more likely to take an honest look at the story you’re telling

yourself if you admit you’re feeling both embarrassed and sur­

prised rather than simply angry.

How about you? When experiencing strong emotions, do you

stop and think about your feelings? If so, do you use a rich

vocabulary, or do you mostly draw from terms such as “bummed

out” and “furious”? Second, do you talk openly with others

about how you feel? Do you willingly talk with loved ones about

what’s going on inside of you? Third, in so doing, is your vocab­

ulary robust and accurate?

It’s important to get in touch with your feelings, and to do so,

you may want to expand your emotional vocabulary.

Analyze You r Stories

Question your feelings and stories. Once you’ve identified what

you’re feeling, you have to stop and ask, given the circum­

stances, is it the right feeling? Meaning, of course, are you telling

the right story? After all, feelings come from stories, and stories

are our own invention.

The first step to regaining emotional control is to challenge

the illusion that what you’re feeling is the only right emotion

under the circumstances. This may be the hardest step, but it’s

also the most important one. By questioning our feelings, we

open ourselves up to question our stories. We challenge the com­

fortable conclusion that our story is right and true. We willingly

question whether our emotions (very real) , and the story behind

them (only one of many possible explanations) , are accurate.


For instance, what were the facts in Maria’s story? She saw

Louis give the whole presentation. She heard the boss talk about

meeting with Louis to discuss the project when she wasn’t pres­

ent. That was the beginning of Maria’s Path to Action.

Don ‘t confuse stories with facts. Sometimes you fail to ques­

tion your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When

you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught

up in the moment that you begin to believe your stories are facts.

They feel like facts. You confuse subjective conclusions with

steel-hard data points. For example, in trying to ferret out facts

from story, Maria might say, “He’s a male chauvinist pig-that’s

a fact ! Ask anyone who has seen how he treats me ! ”

“He’s a male chauvinist pig” is not a fact. It’s the story that

Maria created to give meaning to the facts. The facts could mean

just about anything. As we said earlier, others could watch Maria’s

interactions with Louis and walk away with different stories.

Get Back to the Facts

Separate fact from story by focusing on behavior. To separate

fact from story, get back to the genuine source of your feelings .

Test your ideas against a simple criterion: Can you see or hear

this thing you’re calling a fact? Was it an actual behavior?

For example, it is a fact that Louis “gave 95 percent of the pre­

sentation and answered all but one question.” This is specific,

objective, and verifiable. Any two people watching the meeting

would make the same observation. However, the statement “He

doesn’t trust me” is a conclusion. It explains what you think, not

what the other person did. Conclusions are subjective.

Spot the story by watching for “hot” words. Here’s another tip.

To avoid confusing story with fact, watch for “hot” terms. For

cxample, when assessing the facts, you might say, “She scowled at

mc” or “He made a sarcastic comment.” Words such as “scowl”

anu “sarcastic” are hot terms. They express judgments and attribu-


tions that, in turn, create strong emotions. They are story, not fact.

Notice how much different it is when you say: “Her eyes pinched

shut and her lips tightened,” as opposed to “She scowled at me.” In

Maria’s case, she suggested that Louis was controlling and didn’t

respect her. Had she focused on his behavior (he talked a lot and

met with the boss one-on-one) , this less volatile description would

have allowed for any number of interpretations. For example, per­

haps Louis was nervous, concerned, or unsure of himself.

Watch for Three “Clever” Stories

As we begin to piece together why people are doing what they’re

doing (or equally important, why we’re doing what we’re doing),

with time and experience we become quite good at coming up

with explanations that serve us well. Either our stories are com­

pletely accurate and propel us in healthy directions, or they’re

quite inaccurate but justify our current behavior-making us feel

good about ourselves and calling for no need to change.

It’s the second kind of story that routinely gets us into trouble.

For example, we move to silence or violence, and then we come

up with a perfectly plausible reason for why it’s okay. “Of course

I yelled at him. Did you see what he did? He deserved it.” “Hey,

don’t be gi”ing me the evil eye. I had no other choice.” We call

these imaginative and self-serving concoctions “clever stories.”

They’re clever because they allow us to feel good about behaving

badly. Better yet, they allow us to feel good about behaving badly

even while achieving abysmal results.

Among all of the clever stories we tell, here are the three most


Victim Stories-lilt’s Not My Fault”

The first of the clever stories is a Victim Story. Victim Stories, as

you might imagine, make us out to be innocent sufferers . The

theme is always the same. The other person is bad and wrong,


and we are good and right. Other people do bad things, and we

suffer as a result.

In truth, there is such a thing as an innocent victim. You’re

stopped in the street and held up at gunpoint. When an event

such as this occurs, it’s a sad fact, not a story. You are a victim.

But all tales of victimization are not so one-sided. When you

tell a Victim Story, you ignore the role you played in the prob­

lem. You tell your story in a way that judiciously avoids facts

about whatever you have done (or neglected to do) that might

have contributed to the problem.

For instance, last week your boss took you off a big project,

and it hurt your feelings. You complained to everyone about

how bad you felt. Of course, you failed to let your boss know

that you were behind on an important project, leaving him

high and dry-which is why he removed you in the first place.

This part of the story you leave out because, hey, he made you

feel bad.

To help support your Victim Stories you speak of nothing but

your noble motives. “I took longer because I was trying to beat

the standard specs.” Then you tell yourself that you’re being pun­

ished for your virtues, not your vices. “He just doesn’t appreci­

ate a person with my superb attention to detail.” (This added

twist turns you from victim into martyr. What a bonus ! )

Villain Stories – “It’s All Your Fault”

We create these nasty little tales by turning normal, decent

human beings into villains. We impute bad motive, and then we

tell everyone about the evils of the other party as if somehow

we’re doing the world a huge favor.

For example, we describe a boss who is zealous about quality

liS a control freak. When our spouse is upset that we didn’t keep

a comm i tment, we see him or her as inflexible and stubborn.

In Vict im Stories we eX�lggcrate our own innocence. In Vil lain


Stories we overemphasize the other person’s guilt. We automatical­

ly assume the worst possible motives while ignoring any possible

good or neutral intentions a person may have. Labeling is a common

device in Villain Stories. For example, “I can’t believe that bonehead

gave me bad materials again.” By employing the handy label, we are

now dealing not with a complex human being, but with a bonehead.

Not only do Villain Stories help us blame others for bad

results, but they also set us up to then do whatever we want to

the “villains.” After all, we can feel okay insulting or abusing a

bonehead-whereas we might have to be more careful with a

living, breathing person. Then when we fail to get the results we

really want, we stay stuck in our ineffective behavior because,

after all, look who we’re dealing with!

Watch for the double standard. When you pay attention to

Victim and Villain Stories and catch them for what they are­

unfair characterizations-you begin to see the terrible double

standard we use when our emotions are out of control. When we

make mistakes, we tell a Victim Story by claiming our intentions

were innocent and pure. “Sure 1 was late getting home and didn’t

call you, but I couldn’t let the team down! ” On the other hand,

when others do things that hurt us, we tell Villain Stories in

which we invent terrible motives for others based on how their

actions affected us. “You are so thoughtless! You could have

called me and told me you were going to be late.”

Helpless Stories-“There’s Nothing Else I Can Do”

Finally come Helpless Stories. In these fabrications we make our­

selves out to be powerless to do anything. We convince ourselves

that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predica­

ment, which justifies the action we’re about to take. A Helpless

Story might suggest, “If 1 didn’t yell at my son, he wouldn’t listen.”

Or on the flip side, “If I told my husband this, he would just be


defensive.” While Villian and Victim Stories look back to explain

why we’re in the situation we’re in, Helpless Stories look forward

to explain why we can’t do anything to change our situation.

It’s particularly easy to act helpless when we tum others’

behavior into fixed and unchangeable traits. For example, when

we decide our boss is a “control freak” (Villain Story), we are

less inclined to give him feedback because, after all, control

freaks like him don’t accept feedback (Helpless Story). Nothing

we can do will change that fact.

As you can see, Helpless Stories often stem from Villain Stories

and typically offer us nothing more than Sucker’s Choices.

Why We Tell Clever Stories

They match reality. Sometimes the stories we tell are accurate.

The other person is trying to cause us harm, we are innocent vic­

tims, or maybe we really can’t do much about the problem. It can

happen. It’s not common, but it can happen.

They get us off the hook. More often than not, our conclusions

transform from reasonable explanations to clever stories when

they conveniently excuse us from any responsibility-when, in

reality, we have been partially responsible. The other person isn’t

bad and wrong, and we aren’t right and good. The truth lies

somewhere in the middle. However, if we can make others out

as wrong and ourselves out as right, we’re off the hook. Better

yet, once we’ve demonized others, we can even insult and abuse

them if we want.

Clever stories keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts.

By now it should be clear that clever stories cause us problems.

A reasonable question at this point is, “If they’re so terribly hurt­

ful , why do we ever tell clever stories?”

Our need to tell clever stories often starts with our own sellouts.

l ,ike i t or not, we usually don’t begin telling stories that justify our

ad ions unti l we have done something that we feel a need to


justify. 1

We sell out when we consciously act against our own sense of

what’s right. And after we’ve sold out, we have only two choices:

own up to our sellout, or try to justify it. And if we don’t admit

to our errors, we inevitably look for ways to justify them. That’s

when we begin to tell clever stories.

Let’s look at an example of a sellout: You’re driving in heavy

traffic. You begin to pass cars that are attempting to merge into

your lane. A car very near you has accelerated and is entering your

lane. A thought strikes you that you should let him in. It’s the nice

thing to do, and you’d want someone to let you in. But you don’t.

You accelerate forward and close the gap. What happens next?

You begin to have thoughts like these: “He can’t just crowd in on

me. What a jerk! I’ve been fighting this traffic a long time. Besides,

I’ve got an important appointment to get to.” And so on.

This story makes you the innocent victim and the other per­

son the nasty villain. Under the influence of this story you now

feel justified in not doing what you originally thought you should

have done . You also ignore what you would think of others who

did the same thing-“That jerk didn’t let me in! ”

Consider an example more related to crucial conversations.

Your spouse has an annoying habit. It’s not a big deal, but you

feel you should mention it. But you don’t . Instead, you just huff

or roll your eyes, hoping that will send the message. Unfortun­

ately, your spouse doesn’t pick up the hint and continues the habit.

Your annoyance turns to resentment. You feel disgusted that your

spouse is so thick that he or she can’t pick up an obvious hint. And

besides, you shouldn’t have to mention this anyway-any reason­

able person should notice this on his or her own! Do you have to

point out everything? From this point forward you begin to make

insulting wisecracks about the issue until it escalates into an ugly


Notice the order of the events in both of these examples. What


came first, the story or the sellout? Did you convince yourself of

the other driver’s selfishness and then not let him in? Of course

not. You had no reason to think he was selfish until you needed

an excuse for your own selfish behavior. You didn’t start telling

clever stories until after you failed to do something you knew you

should have done. Your spouse’s annoying habit didn’t become a

source of resentment until you became part of the problem. You

got upset because you sold out. And the clever story helped you

feel good about being rude.

Sellouts are often not big events. In fact, they can be so small

that they’re easy for us to overlook when we’re crafting our

clever stories. Here are some common ones:

• You believe you should help someone, but don’t.

• You believe you should apologize, but don’t.

• You believe you should stay late to finish up on a commitment,

but go home instead.

• You say yes when you know you should say no, then hope no

one follows up to see if you keep your commitment.

• You believe you should talk to someone about concerns you

have with him or her, but don’t.

• You do less than your share and think you should acknowl­

edge it, but say nothing knowing no one else will bring it up


• You believe you should listen respectfully to feedback, but

become defensive instead.

• You see problems with a plan someone presents and think you

should speak up, but don’t.

• You fai l to complete an assignment on time and believe you

should let others know, but don’t.


• You know you have information a coworker could use, but

keep it to yourself.

Even small sellouts like these get us started telling clever stories.

When we don’t admit to our own mistakes, we obsess about others’

faults, our innocence, and our powerlessness to do anything other

than what we’re already doing. We tell a clever story when we want

self-justification more than results. Of course, self-justification is

not what we really want, but we certainly act as if it is.

With that sad fact in mind, let’s focus on what we really want.

Let’s look at the final Master My Stories skill.

Tell the Rest of the Story

Once we’ve learned to recognize the clever stories we tell our­

selves, we can move to the final Master My Stories skill. The dia­

logue-smart recognize that they’re telling clever stories, stop,

and then do what it takes to tell a useful story. A useful story, by

definition, creates emotions that lead to healthy action-such as


And what transforms a clever story into a useful one? The rest

of the story. That’s because clever stories have one characteristic

in common: They’re incomplete. Clever stories omit crucial

information about us, about others, and about our options. Only

by including all of these essential details can clever stories be

transformed into useful ones.

What’s the best way to fill in the missing details? Quite sim­

ply, it’s done by turning victims into actors, villains into humans,

and the helpless into the able. Here’s how.

Turn victims into actors . If you notice that you’re talking

about yourself as an innocent victim (and you weren’t held up at

gunpoint) , ask:

• Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?


This question jars you into facing up to the fact that maybe,

just maybe, you did something to help cause the problem. Instead

of being a victim, you were an actor. This doesn’t necessarily

mean you had malicious motives. Perhaps your contribution was

merely a thoughtless omission. Nonetheless, you contributed.

For example, a coworker constantly leaves the harder or nox­

ious tasks for you to complete. You’ve frequently complained to

friends and loved ones about being exploited. The parts you

leave out of the story are that you smile broadly when your boss

compliments you for your willingness to take on challenging

jobs, and you’ve never said anything to your coworker. You’ve

hinted, but that’s about it.

The first step in telling the rest of this story would be to add

these important facts to your account. By asking what role

you’ve played, you begin to realize how selective your perception

has been. You become aware of how you’ve minimized your own

mistakes while you’ve exaggerated the role of others.

Turn villains into humans. When you find yourself labeling or

otherwise vilifying others, stop and ask:

• Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what

this person is doing?

This particular question humanizes others. As we search for

plausible answers to it, our emotions soften. Empathy often

replaces judgment, and depending upon how we’ve treated oth­

ers, personal accountability replaces self-justification.

For instance, that coworker who seems to conveniently miss

out on the tough j obs told you recently that she could see you

were struggling with an important assignment, and yesterday

( while you were tied up on a pressing task) she pitched in and

completed the job for you. You were instantly suspicious. She

W’lS trying to make you look bad by completing a high-profile

jub. Huw dare she prctcnd to be helpful when her real goal was


to discredit you while tooting her own hom! Well, that’s the

story you’ve told yourself.

But what if she really were a reasonable, rational, and decent

person? What if she had no motive other than to give you a

hand? Isn’t it a bit early to be vilifying her? And if you do, don’t

you run the risk of ruining a relationship? Might you go off half­

cocked, accuse her, and then learn you were wrong?

Our purpose for asking why a reasonable, rational, and decent

person might be acting a certain way is not to excuse others for

any bad things they may be doing. If they are, indeed, guilty,

we’ll have time to deal with that later. The purpose of the

humanizing question is to deal with our own stories and emo­

tions. It provides us with still another tool for working on our­

selves first by providing a variety of possible reasons for the

other person’s behavior.

In fact, with experience and maturity we learn to worry less

about others’ intent and more about the effect others’ actions are

having on us. No longer are we in the game of rooting out

unhealthy motives. And here’s the good news. When we reflect

on alternative motives, not only do we soften our emotions, but

equally important, we relax our absolute certainty long enough

to allow for dialogue-the only reliable way of discovering oth­

ers’ genuine motives.

Turn the helpless into the able. Finally, when you catch your­

self bemoaning your own helplessness, you can tell the complete

story by returning to your original motive. To do so, stop and ask:

• What do I really want? For me? For others? For the relation­


Then, kill the Sucker’s Choice that’s made you feel helpless to

choose anything other than silence or violence. Do this by asking:

• What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?


For example, you now find yourself insulting your coworker

for not pitching in with a tough job. Your coworker seems sur­

prised at your strong and “out of the blue” reaction. In fact, she’s

staring at you as if you’ve slipped a cog. You, of course, have told

yourself that she is purposefully avoiding noxious tasks, and that

despite your helpful hints, she has made no changes.

“I have to get brutal,” you tell yourself. “I don’t like it, but if

1 don’t offend her, I’ll be stuck doing the grunt work forever.”

You’ve strayed from what you really want-to share work

equally and to have a good relationship. You’ve given up on half

of your goals by making a Sucker’s Choice. “Oh well, better to

offend her than to be made a fool.”

What should you be doing instead? Openly, honestly, and

effectively discussing the problem-not taking potshots and

then justifying yourself. When you refuse to make yourself help­

less, you’re forced to hold yourself accountable for using your

dialogue skills rather than bemoaning your weakness.


To see how this all fits together, let’s circle back to Maria. Let’s

assume she’s retraced her Path to Action and separated the facts

from the stories. Doing this has helped her realize that the story

she told was incomplete, defensive, and hurtful. When she

watched for the Three Clever Stories, she saw them with painful

clarity. Now she’s ready to tell the rest of the story. So she asks


• Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?

“When I found out that Louis was holding project meetings

without me, I felt like I should ask him about why I wasn ‘t

included. I believed that if I did, I could open a dialogue that

would help us work better together. But then I didn ‘t, and as


my resentment grew, [ was even less interested in broaching

the subject. ”

• Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what

Louis is doing?

“He really cares about producing good-quality work. Maybe

he doesn ‘t realize that I’m as committed to the success of the

project as he is. ”

• What do I really want?

“[ want a respectful relationship with Louis. And [ want

recognition for the work [ do. ”

• What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?

”I’d make an appointment to sit down with Louis and talk

about how we work together. ”

As we tell the rest of the story, we free ourselves from the poi­

soning effects of unhealthy emotions. Best of all, as we regain

control and move back to dialogue, we become masters of our

own emotions rather than hostages.

And what about Maria? What did she actually do? She sched­

uled a meeting with Louis. As she prepared for the meeting, she

refused to feed her ugly and incomplete stories, admitted her

own role in the problem, and entered the conversation with an

open mind. Perhaps Louis wasn’t trying to make her appear bad

or fill in for her incompetence.

As Maria sat down with Louis, she found a way to tentatively

share what she had observed. (We’ll look at exactly how to do

this in the next chapter.) Fortunately, not only did Maria master

her story, but she knew how to talk about it as well. While

engaging in healthy dialogue, Louis apologized for not includ­

ing her in meetings with the boss. He explained that he was try­

ing to give the boss a heads-up on some controversial parts of


the presentation-and realized in retrospect that he shouldn’t

have done this without her. He also apologized for dominating

during the presentation. Maria learned from the conversation

that Louis tends to talk more when he gets nervous. He sug­

gested that they each be responsible for either the first or sec­

ond half of the presentation and stick to their assignments so he

would be less likely to crowd her out. The discussion ended

with both of them understanding the other’s perspective and

Louis promising to be more sensitive in the future.


If strong emotions are keeping you stuck in silence or violence,

try this.

Retrace Your Path

Notice your behavior. If you find yourself moving away from

dialogue, ask yourself what you’re really doing.

• Am I in some form of silence or violence?

Get in touch with your feelings. Learn to accurately identify

the emotions behind your story.

• What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?

Analyze your stories. Question your conclusions and look for

other possible explanations behind your story.

• What story is creating these emotions?

Get back to the facts. Abandon your absolute certainty by dis­

t inguishing between hard facts and your invented story.

• What evidence do I have to support this story?


Watch for clever stories. Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories

sit at the top of the list.

Tell the Rest of the Story


• Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?

• Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?

• What do I really want?

• What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?


Outspoken by whom?


How to Speak Persuasivel}/t

Not Abrasively

So far we’ve gone to great pains to prepare ourselves for crucial

conversations. Here’s what we’ve learned. Our hearts need to be

in the right place. We need to pay close attention to crucial

conversations-particularly when people start feeling unsafe.

And heaven forbid that we should tell ourselves clever and

unhelpful stories.

So let’s say that we are well prepared. We’re ready to open our

mouths and start sharing our pool of meaning. That’s right,

we’re actually going to talk. Now what?

Most of the time we walk into a discussion and slide into

autopilot. “Hi, how are the kids? What’s going on at work?”

What could be easier than talking? We know thousands of words


and generally weave them into conversations that suit our needs.

Most of the time.

However, when stakes rise and our emotions kick in, well,

that’s when we open our mouths and don’t do so well. In fact, as

we suggested earlier, the more important the discussion, the less

likely we are to be on our best behavior. More specifically, we

advocate or express our views quite poorly.

To help us improve our advocacy skills, we’ll examine two

challenging situations. First, we’ll look at five skills for talking

when what we have to say could easily make others defensive.

Second, we’ll explore how these same skills help us state our

opinions when we believe so strongly in something that we risk

shutting others down rather than opening them up to our ideas.


Adding information to the pool of meaning can be quite difficult

when the ideas we’re about to dump into the collective conscious­

ness contain delicate, unattractive, or controversial opinions.

“I’m sorry, Marta, but people simply don’t like working with

you. You’ve been asked to leave the special-projects team.”

It’s one thing to argue that your company needs to shift from

green to red packaging; it’s quite another to tell a person that he

or she is offensive or unlikable or has a controlling leadership

style. When the topic turns from things to people, it’s always

more difficult, and to nobody’s surprise, some people are better

at it than others.

When it comes to sharing touchy information, the worst alter­

nate between bluntly dumping their ideas into the pool and say­

ing nothing at all. Either they start with: “You’re not going to like

this, but, hey, somebody has to be honest . . . ” (a classic Sucker’s

Choice), or they simply stay mum.


Fearful they could easily destroy a healthy relationship, those

who are good at dialogue say some of what’s on their minds but

understate their views out of fear of hurting others. They talk,

but they sugarcoat their message.

The best at dialogue speak their minds completely and do it in

a way that makes it safe for others to hear what they have to say

and respond to it as well. They are both totally frank and com­

pletely respectful.


In order to speak honestly when honesty could easily offend oth­

ers, we have to find a way to maintain safety. That’s a bit like

telling someone to smash another person in the nose, but, you

know, don’t hurt him. How can we speak the unspeakable and still

maintain respect? Actually, it can be done if you know how to

carefully blend three ingredients-confidence, humility, and skill.

Confidence. Most people simply won’t hold delicate conversa­

tions-well, at least not with the right person. For instance, your

colleague Brian goes home at night and tells his wife that his boss,

Fernando, is micromanaging him to within an inch of his life. He

says the same thing over lunch when talking with his pals. Every­

one knows what Brian thinks about Fernando-except, of course,


People who are skilled at dialogue have the confidence to say

what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it. They

are confident that their opinions deserve to be placed in the pool

of meaning. They are also confident that they can speak openly

without brutalizing others or causing undue offense.

Humility. Confidence does not equate to arrogance or pig­

headedness. Skilled people are confident that they have some­

t hing to say, but also realize that others have valuable input. They

a l’e humble enough to realize that they don’t have a monopoly on


the truth. Their opinions provide a starting point but not the final

word. They may currently believe something but realize that with

new information they may change their minds. This means

they’re willing to both express their opinions and encourage oth­

ers to do the same

Skill. Finally, people who willingly share delicate information

are good at doing it. That’s why they’re confident in the first

place. They don’t make a Sucker’s Choice because they’ve found

a path that allows for both candor and safety. They speak the

unspeakable, and people are grateful for their honesty.

Good Night and Good-Bye!

To see how to discuss sensitive issues, let’s look at an enormously

difficult problem. Bob has just walked in the door, and his wife,

Carole, looks upset. He can tell from her swollen eyes that she’s

been crying. Only when he walks in the door, Carole doesn’t turn

to him for comfort. Instead, she looks at him with an expression

that says “How could you?” Bob doesn’t know it yet, but Carole

thinks he’s having an affair. He’s not.

How did Carole come to this dangerous and wrong con­

clusion? Earlier that day she had been going over the credit card

statement when she noticed a charge from the Good Night

Motel-a cheap place located not more than a mile from their

home. “Why would he stay in a motel so close to home?” she

wonders. “And why didn’t I know about it?” Then it hits her­

“That unfaithful jerk! ”

Now what’s the worst way Carole might handle this (one that

doesn’t involve packing up and moving back to Wisconsin)?

What’s the worst way of talking about the problem? Most peo­

ple agree that jumping in with an ugly accusation followed by a

threat is a good candidate for that distinction. It’s also what most

people do, and Carole is no exception.


“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” she says in a painful


“Doing what?” Bob asks-not knowing what she’s talking

about but figuring that whatever it is, it can’t be good.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she says, continuing to

keep Bob on edge.

“Do 1 need to apologize for missing her birthday?” Bob won­

ders to himself. “No, it’s not even summer and her birthday is on

. . . well, it’s sweltering on her birthday.”

“I’m sorry, 1 don’t know what you’re talking about,” he

responds, taken aback.

“You’re having an affair, and 1 have proof right here! ” Carole

explains holding up a piece of crumpled paper.

“What’s on that paper that says I’m having an affair?” he asks,

completely befuddled because ( 1 ) he’s not having an affair and (2)

the paper contains not a single compromising photo.

“It’s a motel bill, you jerk. You take some woman to a motel,

and you put it on the credit card? ! 1 can’t believe you’re doing

this to me! ”

Now if Carole were certain that Bob was having an affair, per­

haps this kind of talk would be warranted. It may not be the best

way to work through the issue, but Bob would at least understand

why Carole made the accusations and hurled threats.

But, in truth, she only has a piece of paper with some num­

bers on it. This tangible piece of evidence has made her suspi­

cious. How should she talk about this nasty hunch in a way that

leads to dialogue?


I f Carole’s goal is to have a healthy conversation about a tough

top ic (e.g. , I think you ‘re having an affair), her only hope is to


stay in dialogue. That holds true for anybody with any crucial

conversation (i.e., It feels like you micromanage me; I fear you’re

using drugs). That means that despite your worst suspicions, you

shouldn’t violate respect. In a similar vein, you shouldn’t kill

safety with threats and accusations.

So what should you do? Start with Heart. Think about what you

really want and how dialogue can help you get it. And master your

story-realize that you may be jumping to a hasty Victim, Villain,

or Helpless Story. The best way to fmd out the true story is not to

act out the worst story you can generate. That will lead to self­

destructive silence and violence games. Think about other possible

explanations long enough to temper your emotions so you can get

to dialogue. Besides, if it turns out you’re right about your initial

impression, there will be plenty of time for confrontations later on.

Once you’ve worked on yourself to create the right conditions

for dialogue, you can then draw upon five distinct skills that can

help you talk about even the most sensitive topics. These five tools

can be easily remembered with the acronym STATE. It stands for:

• Share your facts

• Tell your story

• Ask for others’ paths

• Talk tentatively

• E.ncourage testing

The first three skills describe what to do. The last two tell how

to do it.

The “What” Ski lls

,Share Your Facts

In the last chapter we suggested that if you retrace your Path to

Action to the source, you eventual ly arrive at the (“acts. For


example, Carole found the credit card invoice. That’s a fact. She

then told a story-Bob’s having an affair. Next, she felt betrayed

and horrified. Finally, she attacked Bob-“I should never have

married you! ” The whole interaction was fast, predictable, and

very ugly.

What if Carole took a different route-one that started with

facts? What if she were able to suspend the ugly story she told her­

self (perhaps think of an alternative story) and then start her con­

versation with the facts? Wouldn’t that be a safer way to go?

“Maybe,” she muses, “there is a good reason behind all of this.

Why don’t I start with the suspicious bill and then go from there?”

If she started there, she’d be right. The best way to share your

view is to follow your Path to Action from beginning to end­

the same way you traveled it (Figure 7-1 ) . Unfortunately, when

we’re drunk on adrenaline, our tendency is to do precisely the

opposite. Since we’re obsessing on our emotions and stories,

that’s what we start with. Of course, this is the most controver­

sial, least influential, and most insulting way we could begin.

To make matters worse, this strategy creates still another self­

fulfilling prophecy. We’re so anxious to blurt out our ugly stories

See! Tell a Feel
Hear –… Story –…

Figure 7-1 . The Path to Action


that we say things in extremely ineffective ways. Then, when

we get bad results (and we are going to get bad results), we tell

ourselves that we just can’t share risky views without creating

problems. So the next time we’ve got something sticky to say,

we’re even more reluctant to say it. We hold it inside where the

story builds up steam, and when we do eventually share our

horrific story, we do so with a vengeance. The cycle starts all

over again.

Facts are the least controversial. Facts provide a safe beginning.

By their very nature, facts aren’t controversial. That’s why we call

them facts. For example, consider the statement: “Yesterday you

arrived at work twenty minutes late.” No dispute there.

Conclusions, on the other hand, are highly controversial. For

example: “You can’t be trusted.” That’s hardly a fact. Actually, it’s

more like an insult, and it can certainly be disputed. Eventually we

may want to share our conclusions, but we certainly don’t want to

open up with a controversy.

Facts are the most persuasive. In addition to being less contro­

versial, facts are also more persuasive than subjective conclusions.

Facts form the foundation of belief. So if you want to persuade

others, don’t start with your stories. Start with your observations.

For example, which of the following do you fmd more persuasive?


“I want you to stop sexually harassing me! ”

“When you talk to me, your eyes move up and down rather

than look at my face. And sometimes you put your hand on

my shoulder.”

While we’re speaking here about being persuasive, let’s add

that our goal is not to persuade others that we are right. We

aren’t trying to “win” the dialogue. We just want our meaning to

get a fair hearing. We’re trying to help others sec how a rca SOIl-


able, rational, and decent person could end up with the story

we’re carrying. That’s all.

When we start with shocking or offensive conclusions (“Quit

groping me with your eyes ! ” or “I think we should declare bank­

ruptcy”), we actually encourage others to tell Villain Stories

about us. Since we’ve given them no facts to support our con­

clusion, they make up reasons we’re saying these things. They’re

likely to believe we’re either stupid or evil.

So if your goal is to help others see how a reasonable, ration­

al, and decent person could think what you’re thinking, start

with your facts.

And if you aren’t sure what your facts are (your story is

absolutely filling your brain), take the time to think them

through before you enter the crucial conversation. Take the time

to sort out facts from conclusions. Gathering the facts is the

homework required for crucial conversations.

Facts are the least insulting. If you do want to share your

story, don’t start with it. Your story (particularly if it has led to a

rather ugly conclusion) could easily surprise and insult others. It

could kill safety in one rash, ill-conceived sentence.

BRIAN: I’d like to talk to you about your leadership style.

You micromanage me, and it’s starting to drive me nuts.

FERNANDO: What? I ask you if you’re going to be done on

time and you lay into me with . . .

If you start with your story (and in so doing, kill safety) , you

may never actually get to the facts.

Begin your path with facts. In order to talk about your stories,

you need to lead the others involved down your Path to Action.

Let them experience your path from the beginning to the end,

and not from the end to-well, to wherever it takes you. Let oth­

ers see your experience from your point of view-starting with


your facts. This way, when you do talk about what you’re start­

ing to conclude, they’ll understand why. First the facts, then the

story-and then make sure that as you explain your story, you

tell it as a possible story, not as concrete fact.

BRIAN: Since I started work here, you’ve asked to meet with

me twice a day. That’s more than with anyone else. You

have also asked me to pass all of my ideas by you before I

include them in a project. [The facts]

FERNANDO: What’s your point?

BRIAN: I’m not sure that you’re intending to send this mes­

sage, but I’m beginning to wonder if you don’t trust me.

Maybe you think I’m not up to the job or that I’ll get

you into trouble. Is that what’s going on? [The possible


FERNANDO: Really, I was merely trying to give you a chance

to get my input before you got too far down the path on a

project. The last guy I worked with was constantly taking

his project to near completion only to learn that he’d left

out a key element. I’m trying to avoid surprises.

Earn the right to share your story by starting with your facts.

Facts lay the groundwork for all delicate conversations.

leI! You r Story

Sharing your story can be tricky. Even if you’ve started with your

facts, the other person can still become defensive when you

move from facts to stories. After all, you’re sharing potentially

unflattering conclusions and judgments.

Why share your story in the first place? Because the facts

alone are rarely worth mentioning. It’s the facts plus the conclu­

sion that call for a face-to-face discussion. In addition, if you


simply mention the facts, the other person may not understand

the severity of the implications. For example:

“I noticed that you had company software in your brief­


“Yep, that’s the beauty of software. It’s portable.”

“That particular software is proprietary.”

“It ought to be! Our future depends on it.”

“My understanding is that it’s not supposed to go home.”

“Of course not. That’s how people steal it.”

(Sounds like it’s time for a conclusion.) “I was wondering what

the software is doing in your briefcase. It looks like you’re tak­

ing it home. Is that what’s going on here?”

It takes confidence. To be honest, it can be difficult to share

negative conclusions and unattractive judgments (e.g., “I’m

wondering if you’re a thief”) . It takes confidence to share such a

potentially inflammatory story. However, if you’ve done your

homework by thinking through the facts behind your story you’ll

realize that you are drawing a reasonable, rational, and decent

conclusion. One that deserves hearing. And by starting with the

facts, you’ve laid the groundwork. By thinking through the facts

and then leading with them, you’re much more likely to have the

confidence you need to add controversial and vitally important

meaning to the shared pool.

Don ‘t pile it on. Sometimes we lack the confidence to speak

up, so we let problems simmer for a long time. Given the

chance, we generate a whole arsenal of unflattering conclu­

sions. For example, you’re about to hold a crucial conversation

with your child’s second-grade teacher. The teacher wants to

hold your daughter back a year. You want your daughter to

advance right along with her age group. This is what’s going on

in your head:


“I can’t believe this ! This teacher is straight out of college,

and she wants to hold Debbie back. To be perfectly frank,

I don’t think she gives much weight to the stigma of being

held back. Worse still, she’s quoting the recommendation of

the school psychologist. The guy’s a real idiot. I’ve met him,

and I wouldn’t trust him with a common cold. I’m not

going to let these two morons push me around.”

Which of these insulting conclusions or judgments should you

share? Certainly not the entire menagerie of unflattering tales. In

fact, you’re going to need to work on this Villain Story before

you have any hope of healthy dialogue. As you do, your story

begins to sound more like this (note the careful choice of

terms-after all, it is your story, not the facts) :

“When I first heard your recommendation, my initial reac­

tion was to oppose your decision. But after thinking about

it, I’ve realized I could be wrong. I realized I don’t really

have any experience about what’s best for Debbie in this

situation-only fears about the stigma of being held back.

I know it’s a complex issue. I’d like to talk about how both

of us can more objectively weigh this decision.”

Look for safety problems. As you share your story, watch for

signs that safety is deteriorating. If people start becoming defen­

sive or appear to be insulted, step out of the conversation and

rebuild safety by Contrasting.

Use Contrasting. Here’s how it works:

“I know you care a great deal about my daughter, and I’m

confident you’re well-trained. That’s not my concern at all.

I know you want to do what’s best for Debbie, and I do too.

My only issue is that this is an ambiguous decision with

huge implications for the rest of her life.”


Be careful not to apologize for your views. Remember, the

goal of Contrasting is not to water down your message, but to be

sure that people don’t hear more than you intend. Be confident

enough to share what you really want to express.

Ask for Others’ Paths

We mentioned that the key to sharing sensitive ideas is a blend

of confidence and humility. We express our confidence by shar­

ing our facts and stories clearly. We demonstrate our humility by

then asking others to share their views.

So once you’ve shared your point of view-facts and stories

alike-invite others to do the same. If your goal is to learn rather

than to be right, to make the best decision rather than to get your

way, then you’ll be willing to hear other views. By being open to

learning we are demonstrating humility at its best.

For example, ask yourself: “What does the schoolteacher

think?” “Is your boss really intending to micromanage you?” “Is

your spouse really having an affair?”

To find out others’ views on the matter, encourage them to

express their facts, stories, and feelings. Then carefully listen to

what they have to say. Equally important, be willing to abandon

or reshape your story as more information pours into the Pool of

Shared Meaning.

The “How” Skills

Ia l k Tentatively

If you look back at the vignettes we’ve shared so far, you’ll note

that we were careful to describe both facts and stories in a ten­

tative way. For example, “I was wondering why . . . ”

Talking tentatively simply means that we tell our story as a

story rather than disguising it as a fact. “Perhaps you were


unaware . . . ” suggests that you’re not absolutely certain. “In my

opinion . . . ” says you’re sharing an opinion and no more.

When sharing a story, strike a blend between confidence and

humility. Share in a way that expresses appropriate confidence in

your conclusions while demonstrating that, if appropriate, you

want your conclusions challenged. To do so, change “The fact is”

to “In my opinion.” Swap “Everyone knows that” for “I’ve talked

to three of our suppliers who think that.” Soften “It’s clear to

me” to “I’m beginning to wonder if.”

Why soften the message? Because we’re trying to add mean­

ing to the pool, not force it down other people’s throats. If we’re

too forceful, the information won’t make it into the pool.

Besides, with both facts and stories, we’re not absolutely certain

they’re true. Our observations could be faulty. Our stories­

well, they’re only educated guesses.

In addition, when we use tentative language, not only does it

accurately portray our uncertain view, but it also helps reduce

defensiveness and makes it safe for others to offer differing opin­

ions. One of the ironies of dialogue is that when we’re sharing

controversial ideas with potentially resistant people, the more

forceful we are, the less persuasive we are. In short, talking ten­

tatively can actually increase our influence.

Tentative, not wimpy. Some people are so worried about

being too forceful or pushy that they err in the other direction.

They wimp out by making still another Sucker’s Choice. They

figure that the only safe way to share touchy data is to act as if

it’s not important.

“I know this is probably not true . . . ” or “Call me crazy

but . . . ”

When you begin with a complete disclaimer and do it in a tone

that suggests you’re consumed with doubt, you do the message a

disservice. It’s one thing to be humble and open. It ‘s quite another


to be clinically uncertain. Use language that says you’re sharing an

opinion, not language that says you’re a nervous wreck.

A “Good” Story-The Gold i locks Test

To get a feel for how to best share your story, making sure that

you’re neither too hard nor too soft, consider the following


Too soft: “This is probably stupid, but . . . ”

Too hard: “How come you ripped us off?”

lust right: “It’s starting to look like you’re taking this home for

your own use. Is that right?”

Too soft: “I’m ashamed to even mention this, but . . . ”

Too hard: “Just when did you start using hard drugs?”

Just right : “It’s leading me to conclude that you’re starting to use

drugs. Do you have another explanation that I’m missing


Too soft : “It’s probably my fault, but . . . ”

Too hard: “You wouldn’t trust your own mother to make a one­

minute egg!”

Just right: “I’m starting to feel like you don’t trust me. Is that

what’s going on here? If so, I’d like to know what I did to

lose your trust.”

Too soft : “Maybe I’m just oversexed or something, but . . . ”

Too hard: “If you don’t find a way to pick up the frequency, I’m


lust right : “I don’t think you’re intending this, but I’m beginning

to feci rejected.”


fncou rage Testing

When you ask others to share their paths, how you phrase your

invitation makes a big difference. Not only should you invite

others to talk, but you have to do so in a way that makes it clear

that no matter how controversial their ideas are, you want to

hear them. Others need to feel safe sharing their observations

and stories-even if they differ. Otherwise, they don’t speak up

and you can’t test the accuracy and relevance of your views.

This becomes particularly important when you’re having a

crucial conversation with people who might move to silence.

Some people make Sucker’s Choices in these circumstances.

They worry that if they share their true opinions, others will clam

up. So they choose between speaking their minds and hearing

others out. But the best at dialogue don’t choose. They do both.

They understand that the only limit to how strongly you can

express your opinion is your willingness to be equally vigorous

in encouraging others to challenge it.

Invite opposing views. So if you think others may be hesitant,

make it clear that you want to hear their views-no matter their

opinion. If they disagree, so much the better. If what they have

to say is controversial or even touchy, respect them for finding

the courage to express what they’re thinking. If they have differ­

ent facts or stories, you need to hear them to help complete the

picture. Make sure they have the opportunity to share by active­

ly inviting them to do so: “Does anyone see it differently?”

“What am I missing here?” “I’d really like to hear the other side

of this story.”

Mean it. Sometimes people offer an invitation that sounds

more like a threat than a legitimate call for opinions. “Well,

that’s how I see it. Nobody disagrees, do they?” Invite people

with both words and tone that say “I really want to hear from

you.” For instance: “I know people have been reluctant to speak

up about this, but I would really love to hear from everyone.”


Or: “I know there are at least two sides to this story. Could we

hear differing views now? What problems could this decision

cause us?”

Play devil’s advocate. Occasionally you can tell that others are

not buying into your facts or story, but they’re not speaking up

either. You’ve sincerely invited them, even encouraged differing

views, but nobody says anything. To help grease the skids, play

devil’s advocate. Model disagreeing by disagreeing with your

own view. “Maybe I’m wrong here. What if the opposite is true?

What if the reason sales have dropped is because . . . ”


To see how all of the STATE skills fit together in a touchy con­

versation, let’s return to the motel bill. Only this time, Carole

does a far better job of bringing up a delicate issue.

BOB: Hi honey, how was your day?

CAROLE: Not so good.

BOB: Why’s that?

CAROLE: I was checking our credit card bill, and I noticed a

charge of forty-eight dollars for the Good Night Motel

down the street. [Shares facts]

BOB: Boy, that sounds wrong.

CAROLE: It sure does.

BOB: Well, don’t worry. I’ll check into it one day when I’m

going by.

CAROLE: I’d feel better if we checked right now.

BOB: Really? It’s less than fifty bucks. It can wait.

CAROLE: It ‘s not the money that has me worried.

BOB: You’re worried ?


CAROLE: It’s a motel down the street. You know that’s how

my sister found out that Phil was having an affair. She

found a suspicious hotel bill. [Shares story-tentatively] I

don’t have anything to worry about do I? What do you

think is going on with this bill? [Asks for other’s path]

BOB: I don’t know, but you certainly don’t have to worry

about me.

CAROLE: I know that you’ve given me no reason to question

your fidelity. I don’t really believe that you’re having an

affair. [Contrasting] It’s just that it might help put my

mind to rest if we were to check on this right now. Would

that bother you? [Encourages testing]

BOB: Not at all. Let’s give them a call and find out what’s

going on.

When this conversation actually did take place, it sounded

exactly like the one portrayed above. The suspicious spouse

avoided nasty accusations and ugly stories, shared facts, and

then tentatively shared a possible conclusion. As it turns out,

the couple had gone out to a Chinese restaurant earlier that

month. The owner of the restaurant also owned the motel and

used the same credit card imprinting machine at both estab­

lishments. Oops.

By tentatively sharing a story rather than attacking, name­

calling, and threatening, the worried spouse averted a huge bat­

tle, and the couple’s relationship was strengthened at a time

when it could easily have been damaged.


Now let’s turn our attention to another communication challenge.

This time you’re not offering delicate feedback or iffy stories;

you’re merely going to step into an argument and advocate your


point of view. It’s the kind of thing you do all the time. You do it

at home, you do it at work, and yes, you’ve even been known to

fire off an opinion or two while standing in line at the DMV.

Unfortunately, as stakes rise and others argue differing

views-and you just know in your heart of hearts that you ‘re

right and they’re wrong-you start pushing too hard. You simply

have to win. There’s too much at risk and only you have the right

ideas. Left to their own devices, others will mess things up. So

when you care a great deal and are sure of your views, you don’t

merely speak-you try to force your opinions on others. Quite

naturally, others resist. You in turn push even harder.

As consultants, we (the authors) watch this kind of thing hap­

pen all the time. For instance, seated around the table is a group

of leaders who are starting to debate an important topic. First,

someone hints that she’s the only one with any real insight. Then

someone else starts tossing out facts like so many poisonous

darts. Another-it just so happens someone with critical infor­

mation-retreats into silence. As emotions rise, words that were

once carefully chosen and tentatively delivered are now spouted

with an absolute certainty that is typically reserved for claims

that are nailed to church doors or carved on stone tablets.

In the end, nobody is listening, everyone is committed to

silence or violence, and the Pool of Shared Meaning is dry.

Nobody wins.

How Did We Get like This?

It starts with a story. When we feel the need to push our ideas

on others, it’s generally because we believe we’re right and every­

one else is wrong. There’s no need to expand the pool of mean­

ing. because we own the pool. We also firmly believe it’s our duty

to fight for the truth that we’re holding. It’s the honorable thing

tu do. I t ‘s what people of l:haral:ter do.


Of course, others aren’t exactly villains in this story. They sim­

ply don’t know any better. We, on the other hand, are modern­

day heroes crusading against naivete and tunnel vision.

We feel justified in using dirty tricks. Once we’re convinced

that it’s our duty to fight for the truth, we start pulling out the

big guns. We use debating tricks that we’ve picked up through­

out the years. Chief among them is the ability to “stack the

deck.” We cite information that supports our ideas while hiding

or discrediting anything that doesn’t. Then we spice things up

with exaggeration: “Everyone knows that this is the only way to

go.” When this doesn’t work, we lace our language with inflam­

matory terms: “All right-thinking people would agree with me.”

From there we employ any number of dirty tricks. We appeal

to authority: “Well, that’s what the boss thinks.” We attack the

person: “You’re not so naive as to actually believe that?” We

draw hasty generalizations: “If it happened in our overseas oper­

ation, it’ll happen here for sure.”

And again, the harder we try and the more forceful our tac­

tics, the greater the resistance we create, the worse the results,

and the more battered our relationships.

How Do We Change?

The solution to excessive advocacy is actually rather simple-if

you can just bring yourself to do it. When you find yourself just

dying to convince others that your way is best, back off your cur­

rent attack and think about what you really want for yourself,

others, and the relationship. Then ask yourself, “How would I

behave if these were the results I really wanted?” When your

adrenaline level gets below the 0.05 legal limit, you’ll be able to

use your STATE skills .

First, watch for the moment when people start to resist you.

Turn your attention from the topic (no matter how important) to


yourself. Are you leaning forward? Are you speaking more

loudly? Are you starting to try to win? Are you speaking in

lengthy monologues and using dirty tricks? Remember: The

more you care about an issue, the less likely you are to be on

your best behavior.

Second, tone down your approach. Open yourself up to the

belief that others might have something to say, and better still,

they might even hold a piece of the puzzle-and then ask them

for their views.

Of course, this isn’t easy. Backing off when we care the most

is so counterintuitive that most of us have trouble pulling it off.

It’s not easy to soften your language when you’re positive about

something. And who wants to ask for other views when you

know they’re wrong? That’s positively nuts.

In fact, it can feel disingenuous to be tentative when your own

strong belief is being brought into question. Of course, when you

watch others shift from healthy dialogue to forcing their way on

others , it’s obvious that if they don’t back off, nobody will buy

in. That’s when you’re watching others. On the other hand, when

we ourselves are pushing hard, it’s the correct thing to do.


Let’s face it. When it comes to our strongest views, passion

can be our enemy. Of course, feeling strongly about something

isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s okay to have strong opinions. The

problem comes when we try to express them.

For instance, when we believe strongly in a concept or a

cause, our emotions kick in and we start trying to force our way

onto others. As our emotions kick in, our ideas no longer flow

into the pool. Instead, our thoughts shoot out of our mouths like

water out of a raging fire hydrant. And guess what-others

become defensive. When this happens, when our emotions tum

our ideas into a harsh and painful stream of thoughts, our hon­

<.:st passion kil ls the argument rather than supports it.


Catch yourself. So what’s a person to do? Catch yourself

before you launch into a monologue. Realize that if you’re start­

ing to feel indignant or if you can’t figure out why others don’t

buy in-after all, it’s so obvious to you-recognize that you’re

starting to enter dangerous territory.

Back off your harsh and conclusive language, not your belief.

Hold to your belief; merely soften your approach.


When you have a tough message to share, or when you are so

convinced of your own rightness that you may push too hard,

remember to STATE your path:

• S.hare your facts. Start with the least controversial, most per­

suasive elements from your Path to Action.

• Tell your story. Explain what you’re beginning to conclude.

• for others’ paths. Encourage others to share both their

facts and their stories.

• Talk tentatively. State your story as a story-don’t disguise it

as a fact.

• Encourage testing. Make it safe for others to express differing

or even opposing views.


One of the best ways to persuade others

is with your ears-by listening to them.


Explore Others’

How to Listen When Others

Blow Up or Clam Up

Over the past few months your daughter Wendy has started to

date a guy who looks like he’s about ten minutes away from a

felony arrest. After only a few weeks of dating this fellow,

Wendy’s clothing preference is now far too suggestive for your

taste, and she routinely punctuates her language with expletives.

When you carefully try to talk to her about these recent changes,

she shouts accusations and insults and then withdraws to her

room where she sulks for hours on end.

Now what? Should you do something given that you’re not

the one going to silence or violence? When others clam up

(refusing to speak their minds) or blow up (communicating in a

way that is abusive and insulting), is there something you can do

tu get them to dialogue?


The answer is a resounding “It depends.” If you want to let a

sleeping dog lie (or, in this case, a potential train wreck go unat­

tended) , then say nothing. It’s the other person who seems to

have something to say but refuses to open up. It’s the other per­

son who’s blown a cork. Run for cover. You can’t take responsi­

bility for someone else’s thoughts and feelings. Right?

Then again, you’ll never work through your differences until

all parties freely add to the pool of meaning. That means the peo­

ple who are blowing up or clamming up must participate as well.

And while it’s true that you can’t force others to dialogue, you

can take steps to make it safer for them to do so. After all, that’s

why they’ve sought the security of silence or violence in the first

place. They’re afraid that dialogue will make them vulnerable.

Somehow they believe that if they engage in real conversation

with you, bad things will happen. Your daughter, for instance,

believes that if she talks with you, she’ll be lectured, grounded,

and cut off from the only guy who seems to care about her.

Restoring safety is your greatest hope to get your relationship

back on track.


In Chapter 5 we recommended that whenever you notice safety

is at risk, you should step out of the conversation and restore it .

When you have offended others through a thoughtless act, apol­

ogize. Or if someone has misunderstood your intent, use

Contrasting. Explain what you do and don’t intend. Finally, if

you’re simply at odds, find a Mutual Purpose.

Now we add one more skill: Explore Others’ Paths. Since

we’ve added a model of what’s going on inside another person’s

head (the Path to Action) , we now have a whole new tool for

helping others feel safe. If we can find a way to let others know

that it’s okay to share their Path to Action-their facts, and yes,


even their nasty stories and ugly feelings-then they’ll be more

likely to open up.

But what does it take?

Start with Heart-Get Ready to listen

Be sincere. To get at others’ facts and stories, we have to invite

them to share what’s on their minds. We’ll look at how to do this

in a minute. For now, let’s highlight the point that when you do

invite people to share their views, you must mean it. For exam­

ple, consider the following incident. A patient is exiting a health­

care facility. The desk attendant can tell that she is a bit uneasy,

maybe even dissatisfied.

“Did everything go all right with the procedure?” the clerk asks.

“Mostly,” the patient replies. (If ever there was a hint that

something was wrong, the term “mostly” has to be it. )

“Good,” the clerk abruptly responds and then fol lows with a

resounding, “Next!”

This i s a classic case of pretending to be interested. I t falls under

the “How are you today?” category of inquiries. Meaning: “Please

don’t say anything of substance. I’m really just making small talk.”

When you ask people to open up, be prepared to listen.

Be curious. When you do want to hear from others (and you

should because it adds to the pool of meaning), the best way to get

at the truth is by making it safe for them to express the stories that

are moving them to either silence or violence. This means that at

the very moment when most people become furious, we need to

become curious. Rather than respond in kind, we need to wonder

what’s behind the ruckus.

But how? How can we possibly act curious when others are

either attacking us or heading for cover? People who routinely

seek to find out why others are feeling unsafe have learned that

gett ing at the SOUl-ce or fear and discomfort is the best way to


return to dialogue. Either they’ve seen others do it, or they’ve

stumbled on the formula themselves. In either case, they realize

that the cure to silence or violence isn’t to respond in kind, but

to get at the source. This calls for genuine curiosity-at a time

when you’re likely to be feeling frustrated or angry.

To help turn your visceral tendency to respond in kind into

genuine curiosity, look for opportunities to be curious. Start with

a situation where you observe someone becoming emotional and

you’re still under control-such as a meeting (when you’re not

personally under attack and are less likely to get hooked) . Do

your best to get at the person’s source of fear or anger. Look for

chances to tum on your curiosity rather than kick-start your


To illustrate what can happen as we exercise our curiosity, let’s

return to our nervous patient.

CLERK: Did everything go all right with the procedure?

PATIENT: Mostly.

CLERK: It sounds like you had a problem of some kind. Is

that right?

PATIENT: I’ll say. It hurt quite a bit. And besides, isn’t the

doctor, like, uh, way too old?

In this case, the patient is reluctant to speak up. Perhaps if

she shares her honest opinion, she will insult the doctor, or

maybe the loyal staff members will become offended. To deal

with the problem, the desk attendant lets the patient know

that it’s safe to talk (as much with his tone as with his words) ,

and she opens up.

Stay curious. When people begin to share their volatile stories

and feelings, we now face the risk of pulling out our own Victim,

Villain, and Helpless Stories to help us explain why they’re say-


ing what they’re saying. Unfortunately, since it’s rarely fun to

hear other people’s unflattering stories, we begin to assign nega­

tive motives to them for telling the stories. For example:

CLERK: Well aren’t you the ungrateful one! The kind doctor

devotes his whole life to helping people and now that he’s

a little gray around the edges, you want to send him out

to pasture!

To avoid overreacting to others’ stories, stay curious. Give

your brain a problem to stay focused on. Ask: “Why would a rea­

sonable, rational, and decent person say this?” This question

keeps you retracing the other person’s Path to Action until you

see how it all fits together. And in most cases, you end up seeing

that under the circumstances, the individual in question drew a

fairly reasonable conclusion.

Be patient. When others are acting out their feelings and

opinions through silence or violence, it’s a good bet they’re

starting to feel the effects of adrenaline. Even if we do our best

to safely and effectively respond to the other person’s possible

onslaught, we still have to face up to the fact that it’s going to

take a little while for him or her to settle down. Say, for exam­

ple, that a friend dumps out an ugly story and you treat it with

respect and continue on with the conversation. Even if the two

of you now share a similar view, it may seem like your friend is

still pushing too hard. While it’s natural to move quickly from

one thought to the next, strong emotions take a while to sub­

side. Once the chemicals that fuel emotions are released, they

hang around in the bloodstream for a time-in some cases, long

after thoughts have changed.

So be patient when exploring how others think and feel.

Encourage them to share their path and then wait for their emo­

t ions to catch up with the safety that you’ve created.


Encourage Others to Retrace Their Path

Once you’ve decided to maintain a curious approach, it’s time to

help the other person retrace his or her Path to Action.

Unfortunately, most of us fail to do so. That’s because when oth­

ers start playing silence or violence games, we’re joining the con­

versation at the end of their Path to Action. They’ve seen and

heard things, told themselves a story or two, generated a feeling

(possibly a mix of fear and anger or disappointment) , and now

they’re starting to act out their story. That’s where we come in.

Now, even though we may be hearing their first words, we’re

coming in somewhere near the end of their path. On the Path to

Action model, we’re seeing the action at the end of the path-as

shown in Figure 8-1 .
Every sentence has a history. To get a feel for how complicat­

ed and unnerving this process is, remember how you felt the last

time your favorite mystery show started late because a football

game ran long. As the game wraps up, the screen cross-fades

from a trio of announcers to a starlet standing over a murder vic­

tim. Along the bottom of the screen are the discomforting words,

“We now join this program already in progress.”

&eel TeU a
Hear —too- Story –…,… Feel

Figure 8- 1 . The Path to Action


You shake the remote in exasperation. You’ve missed the

entire setup! For the rest of the program you end up guessing

about key facts. What happened before you joined in?

Crucial conversations can be equally mysterious and frustrat­

ing. When others are in either silence or violence, we’re actually

joining their Path to Action already in progress. Consequently,

we’ve already missed the foundation of the story and we’re con­

fused. If we’re not careful, we can become defensive. After all,

not only are we joining late, but we’re also joining at a time when

the other person is starting to act offensively.

Break the cycle. And then guess what happens? When we’re on

the receiving end of someone’s retributions, accusations, and cheap

shots, rarely do we think: “My, what an interesting story he or she

must have told. What do you suppose led to that?” Instead, we

match this unhealthy behavior. Our defense mechanisms kick in,

and we create our own hasty and ugly Path to Action.

People who know better cut this dangerous cycle by stepping

out of the interaction and making it safe for the other person to

talk about his or her Path to Action. They perform this feat by

encouraging him or her to move away from harsh feelings and

knee-jerk reactions and toward the root cause. In essence, they

retrace the other person’s Path to Action together. At their

encouragement, the other person moves from his or her emo­

tions, to what he or she concluded, to what he or she observed.

When we help others retrace their path to its origins, not only

do we help curb our reaction, but we also return to the place

where the feelings can be resolved-at the source, or the facts

and the story behind the emotion.


When? So far we’ve suggested that when other people appear to

have a story to tel l and facts to share, it’s our job to invite them


to do so. Our cues are simple: Others are going to silence or vio­

lence. We can see that they’re feeling upset, fearful, or angry. We

can see that if we don’t get at the source of their feelings, we’ll

end up suffering the effects of the feelings. These external reac­

tions are our cues to do whatever it takes to help others retrace

their Paths to Action.

How? We’ve also suggested that whatever we do to invite the

other person to open up and share his or her path, our invitation

must be sincere. As hard as it sounds, we must be sincere in the

face of hostility, fear, or even abuse-which leads us to the next


What? What are we supposed to actually do? What does it

take to get others to share their path-stories and facts alike? In

a word, it requires listening. In order for people to move from

acting on their feelings to talking about their conclusions and

observations, we must listen in a way that makes it safe for oth­

ers to share their intimate thoughts. They must believe that when

they share their thoughts, they won’t offend others or be pun­

ished for speaking frankly.


To encourage others to share their paths we’ll use four power lis­

tening tools that can help make it safe for other people to speak

frankly. We call the four skills power listening tools because they

are best remembered with the acronym AMPP-Ask, Mirror,

Paraphrase, and Prime. Luckily, the tools work for both silence

and violence games.

Ask to Get Th i ngs Rol l i ng

The easiest and most straightforward way to encourage others to

share their Path to Action is simply to invite them to express them­

selves. For example, often all it takes to break an impasse is to seek


to understand others’ views. When we show genuine interest, peo­

ple feel less compelled to use silence or violence. For example: “Do

you like my new dress, or are you going to call the modesty

police?” Wendy smirks.

“What do you mean?” you ask. “I’d like to hear your concerns.”

If you’re willing to step out of the fray and simply invite the

other person to talk about what’s really going on, it can go a long

way toward breaking the downward spiral and getting to the

source of the problem.

Common invitations include:

“What’s going on?”

“I’d really like to hear your opinion on this.”

“Please let me know if you see it differently.”

“Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I really want to

hear your thoughts.”

Mi rror to Confi rm Fee l i ngs

If asking others to share their path doesn’t open things up, mirror­

ing can help build more safety. In mirroring, we take the portion of

the other person’s Path to Action we have access to and make it

safe for him or her to discuss it. All we have so far are actions and

some hints about the other person’s emotions, so we start there.

When we mirror, as the name suggests, we hold a mirror up

to the other person-describing how they look or act. Although

we may not understand others’ stories or facts, we can see their

actions and get clues about their feelings.

This particular tool is most useful when another person’s tone

or voice or gestures (hints about the emotions behind them) are

inconsistent with his or her words. For example: “Don’t worry.

I ‘m fine. ” (But the person in question is saying this with a look

t hat suggests he is actually quite upset. He’s frowning, looking

around , and sort of kicking at the ground. )


“Really? From the way you’re saying that, it doesn’t sound like

you are.”

We explain that while the person may be saying one thing, his

or her tone of voice or body posture suggests something else. In

doing so, we show respect and concern for him or her.

The most important element of mirroring is our tone of voice.

It is not the fact that we are acknowledging others’ emotions that

creates safety. We create safety when our tone of voice says we’re

okay with them feeling the way they’re feeling. If we do this well,

they may conclude that rather than acting out their emotions,

they can confidently talk them out with us instead.

So as we describe what we see, we have to do so calmly. If we

act upset or as if we’re not going to like what others say, we don’t

build safety. We confirm their suspicions that they need to

remain silent.

Examples of mirroring include:

“You say you’re okay, but by the tone of your voice, you

seem upset.”

“You seem angry at me.”

“You look nervous about confronting him. Are you sure

you’re willing to do it?”

�a raph rase to Acknowledge the Story

Asking and mirroring may help you get part of the other person’s

story out into the open. When you get a clue about why the per­

son is feeling as he or she does, you can build additional safety

by paraphrasing what you’ve heard. Be careful not to simply par­

rot back what was said. Instead, put the message in your own

words-usually in an abbreviated form.

“Let’s see if I’ve got this right. You’re upset because I’ve

voiced my concern about some of the clothes you wear. And

this seems controlling or old-fashioned to you.”


The key to paraphrasing, as with mirroring, is to remain calm

and collected. Our goal is to make it safe, not to act horrified and

suggest that the conversation is about to tum ugly. Stay focused

on figuring out how a reasonable, rational, and decent person

could have created this Path to Action. This will help you keep

from becoming angry or defensive. Simply rephrase what the per­

son has said, and do it in a way that suggests that it’s okay, you’re

trying to understand, and it’s safe for him or her to talk candidly.

Don ‘t push too hard. Let’s see where we are. We can tell that

another person has more to share than he or she is currently

sharing. He or she is going to silence or violence, and we want

to know why. We want to get back to the source (the facts)

where we can solve the problem. To encourage the person to

share, we’ve tried three listening tools. We’ve asked, mirrored,

and paraphrased. The person is still upset, but isn’t explaining

his or her stories or facts.

Now what? At this point, we may want to back off. After a

while, our attempts to make it safe for others can start feeling as

if we’re pestering or prying. If we push too hard, we violate both

purpose and respect. Others may think our purpose is merely to

extract what we want from them and conclude that we don’t care

about them personally. So instead, we back off. Rather than try­

ing to get to the source of the other person’s emotions, we either

gracefully exit or ask what he or she wants to see happen. Asking

people what they want helps them engage their brains in a way

that moves to problem solving and away from either attacking or

avoiding. It also helps reveal what they think the cause of the

problem is.

frime When You’re Getti ng Nowhere

On the other hand, there are times when you may conclude that

others would like to open up but still don’t feel safe. Or maybe

t hey’re s t i l l in violence, haven ‘t come down from the adrenaline,


and aren’t explaining why they’re angry. When this is the case,

you might want to try priming. Prime when you believe that the

other person still has something to share and might do so with a

little more effort on your part.

The power-listening term priming comes from the expression

“priming the pump.” If you’ve ever worked an old-fashioned

hand pump, you understand the metaphor. With a pump, you

often have to pour some water into it to get it running. Then it

works just fine. When it comes to power listening, sometimes

you have to offer your best guess at what the other person is

thinking or feeling. You have to pour some meaning into the

pool before the other person will do the same.

A few years back, one of the authors was working with an

executive team that had decided to add an afternoon shift to one

of the company’s work areas. The machinery wasn’t being fully

utilized, and the company couldn’t afford to keep the area open

without adding a three-to-midnight crew. This, of course, meant

that the people currently working days would now have to rotate

every two weeks to afternoons. It was a tortured but necessary


As the execs held a meeting to announce the unpopular

change, the existing work crew went silent. They were obviously

unhappy, but nobody would say anything. The operations man­

ager was afraid that people would misinterpret the company’s

actions as nothing more than a grab for more money. In truth,

the area was losing money, but the decision was made with the

current employees in mind. With no second shift, there would be

no jobs. He also knew that asking people to rotate shifts and to

be away from loved ones during the afternoon and evening

would cause horrible burdens.

As people sat silently fuming, the executive did his best to get

them to talk so that they wouldn’t walk away with unresolved

feelings. He mirrored, “I can see you’re upset-who wouldn’t


be? Is there anything we can do?” Nothing. Finally, he primed.

That is, he took his best guess at what they might be thinking,

said it in a way that showed it was okay to talk about it, and then

went on from there. “Are you thinking that the only reason we’re

doing this is to make money? That maybe we don’t care about

your personal lives?”

After a brief pause, someone answered: “Well, it sure looks

like that. Do you have any idea how much trouble this is going

to cause?” Then someone else chimed in and the discussion was

off and running.

Now, this is not the kind of thing you would do unless noth­

ing else has worked. You really want to hear from others, and

you have a very strong idea of what they’re probably thinking.

Priming is an act of good faith, taking risks, becoming vulnera­

ble, and building safety in hopes that others will share their


But What If They’re Wrong?

Sometimes it feels dangerous to sincerely explore the views of

someone whose path is wildly different from your own. He or

she could be completely wrong, and we’re acting calm and col­

lected. This makes us nervous.

To keep ourselves from feeling nervous while exploring others’

paths-no matter how different or wrong they seem-remember

we’re trying to understand their point of view, not necessarily

agree with it or support it. Understanding doesn’t equate with

agreement. By coming to understand another person’s Path to

Action, we are not accepting it as absolute truth. There will be

plenty of time later for us to share our path as well. For now,

wc’re merely trying to get at what others think in order to under­

stand why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling and doing what

t hey’rc doing.



Now let’s put the several skills together in a single interaction. We’ll

return to Wendy. She has just come home from a date with the guy

who has you frightened. You yank the door open, pull Wendy into

the house, and double-bolt your entrance. Then you talk, sort of.

WENDY: How could you embarrass me like that ! 1 get one

boy to like me, and now he’ll never talk to me again! 1

hate you!

You: That wasn’t a boy. That was a future inmate. You’re

worth more than that. Why are you wasting your time

with him?

WENDY: You’re ruining my life. Leave me alone!

After Wendy’s bedroom door slams shut, you drop down

into a chair in the living room. Your emotions are running

wild. You’re terrified about what could happen if Wendy con­

tinues to see this guy. You’re hurt that she said she hated you.

You feel that your relationship with her is spiraling out of


So you ask yourself, “What do 1 really want?” As you mull this

question over, your motives change. The goals of controlling

Wendy and defending your pride drop from the top to the bottom

of your list. The goal that’s now at the top looks a bit more inspir­

ing: “I want to understand what she’s feeling. 1 want a good rela­

tionship with Wendy. And I want her to make choices that will

make her happy.”

You’re not sure if tonight is the best or worst time to talk, but you

know that talking is the only path forward. So you give it a shot.

You: (Tapping on door.) Wendy? May I talk with you


WENDY: Whatever.


(You enter her room and sit on her bed. )

YOU: I’m really sorry for embarrassing you like that. That

was a bad way to handle it. [Apologize to build safety]

WENDY: It’s just that you do that a lot. It’s like you want to

control everything in my life.

YOU: Can we talk about that? [Ask]

WENDY: (Sounding angry) It’s no big deal. You’re the par­

ent, right?

YOU: From the way you say that, it sounds like it is a big

deal. [Mirror] I really would like to hear what makes you

think I’m trying to control your life. [Ask]

WENDY: What, so you can tell me more ways that I’m

screwed up? I’ve finally got one friend who accepts me,

and you’re trying to chase him away!

YOU: So you feel like I don’t approve of you, and your friend

is one person who does? [Paraphrase]

WENDY: It’s not just you. All my friends have lots of boys

who like them. Doug’s the first guy who’s even called me.

I don’t know-never mind.

YOU: I can see how you’d feel badly when others are getting

attention from boys and you aren’t. I’d probably feel the

same way. [Paraphrase]

WENDY: Then how could you embarrass me like that? !

YOU: Honey, I’d like to take a stab at something here. I won­

der if part of the reason you’ve started dressing differently

and hanging out with different friends is because you’re

not feeling cared about and valued by boys, by your par­

ents, and by others right now. Is that part of it? [Prime]

WEN DY: (Sits quietly for a long time) Why am I so ugly? I

real ly work on how I look but . . .


From here, the conversation goes to the real issues, parent and

daughter discuss what’s really going on, and both come to a better

understanding of each other.


Let’s say you did your level best to make it safe for the other per­

son to talk. After asking, mirroring, paraphrasing, and eventually

priming, the other person opened up and shared his or her path.

It’s now your turn to talk. But what if you disagree? Some of the

other person’s facts are wrong, and his or her stories are com­

pletely fouled up. Well, at least they’re a lot different from the

story you’ve been telling. Now what?


As you watch families and work groups take part in heated

debates, it’s common to notice a rather intriguing phenomenon.

Although the various parties you’re observing are violently argu­

ing, in truth, they’re in violent agreement. They actually agree on

every important point, but they’re still fighting. They’ve found a

way to turn subtle differences into a raging debate.

For example, last night your teenage son broke his curfew

again. You and your spouse have spent the morning arguing

about the infraction. Last time James came in late, you agreed to

ground him, but today you’re upset because it seems like your

spouse is backpedaling by suggesting that James still be able to

attend a football camp this week. Turns out it was just a misun­

derstanding. You and your spouse agree to the grounding-the

central issue. You thought your spouse was reneging on the agree­

ment when, in truth, you just hadn’t actually resolved the date the

grounding would start. You had to step back and listen to what


you were both saying to realize that you weren’t really disagree­

ing, but violently agreeing.

Most arguments consist of battles over the 5 to 1 0 percent of

the facts and stories that people disagree over. And while it’s true

that people eventually need to work through differences, you

shouldn’t start there. Start with an area of agreement.

So here’s the take-away. If you completely agree with the

other person’s path, say so and move on. Agree when you agree.

Don’t turn an agreement into an argument.


Of course, the reason most of us turn agreements into debates is

because we disagree with a certain portion of what the other per­

son has said. Never mind that it’s a minor portion. If it’s a point

of disagreement, we’ll jump all over it like a fleeing criminal.

Actually, we’re trained to look for minor errors from an early

age. For instance, we learn in kindergarten that if you have the

right answer, you’re the teacher’s pet. Being right is good. Of

course, if others have the right answer they get to be the pet. So

being right first is even better. You learn to look for even the tini­

est of errors in others’ facts, thinking, or logic. Then you point

out the errors. Being right at the expense of others is best.

By the time you finish your education, you have a virtual

Ph.D. in catching trivial differences and turning them into a

major deal. So when another person offers up a suggestion

(based on facts and stories), you’re looking to disagree. And

when you do find a minor difference, you turn this snack into a

meal . Instead of remaining in healthy dialogue, you end up in

violent agreement.

On the other hand, when you watch people who are skilled in

dialogue, it becomes clear that they’re not playing this everyday


game of Trivial Pursuit-looking for trivial differences and then

proclaiming them aloud. In fact, they’re looking for points of

agreement. As a result, they’ll often start with the words “I

agree.” Then they talk about the part they agree with. At least,

that’s where they start.

Now when the other person has merely left out an element of

the argument, skilled people will agree and then build. Rather

than saying: “Wrong. You forgot to mention . . . ,” they say:

“Absolutely. In addition, I noticed that . . . ”

If you agree with what has been said but the information is

incomplete, build. Point out areas of agreement and then add

elements that were left out of the discussion .


Finally, if you do disagree, compare your path with the other

person’s . That is, rather than suggesting that he or she is

wrong, suggest that you differ. He or she may, in fact, be

wrong, but you don’t know for sure until you hear both sides

of the story. For now, you just know that the two of you differ.

So instead of pronouncing “Wrong!” start with a tentative but

candid opening such as “I think I see things differently. Let me

describe how.”

Then share your path using the STATE skills from Chapter 7 .
That is, begin by sharing your observations. Share them tenta­

tively, and invite others to test your ideas. After you’ve shared

your path, invite the other person to help you compare it with

his or her experience. Work together to explore and explain the


In summary, to help remember these skills, think of your

ABCs. Agree when you agree. Build when others leave out key

pieces. Compare when you differ. Don’t tum differences into

debates that lead to unhealthy relationships and bad results .



To encourage the free flow of meaning and help others leave

silence or violence behind, explore their Paths to Action. Start

with an attitude of curiosity and patience. This helps restore


Then, use four powerful listening skills to retrace the other

person’s Path to Action to its origins.

• Ask. Start by simply expressing interest in the other person’s


• Mirror. Increase safety by respectfully acknowledging the

emotions people appear to be feeling.

• l!.araphrase. As others begin to share part of their story,

restate what you’ve heard to show not just that you under­

stand, but also that it’s safe for them to share what they’re


• Prime. If others continue to hold back, prime. Take your best

guess at what they may be thinking and feeling.

As you begin to share your views, remember:

• Agree. Agree when you do.

• Build. If others leave something out, agree where you do,

then build.

• Qompare. When you do differ significantly, don’t suggest others

are wrong. Compare your two views.

To do nothmg IS m every man’s power.


Move to Action
How to Turn Crucial

Conversations into
Action and Results

Up until this point we’ve suggested that getting more meaning

into the pool helps with dialogue. It’s the one thing that helps

people make savvy decisions that, in turn, lead to smart actions.

In order to encourage this free flow of meaning, we’ve shared the

skills we’ve been able to learn by watching people who are gift­

ed at dialogue. By now, if you’ve followed some or all of this

advice, you’re walking around with full pools. People who walk

near you should hear the sloshing.

It’s time we add two final skills. Having more meaning in the

pool . even jointly owning it, doesn’t guarantee that we all agree

on what we’re going to do with the meaning. For example, when

Il!ums or families meet and generate a host of ideas, they often

fa i l to convert the ideas into act ion for two reasons:


• They have unclear expectations about how decisions will be


• They do a poor job of acting on the decisions they do make.

This can be dangerous. In fact, when people move from adding

meaning to the pool to moving to action, it’s a prime time for new

challenges to arise. Who is supposed to take the assignment?

That can be controversial. How are we supposed to decide in the

first place? That can be emotional. Let’s take a look at what it

takes to solve each of these problems. First, making decisions.


The two riskiest times in crucial conversations tend to be at the

beginning and at the end. The beginning is risky because you

have to find a way to create safety or else things go awry. The end

is dicey because if you aren’t careful about how you clarify the

conclusion and decisions flowing from your Pool of Shared

Meaning, you can run into violated expectations later on. This

can happen in two ways.

How are decisions going to be made? First, people may not

understand how decisions are going to be made. For example,

Cara is miffed. Rene just plunked down a brochure for a three­

day cruise and announced he had made reservations and even

paid the five hundred dollar deposit for an outside suite.

A week ago they had a crucial conversation about vacation

plans. Both expressed their views and preferences respectfully

and candidly. It wasn’t easy, but at the end they concluded a

cruise suited both quite well. And yet Cara is miffed, and Rene

is stunned that Cara is anything less than ecstatic.

Cara agreed in principle about a cruise. She didn’t agree with

this particular cruise. Rene thought that any cruise would be fine

and made a decision on his own. Have fun on the cruise. Rene.


Are we ever going to decide? The second problem with deci­

sion making occurs when no decision gets made. Either ideas

slip away and dissipate, or people can’t figure out what to do

with them. Or maybe everyone is waiting for everyone else to

make the decisions. “Hey, we filled the pool. Now you do some­

thing with it.” In any case, decisions drag on forever.


Both of these problems are solved if, before making a decision,

the people involved decide how to decide. Don’t allow people to

assume that dialogue is decision making. Dialogue is a process

for getting all relevant meaning into a shared pool. That process,

of course, involves everyone. However, simply because everyone

is allowed to share their meaning-actually encouraged to share

their meaning-doesn’t mean they are then guaranteed to take

part in making all the decisions. To avoid violated expectations,

separate dialogue from decision making. Make it clear how deci­

sions will be made-who will be involved and why.

When the line of authority is clear. When you’re in a position

of authority, you decide which method of decision making you’ll

use. Managers and parents, for example, decide how to decide. It’s

part of their responsibility as leaders. For instance, VPs don’t ask

hourly employees to decide on pricing changes or product lines.

That’s the leaders’ job. Parents don’t ask small children to pick

their home security device or to set their own curfew. That’s the

job of the parent. Of course, both leaders and parents tum more

decisions over to their direct reports and children when they war­

rant the responsibility, but it’s still the authority figure who decides

what method of decision making to employ. Deciding what deci­

sions to tum over and when to do it is part of their stewardship.

When the line of authority isn ‘t clear. When there is no clear

l ine of authority, deciding how to decide can be quite difficult.


For instance, consider a conversation we referred to earlier-the

one you had with your daughter’s schoolteacher. Should you hold

your child back? Whose choice is this anyway? Who decides

whose choice it is? Does everyone have a say, then a vote? Is it

the school officials’ responsibility, so they choose? Since parents

have ultimate responsibility, should they consult with the appro­

priate experts and then decide? Is there even a clear answer to

this tough question?

A case like this is hand-tooled for dialogue. All of the partici­

pants need to get their meaning into the pool-including their

opinions about who should make the final choice. That’s part of

the meaning you need to discuss. If you don’t openly talk about

who decides and why, and your opinions vary widely, you’re like­

ly to end up in a heated battle that can only be resolved in court.

Handled poorly, that’s exactly where these kind of issues are

resolved-The lones Family vs. Happy Valley School District.

So what’s a person to do? Talk openly about your child’s abil­

ities and interests as well as about how the final choice will be

made. Don’t mention lawyers or a lawsuit in your opening com­

ments; this only reduces safety and sets up an adversarial cli­

mate. Your goal is to have an open, honest, and healthy discus­

sion about a child, not to exert your influence, make threats, or

somehow beat the educators . Stick with the opinions of the

experts at hand, and discuss how and why they should be

involved. When decision-making authority is unclear, use your

best dialogue skills to get meaning into the pool. Jointly decide

how to decide.

The Four Methods of Decision Making

When you’re deciding how to decide, it helps to have a way of

talking about the decision-making options available. There are

four common ways of making decisions: command, consult,


vote, and consensus. These four options represent increasing

degrees of involvement. Increased involvement, of course, brings

the benefit of increased commitment along with the curse of

decreased decision-making efficiency. Savvy people choose from

among these four methods of decision making the one that best

suits their particular circumstances.

Com mand

Let’s start with decisions that are made with no involvement what­

soever. This happens in one of two ways. Either outside forces

place demands on us (demands that leave us no wiggle room), or

we tum decisions over to others and then follow their lead. We

don’t care enough to be involved-let someone else do the work.

In the case of external forces, customers set prices, agencies

mandate safety standards, and other governing bodies simply

hand us demands. As much as employees like to think their boss­

es are sitting around making choices, for the most part they’re

simply passing on the demands of the circumstances. These are

command decisions. With command decisions, it’s not our job to

decide what to do. It’s our job to decide how to make it work.

In the case of turning decisions over to others, we decide

either that this is such a low-stakes issue that we don’t care

enough to take part or that we completely trust the ability of the

delegate to make the right decision. More involvement adds

nothing. In strong teams and great relationships, many decisions

are made by turning the final choice over to someone we trust to

make a good decision. We don’t want to take the time ourselves

and gladly tum the decision over to others.

Consu lt

Consulting is a process whereby decision makers invite others to

influenec them before they make their choice. You can consult


with experts, a representative population, or even everyone who

wants to offer an opinion. Consulting can be an efficient way of

gaining ideas and support without bogging down the decision­

making process. At least not too much. Wise leaders, parents,

and even couples frequently make decisions in this way. They

gather ideas, evaluate options, make a choice, and then inform

the broader population.


Voting is best suited to situations where efficiency is the highest

value-and you’re selecting from a number of good options.

Members of the team realize they may not get their first choice,

but frankly they don’t want to waste time talking the issue to

death. They may discuss options for a while and then call for a

vote. When facing several decent options, voting is a great time

saver but should never be used when team members don’t agree

to support whatever decision is made. In these cases, consensus

is required.


This method can be both a great blessing and a frustrating curse.

Consensus means you talk until everyone honestly agrees to one

decision. This method can produce tremendous unity and high­

quality decisions. If misapplied, it can also be a horrible waste of

time. It should only be used with ( 1 ) high-stakes and complex

issues or (2) issues where everyone absolutely must support the

final choice.


Now that we know the four methods, let’s explore which method

to use at which time-along with some hints about how to avoid

common blunders.


Four Important Questions

When choosing among the four methods of decision making,

consider the following questions.

1 . Who cares? Determine who genuinely wants to be involved

in the decision along with those who will be affected. These

are your candidates for involvement. Don’t involve people

who don’t care.

2. Who knows? Identify who has the expertise you need to

make the best decision. Encourage these people to take

part. Try not to involve people who contribute no new


3 . Who must agree? Think of those whose cooperation you

might need in the form of authority or influence in any

decisions you might make. It’s better to involve these

people than to surprise them and then suffer their open


4. How many people is it worth involving? Your goal should

be to involve the fewest number of people while still con­

sidering the quality of the decision along with the support

that people will give it. Ask: “Do we have enough people to

make a good choice? Will others have to be involved to

gain their commitment?”

How about you? Here’s a suggestion for a great exercise for

teams or couples, particularly those that are frustrated about

decision making. Make a list of some of the important decisions

made in the team or relationship. Then discuss how each deci­

sion is currently made, and how each should be made-using the

four important questions. After discussing each decision, decide

how you wi l l make decisions in the future. A crucial conversa­

tion about your decision-making practices can resolve many frus­

I ru l ing issues.



Now, let’s look at each of the four methods in turn. What are the

common blunders associated with each, and more importantly,

how can we avoid them?

Appropriate Use of Command

The mistake. For years, employees have complained that their

bosses are far too bossy. They hand out orders like Halloween

candy. They not only tell people what to do, but also restrict

them to only one way of doing it. They give directions down to

the tiniest detail when it would be better to allow the employee

to work out the details of how the job will be done. After all, the

employee is not only closest to the job, but is also the expert on

how to do it.

Today’s generation of employees (and children, for that mat­

ter) expects to be involved in more decisions than their grand­

parents ever faced. That’s where the empowerment movement

came from. Younger people don’t see themselves as a pair of

hands seeking direction. They want to think. They want to

decide. They’re willing to take on more responsibility.

So as you face a potential “command decision,” consider the


• Don’t pass out orders like candy. We face enough command

decisions (constraints placed on us by outside forces) without

making up new ones. As a general rule, if people can make choic­

es, allow them to do so. Don’t tie their hands without reason.

With kids, for example, you may establish rules about cleanliness

in the common areas of the home, but you may let them choose

(within the boundaries of hygiene) how to keep their rooms.

• When you face a command decision, ask which elements are

flexible. Once a standard has been set by an agency or an order


placed by a customer, while you may not be able to decide what

to work on or what standards to follow, you can decide how to

work. Find out where you do have degrees of freedom and then

allow others to choose within these boundaries .

• Explain why. When handing down an order, explain the reason

behind the demand. Knowing why helps make what a lot eas­

ier. For example, if you decide overtime is needed to meet a

deadline, it helps to explain why you came to this conclusion.

The Dos and Don’ts of Consultation

The most obvious problem with consultation is that people

believe that if you involve them in sharing ideas, they get to make

the decision. It’s easy to see how this happens since you ask for

people’s input, you weigh all the options, and you make a deci­

sion. Then two-thirds of those you asked feel violated because

you didn’t do what they told you to do.

Dialogue is a great tool for consultation. It enables you to get

all meaning into the shared pool. But before people start con­

tributing, be sure they understand that the fact that you are con­

sulting with them does not mean that eventually the decision will

be made by consensus.

When should you use consultation? Consult when ( 1 ) many

people will be affected, (2) you can gather information relative­

Iy easily, (3) people care about the decision, and (4) there are

many options, some of them controversial.

When these conditions apply, find a way to touch base with a

lot of people in different positions, locations, and functions

before moving on. Don’t simply call on your friends and buddies.

Also, consider the following:

• J)on ‘, pretend to consult. If you’ve already made up your

mind, don ‘t go through the charade of involving people, only


to do what you wanted to do all along. For example, the boss

calls on people and then strikes down ideas that aren’t in line

with what he or she has in mind, while giving subtle clues and

gentle rewards to those who stumble onto the “right idea.”

• Announce what you ‘re doing. When you are only going to

involve a sample of the people who will be affected, let others

know who these people are so they can talk to them if they

like. This is akin to holding neighborhood political meetings.

Not everyone will show up, but people who want to take part

can take part.

• Report your decision. When others are kind enough to share

their opinions (whether you take their advice or not) , they

deserve to know what you decide and why. Don’t try to keep

your decision a secret because you’re afraid you’ll offend peo­

ple. They’ll soon learn of the decision anyway. Better to hear

it from you and not through the grapevine.

Holding a Good Vote

• Weigh the consequences. Voting by its very nature creates

winners and losers. So you have to be careful. You should only

take a vote when you know that the losers don’t really care all

that much. Otherwise you may be fighting the battle for a long

time after the decision has been made. With children, for

example, have them carefully consider if they’re okay with los­

ing before they agree to have you take a poll.

• Know when to vote. When matters aren’t all that weighty, there

are many good choices to select from, and people care about

not taking too much time, then take a vote. It’s the kind of thing

you do to reduce lengthy lists. Vote to reduce the list of twenty

items to five. Then use consensus to select from the five.


• Don’t cop out with a vote. When everyone cares a great deal

about an issue and people are having trouble coming to a

choice, don’t stop and call for a vote. Votes should never replace

patient analysis and healthy dialogue. If you find yourself say­

ing, “All right, we’ll never agree so let’s vote,” you’re copping


Surviving the Joys of Consensus

Imagine you’re working with six people, all housed in a tight

space. Things are sailing along smoothly until one day when a

new employee shows up with a huge boom box-it looks like a

storage shed with a handle on top. It has its own set of wheels.

Thirty seconds later, the pulsing sounds of a band called Decibel

Death fill your area. You’re not happy. You fear your head will

explode. How might you handle this?

Or how about this challenge? How do you decide the temper­

ature of the room you share?

Or how about this one? Where does the entire family go on


Or if you want to take on a real corker-who performs the

most distasteful jobs at home and at work?

These are the kinds of decisions where neither consultation nor

command tools work very well. Everyone is affected, everyone

cares, and there are several options-not equally liked. This kind

of crucial conversation calls for consensus. Everyone meets, hon­

estly and openly discusses the choices, comes up with a variety of

ideas, and jointly makes a decision that each person agrees to sup­

port. As is the case with all crucial conversations, this is not an

easy process and is routinely handled poorly. Here are some hints

for avoiding common mistakes .

• Don’t force consensus onto everything. As Abraham Maslow

once sa id, ” I f t he only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to


see every problem as a nail.” Consensus decision making is

one of today’s widely used hammers. People apply it to situa­

tions that don’t deserve the time and attention needed to come

to a consensus or that can’t be solved unanimously.

For example, forty people are brought together to decide on

the color of the work area. That’s too many people. Use con­

sultation. A team meets to decide if each team member should

use a certain type of coffee mug (we’re not making this up) .

Let people choose their own. A couple asks their son to decide

his own punishment. Not always a good idea. Some decisions

need to be made by command.

• Don’t pretend that everyone gets his or her first choice. Nobody

ever said that with consensus everyone gets his or her way.

Consensus isn’t about getting your way; it’s about doing what’s

best for the family or team. It requires give and take. It demands

compromise followed by the resolve to support (in some cases)

your second or third choice-because it’s best for the group.

• No martyrs please. Healthy teams and families are good at

coming to consensus because they’re good at dialogue. They

don’t toggle from silence to violence or otherwise play games

in order to get their way. Since everyone has a say and says it

well, healthy groups don’t end up with the same people con­

stantly giving in and then playing the role of martyr. “Are you

enjoying the theme park? Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit

here on the curb and try to think of what it would have been

like to go to Paris.”

• Don’t take turns. Decisions should be based on merit, not on

who offers up the options. Don’t take turns getting your way.

“Well, Leona, my recollection is that you gave in last time, so

I guess it’s our turn to roll over on this one.” Make the deci­

sion based on which proposal best meets the needs of the


group. This doesn’t mean that people don’t take into account

personalities or strength of desire (deferring to those who care

a great deal when you don’t care all that much, for instance) .

It simply means that the future of your family or organization

shouldn’t come down to the flip of a coin.

• Don ‘t engage in postdecision lobbying. Consensus decisions

should be made out in the open and as an entire group.

Withholding your reservations and then approaching individu­

als after the discussion is both inefficient and disloyal. If you

have an issue, bring it up in front of the group. Leave unhealthy

alliances, dirty deals, and secret discussions to people who are

on reality game shows. They can afford to abuse one another,

take their winnings, and then go their separate ways. With fam­

ilies and work groups, you stay together long after the ugly

behavior and you suffer the long-term consequences .

• Don’t say «[ told you so. ” Nothing is quite so annoying as

having someone agree on a choice (his or her second choice,

perhaps) and then cry, “I told you so!” when it doesn’t work

out. Once you’ve decided on something as a group, support

the idea-not even when it fails, but particularly when it fails.

There’s no room for fair-weather family members or team­

mates. Show character. When an idea doesn’t work out, own

the failure together.

Advice for the Time-Bound

There are times when you know you should involve others in a

decision, but you absolutely have to make a decision by a certain

time. Tn these cases, consider selecting a fallback decision-making

plan .

For example, you could announce: “We have a critical deci­

sion 1 0 make that affect s all of us, and it must be made by ten


sharp. I propose that we use consensus to decide. However, if by

9:45 we have not come to consensus, then it will become a con­

sult decision. I will use your input, and I will decide.”

This strategy allows you to try for the optimum decision-mak­

ing method, but it leaves you a back door without making you

look like a despot when time runs out.



Now let’s take a look at the final step. You’ve engaged in healthy

dialogue, filled the pool of meaning, decided how you’re going

to draw from the pool, and eventually come to some decisions.

It’s time to do something. Some of the items may have been

completely resolved during the discussion, but many may

require a person or team to do something. You’ll have to make

assignmen ts.

As you might suspect, when you’re involved with two or more

people, there’s a chance that there will be some confusion. To

avoid common traps, make sure you consider the following four


• Who?

• Does what?

• By when?

• How will you follow up?


To quote an English proverb, “Everybody’s business is nobody’s

business .” If you don’t make an actual assignment to an actual

person, there’s a good chance that nothing will ever come of all

the work you’ve gone through to make a decision.


When it’s time to pass out assignments, remember, there is no

“we.” “We,” when it comes to assignments, actually means, “not

me.” It’s code. Even when individuals are not trying to duck an

assignment, the term “we” can lead them to believe that others

are taking on the responsibility.

Assign a name to every responsibility. This especially applies

at home. If you’re divvying up household chores, be sure you’ve

got a specific person to go with each chore. That is, if you assign

two or three people to take on a task, appoint one of them the

responsible party. Otherwise, any sense of responsibility will be

lost in a flurry of finger-pointing later on.

Does What?

Be sure to spell out the exact deliverables you have in mind. The

fuzzier the expectations, the higher the likelihood of disappoint­

ment. For example, the eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes

once assigned a team of engineers to design and build the world’s

first steam-powered car. When sharing his dream of a vehicle that

could run on heated water, he gave them virtually no direction.

After several years of intense labor the engineers successfully

produced the first prototype by running dozens of pipes through

the car’s body-thus solving the problem of where to put all the

water required to run a steam-powered car. The vehicle was

essentially a giant radiator.

When Hughes asked the engineers what would happen if the

car got into a wreck, they nervously explained that the passen­

gers would be boiled alive, much like lobsters in a pot. Hughes

was so upset in what the crew came up with that he insisted they

cut it up into pieces no larger than three inches. That was the

cnd of the project.

Lcarn from Hughes. When you’re first agreeing on an assign­

mcnt, c lari fy up front the exact details of what you want.


Couples get into trouble in this area when one of the parties

doesn’t want to take the time to think carefully about the “deliv­

erables” and then later on becomes upset because his or her

unstated desires weren’t met. Have you ever remodeled a room

with a loved one? Then you know what we’re talking about.

Better to spend the time up front clarifying exactly what you want

rather than waste resources and hurt feelings on the back end.

To help clarify deliverables, use Contrasting. If you’ve seen

people misunderstand an assignment in the past, explain the

common mistake as an example of what you don’t want. If pos­

sible, point to physical examples. Rather than talk in the

abstract, bring a prototype or sample. We learned this particular

trick when hiring a set designer. The renowned designer talked

about what he would deliver, and it sounded great to us. Twenty­

five thousand dollars later he delivered something that would

never work. We had to start over from scratch. From that day on

we’ve learned to point to pictures and talk about what we want

and don’t want. The clearer the picture of the deliverable, the

less likely you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.

By When?

It’s shocking how often people leave this element out of an

assignment. Instead of giving a deadline, people simply point to

the setting sun of “someday.” With vague or unspoken deadlines,

other urgencies come up, and the assignment finds its way to the

bottom of the pile, where it is soon forgotten. Assignments with­

out deadlines are far better at producing guilt than stimulating

action. Goals without deadlines aren’t goals; they’re merely


How Wi l l You Fol low Up?

Always agree on how often and by what method you’ll follow up

on the assignment. It could be a simple email confirming the


completion of a project. It might be a full report in a team or

family meeting. More often than not, it comes down to progress

checks along the way.

It’s actually fairly easy to build follow-up methods into the

assignment. For example: “Call me on my cell phone when you

finish your homework. Then you can go play with friends.


Or perhaps you’ll prefer to rely on milestones: “Let me know

when you’ve completed your library research. Then we’ll sit down

and look at the next steps.” Milestones, of course, must be linked

to a drop-dead date. “Let me know as soon you’ve completed the

research component of this project. You’ve got until the last week

in November, but if you finish earlier, give me a call.”

Remember, if you want people to feel accountable, you must

give them an opportunity to account. Build an expectation for

follow-up into every assignment.


Once again, a proverb comes to mind. “One dull pencil is worth

six sharp minds.” Don’t leave your hard work to memory. If

you’ve gone to the effort to complete a crucial conversation,

don’t fritter away all the meaning you created by trusting your

memories. Write down the details of conclusions, decisions, and

assignments. Remember to record who does what by when.

Revisit your notes at key times (usually the next meeting) and

review assignments.

As you review what was supposed to be completed, hold peo­

ple accountable. When someone fails to deliver on a promise, it’s

t ime for dialogue. Discuss the issue by using the STATE skills we

covered in Chapter 7. By holding people accountable, not only

do you increase their motivation and ability to deliver on prom­

ises. but you create a culture of integrity.



Turn your successful crucial conversations into great decisions

and united action by avoiding the two traps of violated expecta­

tions and inaction.

Decide How to Decide

• Command. Decisions are made without involving others.

• Consult. Input is gathered from the group and then a subset


• Vote. An agreed-upon percentage swings the decision.

• Consensus. Everyone comes to an agreement and then sup­

ports the final decision.

Finish Clearly

Determine who does what by when . Make the deliverables crys­

tal clear. Set a follow-up time. Record the commitments and then

follow up. Finally, hold people accountable to their promises.

1 0

Communication works for those who work at it.


Putting It Al l

Tools for Preparing

and Learning

If you read the previous pages in a short period of time, you

probably feel like an anaconda who just swallowed a warthog.

It’s a lot to digest.

You may well be wondering at this point how you can possi­

bly keep all these ideas straight -especially during something as

unpredictable and fast moving as a crucial conversation.

This chapter will help with the daunting task of making dia­

logue tools and skills memorable and useable. First, we’ll sim­

plify things by sharing what we’ve heard from people who have

L:hanged their lives by using these skills. Second, we’ll lay out a

model that can help you visually organize the seven dialogue

principles. Third, wc’ l I walk through an example of a crucial

convcrsation where al l t he d ia logue principles are applied.



Over the years, people often tell us that the principles and skills

contained in this book have helped them a great deal. But how?

In what way can the printed word lead to important changes?

After watching people at home and at work, as well as inter­

viewing them, we’ve learned that most people make progress not

by focusing on specific skills-at least to start with-but instead

by applying two of the main principles in this book. We hope

that as we share their success strategies with you, you’ll feel

more confident getting started on the road to improved results

and relationships.

Learn to Look. The first lever for positive change is Learn to

Look. That is, people who improve their dialogue skills continu­

ally ask themselves whether they’re in or out of dialogue. This

alone makes a huge difference. Even people who can’t remember

or never learned the skills of STATE or CRIB, etc., are able to

benefit from this material by simply asking if they’re falling into

silence or violence. They may not know exactly how to fix the

specific problem they’re facing, but they do know that if they’re

not in dialogue, it can’t be good. And then they try something to

get back to dialogue. As it turns out, trying something is better

than doing nothing.

So remember to ask the following important question: “Are

we playing games or are we in dialogue?” It’s a wonderful start.

Many people get additional help in learning to look from their

friends. They go through training as families or teams. As they

share concepts and ideas, they learn a common vocabulary. This

shared way of talking about crucial conversations helps people


Perhaps the most common way that the language of dialogue

finds itself into everyday conversation is with the expression, “I


think we’ve moved away from dialogue.” This simple reminder

helps people catch themselves early on, before the damage is severe.

As we’ve watched executive teams, work groups, and couples sim­

ply go public with the fact that they’re starting to move toward

silence or violence, others often recognize the problem and take

corrective action. “You’re right. I’m not telling you what needs to

be said,” or “I’m sorry. I have been trying to force my ideas on you.”

Make It Safe. The second lever is Make It Safe. We’ve sug­

gested that dialogue consists of the free flow of meaning and that

the number one flow stopper is a lack of safety. When you notice

that you and others have moved away from dialogue, do some­

thing to make it safer. Anything. We’ve suggested a few skills,

but those are merely a handful of common practices. They’re not

immutable principles. To no one’s surprise, there many things

you can do to increase safety. If you simply realize that your chal­

lenge is to make it safer, nine out of ten times you’ll intuitively

do something that helps.

Sometimes you’ll build safety by asking a question and show­

ing interest in others’ views. Sometimes an appropriate touch

(with loved ones and family members-not at work where

touching can equate with harassment) can communicate safety.

Apologies, smiles, even a request for a brief “time out” can help

restore safety when things get dicey. The main idea is to make it

safe. Do something to make others comfortable. And remember,

virtually every skill we’ve covered in this book, from Contrasting

to CRIB, offers a tool for building safety.

These two levers form the basis for recognizing, building, and

maintaining dialogue. When the concept of dialogue is intro­

duced, these are the ideas most people can readily take in and

apply to crucial conversations. Now let’s move on to a discussion

uf the rest of the principles we’ve covered.



To help organize our thinking and to make it easier to recall the

principles (and when to apply them), let’s look at the model

shown in Figure 1 0- 1 . It begins with concentric circles-like a

target. Notice that the center circle is the Pool of Shared

Meaning-it’s the center of the target, or the aim of dialogue.

When meaning flows freely, it finds its way into this pool, which

represents people’s best collective thinking.

Surrounding the Pool of Shared Meaning is safety. Safety

allows us to share meaning and keeps us from moving into

silence or violence. When conversations become crucial, safety

must be strong.

Watch for games. Next you’ll notice that we’ve portrayed the

behaviors to watch when thinking about safety. These are the six

silence and violence behaviors we look for in others and in out-

Figure 1 0- 1 . The Dialogue Model


Figure 1 0-2. The Dialogue Model

breaks of our own Style Under Stress. When we see these or sim­

ilar behaviors, we know that safety is weak. This is a cue to step

out of the content of the conversation, strengthen safety, and

then step back in. Remember, don’t back away or weaken the

argument. Just rebuild safety. Do it quickly. The further you

move from dialogue into silence or violence, the harder it is to

get back and the greater the costs.

Now, let’s add people to our model.

Me and Others. (Figure 1 0-2) . You are the “ME” arrow on the

model. Others are included in the “OTHER” arrow. The arrows

(both pointed to the center of the pool) show that both we and

others are in dialogue. All our meaning is flowing freely into the

shared pool. Learn to Look means we watch for when either of

these two arrows begins to point upward or downward, toward

silence or violence. When this happens, either you or others are

starting to play games.

Watching and building conditions. (Figure 1 0-3). When you

sec yourself drift ing to sikncc or violence, Start with Heart. Keep


Figure 1 0-3. The Dialogue Model

yourself in dialogue by focusing on what you really want and then

behaving as if you really do want it. A void the Sucker’s Choices

that make it appear as if silence and violence are the only options.

When your emotions start running strong and taking control of

the conversation, use the Master My Stories principle to bring

your arrow back to the Pool of Shared Meaning. Retrace your Path

to Action, watch for clever stories, and tell the rest of the story.

When others move to silence or violence, Make It Safe. As we

strengthen safety, others are more likely to lay aside their silence

and violence and move back toward dialogue in the center.

What to do. The next three principles teach us what to do with

our meaning. First, we learned to STATE My Path. We share our

own sensitive or controversial views by following our Path to

Action. We share the facts first and then tentatively share our

story. We then demonstrate we’re serious about dialogue by

encouraging others to share their story (Figure 1 0-4 )-especially

if it’s different from our own.


Figure 1 0-4. The Dialogue Model

To help others share their meaning, we Explore Others’ Paths.

We ask, mirror, paraphrase, and prime (AMPP) as needed to get

to their feelings, stories, and facts. As we use these skills effec­

tively, we demonstrate that their concerns are discussable-that

dialogue can actually work. This helps others feel safer sur­

rendering their silence and violence and joining us in dialogue.

Finally, with the Pool of Shared Meaning full, we Move to

Action. We ensure that we are clear about how decisions are

being made and about what the decisions are. And we follow up

to ensure that dialogue leads to positive actions and results.

You can use the Dialogue Model first to diagnose what’s going

un. Remember to ask: “Where am I?” ”Where are others?” “Are we

in dialogue or in some form of silence or violence?”

Next ask, “Where do I want to be?” “Where do I want others to

be?” The principles and tools become the methods and means to

get to dialogue.



Here’s one last tool to help you organize what we’ve shared about

mastering crucial conversations. This tool will help you prepare

for an upcoming crucial conversation or learn from one that

you’ve already held.

Take a look at the table entitled Coaching for Crucial

Conversations, which follows. The first column in the table lists

the seven dialogue principles we’ve shared. The second column

summarizes the skills associated with each principle. The final

column is the best place to start coaching yourself or others. This

column includes a list of questions that will help you apply spe­

cific skills to your conversations.

Coaching for Crucial Conversations


1. Start with


(Chapter 3)

2. Learn to


(Chapter 4)

Skil l

Focus on what you

really want.

Refuse the Sucker’s


Look for when the

conversation becomes


Look for saftey problems.

Look for our own Style

Under Stress.

Crucial Question

What am I acting like

I really want?

What do I really want?

• For me?

• For others?

• For the relationship?

How would I behave if I
really did want this?

What do I not want?

How should I go about

getting what I really want

and avoiding what I don’t


Am I going to silence or


Are others?


Coaching for Crucial Conversations (Continued)


3. Make It


(Chapter 5)

4. Master

My Stories

(Chapter 6)


My Path

(Chapter 7)

6. Explore



(Chapter 8)


Apologize when


Contrast to fix


CRIB to get to

Mutual Purpose.

Retrace my Path to


Separate fact from story.

Watch for Three Clever


Tell the rest of the story.

Share your facts.

lell your story.

Ask for others’ paths.

lalk tentatively.

Encourage testing.





Crucial Question

Why is safety at risk?

• Have I established

Mutual Purpose?

• Am I maintaining

Mutual Respect?

What will I do to rebuild


What is my story?

What am I pretending not

to know about my role in

the problem?

Why would a reasonable,

rational, and decent person

do this?

What should I do right now

to move toward what I

really want?

Am I really open to others’


Am I talking about the real


Am I confidently expressing

my own views?

Am I actively exploring

others’ views?


Coaching for Crucial Conversations (Continued)


7. Move

to Action

(Chapter 9)





Decide how you’ll


Document decisions

and follow up.

let’s See How It Al l Works

Crucial Question

Am I avoiding unnecessary


How will we make


Who will do what by when?

How will we follow up?

We’ve included an extended case here to show how these prin­

ciples might look when you find yourself in the middle of a cru­

cial conversation. It outlines a tough discussion between you

and your sister about dividing your mother’s estate. The case is

set up to illustrate where the principles apply, and to briefly

review each principle as it comes up in the conversation.

The conversation begins with you bringing up the family sum­

merhouse. Your mother’s funeral was a month ago, and now it’s

time to split up both money and keepsakes. You’re not really

looking forward to it.

The issue is made touchier by the fact that you feel that since

you almost single-handedly cared for your mother during the

last several years, you should be compensated. You don’t think

your sister will see things the same way.

You r Crucial Conversation

YOU: We have to sell the summer cottage. We never use it,

and we need the cash to pay for my expenses from taking

care of Mom the past four years.

pum N G IT ALL TOG ETH ER 1 89

SISTER: Please don’t start with the guilt. I sent you money

every month to help take care of Mom. If I didn’t have

to travel for my jobs, you know I would have wanted her

at my house.

You notice that emotions are already getting strong. You’re

getting defensive, and your sister seems to be angry. You’re in a

crucial conversation, and it’s not going well.

Start with Heart

Ask yourself what you really want. You want to be compensated

fairly for the extra time and money you put in that your sister

didn’t. You also want to keep a good relationship with your sister.

But you want to avoid making a Sucker’s Choice. So you ask

yourself: “How can I tell her that I want to be compensated

fairly for the extra effort and expense I put in and keep a good


Learn to Look

You recognize a lack of Mutual Purpose-you’re both trying to

defend your actions rather than discuss the estate.

Make It Safe

Contrast to help your sister understand your purpose.

YOU: I don’t want to start an argument or try to make you

feel guilty. But I do want to talk about being compensated

for shouldering most of the responsibility over the last few

years. I love Mom, but it put quite a strain on me finan­

cially and emotionally.

SISTER: What makes you think you did so much more than I



Master My Stories

You’re telling yourself that you deserve more because you did

more to care for your mother and covered unplanned expenses.

Retrace your Path to Action to find out what facts are behind the

story you’re telling that’s making you angry.


You need to share your facts and conclusions with your sister in

a way that will make her feel safe telling her story.

YOU: It’s just that I spent a lot of money taking care of Mom

and did a lot of work caring for her instead of bringing in

a nurse. I know you cared about Mom too, but I honestly

feel like I did more in the day-to-day caregiving than you

did, and it only seems fair to use some of what she left us

to repay a part of what I spent. Do you see it differently?

I’d really like to hear.

SISTER: Okay, fine. Why don’t you just send me a bill.

It sounds as though your sister isn’t really okay with this

arrangement. You can tell her voice is tense and her tone is one

of giving in, not of true agreement.

Explore Others ‘ Paths

Since part of your objective is to maintain a good relationship

with your sister, it’s important that she add her meaning to the

pool. Use the AMPP skills to actively explore her views.

YOU: The way you say that makes it sound like maybe that

suggestion isn’t okay with you. [Mirror] Is there some­

thing I’m missing? [Ask]

SISTER: No-if you feel like you deserve more than I do,

you’re probably right.


You: Do you think I’m being unfair? That I’m not acknowl­

edging your contributions? [Prime]

SISTER: It’s just that I know I wasn’t around much in the last

couple of years. I’ve had to travel a lot for work. But I still

visited whenever I could, and I sent money every month

to help contribute to Mom’s care. I offered to help pay to

bring in a nurse if you thought it was necessary. I didn’t

know you felt you had an unfair share of the responsibil­

ity, and it seems like your asking for more money is com­

ing out of nowhere.

You: So you feel like you were doing everything you could

to help out and are surprised that I feel like I should be

compensated? [Paraphrase]

SISTER: Well, yes.

Explore Others ‘ Paths

You understand your sister’s story now and still disagree to a

point. Use the ABC skills to explain how your view differs. You

agree in part with how your sister sees things. Use building to

emphasize what you agree with and to bring up what you dif­

fer on.

You: You’re right. You did a lot to help out, and I realize

that it was expensive to visit as often as you did. I opted

not to pay for professional home health care because

Mom was more comfortable with me taking care of her,

and I didn’t mind that. On top of that, there were some

incidental expenses it doesn’t sound like you were aware

of. The new medication she was on during the last eight­

een months was twice as expensive as the old, and the

insurance only covered a percentage of her hospital stays.

It adds up.


SISTER: So it’s these expenses you’re worried about cover­

ing? Could we go over these expenses to decide how to

cover them?

Move to Action

You want to create a definite plan for being reimbursed for these

expenses, and you want it to be one you both agree on. Come to

a consensus about what will happen, and document who does

what by when, and settle on a way to follow up.

You: I’ve kept a record of all the expenses that went over

the amount that both of us agreed to contribute. Can we

sit down tomorrow to go over those and talk about what’s

fair to reimburse me for?

SISTER: Okay. We’ll talk about the estate and write up a plan

for how to divide things up.


If we first learn to recognize when safety is at risk and a conver­

sation becomes crucial (Learn to Look) and that we need to take

steps to Make It Safe for everyone to contribute his or her mean­

ing, we can begin to see where to apply the skills we’ve learned.

A visual model can also help us see where the principles and

skills are needed.

Using these tools and reminders will get us started in master­

ing the skills that help us improve our crucial conversations.

1 1

A man surprised is half beaten.

Yeah, But
Advice for Tough Cases

As we (the authors) have taught this material, we’ve grown

accustomed to people saying, “Yeah, but my situation’s more dif­

ficult than that ! ” Or “Yeah, but the people I deal with aren’t so

quick to come around. Besides, most of the problems I face come

as a surprise. I’m caught off guard.” In short, people can think

of a dozen reasons why the skills we’ve been talking about don’t

apply to the situations they care about.

• “Yeah, but what if someone does something that’s really sub­

tle? It drives you crazy but it’s hard to identify. How do you

handle that?”

• “Yeah, but what if my life partner refuses to ever talk about

anything impurtant? You can’t force a person into dialogue.”


• “Yeah, but what if I can’t calm down quickly enough? I’ve

been told not to go to bed angry, but sometimes I think I need

time alone. What should I do?”

• “Yeah, but what if I don’t trust the other person? How am I

supposed to deal with that?”

• “Yeah, but both my boss and spouse are too sensitive to take

any feedback. Shouldn’t I just let things slide?”

In truth, the dialogue skills we’ve shared apply to just about

any problem you can imagine. However, since some are more dif­

ficult than others, we’ve chosen seventeen tough cases. We’ll

take a moment to share a thought or two on each.





anything, but I don’t like the way I’m being treated.

How can I bring it up without making enemies?”

The Danger Point

Someone is making comments or gestures that you find offen­

sive. The person does it seldom enough and he or she’s subtle

enough that you’re not sure if HR or your boss can even help.

What can you do?

In these situations it’s easy to think that the offender has all

the power. It seems as if the rules of polite society make it so that

others can behave inappropriately and you end up looking like

you’re overreacting if you bring it up.

Generally speaking, a vast majority of these problems go away

if they’re privately, respectfully, and firmly discussed. Your

biggest challenge will be the respect part. If you put up with this

behavior for too long, you’ll be inclined to tell a more and more

potent Villain Story about the offender. This will jack up your

YEAH, BUT 1 95

emotions to the point that you’ll go in with guns blazing-even

if only through your body language.

The Solution

Tell the rest of the story. If you’ve tolerated the behavior for a long

time before holding the conversation, own up to it. This may help

you treat the individual like a reasonable, rational, and decent

person-even if some of his or her behavior doesn’t fit this


When you feel a measure of respect for the other person,

you’re ready to begin. After establishing a Mutual Purpose for

the exchange, STATE your path. For example:

”I’d like to talk about something that’s getting in the way of

my working with you. It’s a tough issue to bring up, but I

think it’ll help us be better teammates if I do. Is that okay?”

[Establish Mutual Purpose]

“When I walk into your office, sometimes your eyes

move up and down my body. And when I sit next to you at

a computer, sometimes you put your arm around the back

of my chair. I don’t know that you’re aware you’re doing

these things, so I thought I’d bring them up because they

send a message that makes me uncomfortable. How do you

see it?” [STATE My Path]

If you can be respectful and private but firm in this conversa­

tion, most problem behavior will stop. And remember, if the

behavior is over the line, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact HR to

ensure your rights and dignity are protected.


BUT . . .

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN your spouse is too sensitive? You

try to give him or her some constructive feedback, but he

or she ((‘(Je/<, “(J Irorrgly that you end up going to silence.”


The Danger Point

Often couples come to an unspoken agreement during the first

year or so of their marriage that affects how they communicate

for the rest of their marriage. Say one person is touchy and

can’t take feedback, or the other doesn’t give it very well. In

any case, they in effect agree to say nothing to each other. They

live in silence. Problems have to be huge before they’re dis­


The Solution

This is generally a problem of not knowing how to STATE

your path. When something bothers you, catch it early.

Contrasting can also help. “I’m not trying to blow this out of

proportion. I just want to deal with it before it gets out of

hand.” Describe the specific behaviors you’ve observed.

“When Jimmy leaves his room a mess, you use sarcasm to get

his attention. You call him a ‘pig’ and then laugh as if you

didn’t mean it.” Tentatively explain the consequences . “I don’t

think it’s having the effect you want. He doesn’t pick up on the

hint, and I’m afraid that he’s starting to resent you” (Your

story) . Encourage testing: “Do you see it differently?”

Finally, Learn to Look for signs that safety is at risk, and Make

It Safe. When you STATE things well and others become defen­

sive, refuse to conclude that the issue is impossible to discuss.

Think harder about your approach. Step out of the content, do

what it takes to make sure your partner feels safe, and then try

again to candidly STATE your view.

When spouses stop giving each other helpful feedback, they

lose out on the help of a lifelong confidant and coach. They miss

out on hundreds of opportunities to help each other communicate

more effectively.

YEAH, BUT 1 97



MY TEAMMATES ARE hypocrites. We get together and

talk about all the ways we could improve, but then

people don’t do what they agreed to. ”

The Danger Point

The worst teams walk away from problems like these. In good

teams, the boss eventually deals with problem behavior. In the

best teams, every team member is part of the system of account­

ability. If team members see others violate a team agreement,

they speak up immediately and directly. It’s dangerous to wait for

or expect the boss to do what good teammates should do them­


The Solution

If your teammate isn’t doing what you think he or she should, it’s

up to you to speak up.

We realized this after watching a group of executives that

agreed they’d hold off on all discretionary spending to help free

up cash for a short-term crunch. This strategy sounded good in

the warm glow of an off-site meeting, but the very next day a

team member rushed back and prepaid a vendor for six months

of consulting work-work that appeared to be “discretionary.”

A team member who saw the executive prepare for and then

make the prepayment didn’t realize this was the crucial conver­

sation that would determine whether the team would pull

together or fall apart on this issue. Instead, he decided it was up

to the boss to hold this person accountable. He said nothing. By

the time the boss found out about the transaction and addressed

the i ssue. the policy had already been violated and the money


spent. Motivation to support the new plan dissipated, and the

team ran short of cash.

When teams try to rally around aggressive change or bold new

initiatives, they need to be prepared to address the problem

when a team member doesn’t live up to the agreement. Success

does not depend on perfect compliance with new expectations,

but on teammates who hold crucial conversations with one

another when others appear to be reverting to old patterns.



guessing what they think I’m willing to hear. They take
BUT . . .

little initiative in solving important problems because

they’re afraid 1’1/ disagree with them. ”

The Danger Point

When leaders face deference-or what feels like kissing up­

they typically make one of two mistakes. Either they misdiagnose

the cause (fear), or they try to banish deference with a brash


Misdiagnose. Often, leaders are causing the fear but denying

it. “Who me? I don’t do a thing to make people feel uncomfort­

able.” They haven’t Learned to Look. They’re unaware of their

Style Under Stress. Despite this disclaimer, the way they carry

themselves, their habit of speaking in absolutes, their subtle use

of authority-something out there-is creating fear and eventual


Then there’s the other misdiagnosis: leaders who face “head­

bobbing kiss-ups” often think they’re doing something wrong

when, in fact, they’re living with ghosts of previous leaders. They

do their best to be open and supportive and to involve people,

YEAH, BUT 1 99

but despite their genuine efforts, people still keep their distance.

Often, people treat their leaders like celebrities or dictators,

regardless of the fact that they’ve done nothing to deserve it.

Before you do anything, you need to find out if you’re the

cause, if you’re living with ghosts of bosses past, or both.

Command it away. Many leaders seek the simple path. They

tell people to stop deferring.

“It seems to me that you’re agreeing with me because I’m

the boss and not because what I’m saying makes sense.”


“I’d prefer that you stop deferring to me and simply listen

to the idea.”

“Okay. whatever you say, Boss ! ”

With ingrained deference you face a catch-22. If you don’t say

something, it’ll probably continue. If you do say something, you

may be inadvertently encouraging it to continue.

The Solution

Work on me first. Discover your part in the problem. Don’t ask

your direct reports. If they’re already deferring to you, they’ll

whitewash the problem. Consult with a peer who watches you in

action. Ask for honest feedback. Are you doing things that cause

people to defer to you? If so, what? Explore your peer’s path by

having him or her point out your specific behaviors. Jointly devel­

op a plan of attack, work on it, and seek continued feedback.

If the problem stems from ghosts (the actions of previous

leaders), go public. Describe the problem in a group or team

meeting and then ask for advice. Don’t try to command it away.

You can’t. Reward risk takers. Encourage testing. When people

do express an opinion contrary to yours, thank them for their

honesty. Play devi l ‘s advocate. If you can’t get others to disagree,


then disagree with yourself. Let people know that all ideas are

open to question. If you need to, leave the room. Give people

some breathing space.


n YEA H,
BUT. ..

I DON’T KNOW WHAT to do. I’m not sure I can trust this

person. He missed an important deadline. Now I wonder

if I should trust him again. ”

The Danger Point

People often assume that trust is something you have or don’t

have. Either you trust someone or you don’t. That puts too much

pressure on trust. “What do you mean I can’t stay out past mid­

night? Don’t you trust me?” your teenage son inquires.

Trust doesn’t have to be universally offered. In truth, it’s usu­

ally offered in degrees and is very topic specific. It also comes in

two flavors-motive and ability. For example, you can trust me

to administer CPR if needed; I’m motivated. But you can’t trust

me to do a good job; I know nothing about it.

The Solution

Deal with trust around the issue, not around the person.

When it comes to regaining trust in others, don’t set the bar

too high. Just try to trust them in the moment, not across all

issues. You don’t have to trust them in everything. To make it

safe for yourself in the moment, bring up your concerns.

Tentatively STATE what you see happening. “I get the sense that

you’re only sharing the good side of your plan. I need to hear the

possible risks before I’m comfortable. Is that okay?” If they play

games, call them on it.


Also, don’t use your mistrust as a club to punish people. If

they’ve earned your mistrust in one area, don’t let it bleed over

into your overall perception of their character. If you tell yourself

a Villain Story that exaggerates others’ untrustworthiness, you’ll

act in ways that help them justify themselves in being even less

worthy of your trust. You’ll start up a self-defeating cycle and get

more of what you don ‘t want.


MY SPOUSE IS THE person you talked about earlier. You

know, I try to hold a meaningful discussion, I try to
BUT. ..

work through an important problem, and he or she

simply withdraws. What can I do?”

The Danger Point

It’s common to blame others for not wanting to stay in dia­

logue as if it were some kind of genetic disorder. That’s not the

problem. If others don’t want to talk about tough issues, it’s

because they believe that it won’t do any good. Either they

aren’t good at dialogue, or you aren’t, or you both aren’t-or

so they think.

The Solution

Work on me first. Your spouse may have an aversion to all cru­

cial conversations, even when talking to a skilled person.

Nevertheless, you’re still the only person you can work on. Start

with simple challenges. Don’t go for the really tough issues. Do

your best to Make It Safe. Constantly watch to see when your

spouse starts to become uncomfortable. Use tentative language.

Separate intent from outcome. “” m pretty sure you’re not intend-


ing to . . . ” If your spouse consistently seems unwilling to talk

about his or her personal issues, learn how to Explore Others’

Paths. Practice these skills every chance you get. In short, start

simply and then bring all your dialogue tools into play.

Now, having said all of this, exercise patience. Don’t nag.

Don’t lose hope and then go to violence. Every time you become

aggressive or insulting, you give your spouse additional evidence

that crucial conversations do nothing but cause harm.

If you’re constantly on your best dialogue behavior, you’ll

build more safety in the relationship and your spouse will be

more likely to begin picking up on the cues and start coming


When you see signs of improvement, you can accelerate the

growth by inviting your spouse to talk with you about how you

talk. Your challenge here is to build safety by establishing a

compelling Mutual Purpose. You need to help your partner see a

reason for having this conversation-a reason that is so com­

pelling that he or she will be willing to take part.

Share what you think the consequences of having or not hav­

ing this conversation could be (both positive and negative) .

Explain what i t means to both you and the relationship. Then

invite your spouse to help identify the topics you have a hard

time discussing. Take turns describing how you both tend to

approach these topics. Then discuss the possible benefits of help­

ing each other make improvements.

Sometimes if you can’t talk about the tough topics, you can

more easily talk about how you talk-or don’t talk-about them.

That helps get things started.


BUT. . .

THE PERSON I’M THINKING OF doesn’t do blatantly

unacceptable things-nothing to write home about­

just subtle stuff that’s starting to drive me crazy. ”

The Danger Point

If people simply bother you at some abstract level, maybe what

they’re doing isn’t worthy of a conversation. Perhaps the prob­

lem is not their behavior but your tolerance. For example, an

executive laments, “My employees really disappoint me. Just

look at the length of their hair.” It turns out that the employees

in question have no contact with anyone besides one another.

Their hair length has nothing to do with job performance. The

boss really has no reason to say anything.

However, when actions are both subtle and unacceptable,

then you have to retrace your Path to Action and put your finger

on exactly what others are doing or you have nothing to discuss.

Abstract descriptions peppered with your vague conclusions or

stories have no place in crucial conversations. For example,

whenever your family gets together, your brother constantly

takes potshots at everyone else using sarcastic humor. The indi­

vidual comments aren’t directly insulting enough to discuss.

What you want to talk about is the fact that these constant com­

ments make every get-together feel negative. Remember, clarify­

ing the facts is the homework required for crucial conversations.

The Solution

Retrace your Path to Action to its source. Identify specific behaviors

that are out of bounds and take note. When you’ve done your home­

work, consider the behaviors you noted and make sure the story

you’re telling yourself about these behaviors is important enough for

dialogue. If it is, then Make It Safe and STATE Your Path.



asked, but no more. If they run into a problem, they
BUT. ..

lake’ one simple slab at fixing it. But if their efforts

don’t pay ofr, thc’y qllit. ”


The Danger Point

Most people are far more likely to talk about the presence of a

bad behavior than the absence of a good one. When someone

really messes up, leaders and parents alike are compelled to take

action. However, when people simply fail to be excellent, it’s

hard to know what to say.

The Solution

Establish new and higher expectations. Don’t deal with a specific

instance; deal with the overall pattern. If you want someone to

show more initiative, tell him or her. Give specific examples of

when the person ran into a barrier and then backed off after a

single try. Raise the bar and then make it crystal clear what

you’ve done. Jointly brainstorm what the person could have done

to be both more persistent and more creative in coming up with

a solution.

For instance, “I asked you to finish up a task that absolutely

had to be completed before I returned from a trip. You ran into

a problem, tried to get in touch with me, and then simply left a

message with my four-year-old. What could you have done to

track me down on the road?” or “What would it have taken to

create a backup strategy?”

Pay attention to ways you are compensating for someone’s

lack of initiative. Have you made yourself responsible for fol­

lowing up? If so, talk with that person about assuming this

responsibility. Have you asked more than one person to take the

same assignment so you can be sure it will get done? If so, talk

to the person originally assigned about reporting progress to you

early so you only need to put someone else on the job when

there’s a clear need for more resources.

Stop acting out your expectations that others won’t take initia­

tive. Instead, talk your expectations out and come to agreements


that place the responsibility on the team members while giving

you information early enough that you aren’t left high and dry.


IT ISN’T A SINGLE PROBLEM. It’s that I keep having to

talk with people about the same problem. I feel like I
u YEA H,

have to choose between being a nag and putting up

with the problem. Now what?”

The Danger Point

Some crucial conversations go poorly because you’re having the

wrong conversations. You talk to someone who is late for a

meeting for the second time, Then the third. Your blood begins

to boil. Then you bite your lip and give another gentle reminder.

Finally, after your resentment builds up (because you’re telling

yourself an ugly story) , you become violent. You make a sarcas­

tic or cutting comment and then end up looking stupid because

the reaction seems way out of line given the minor offense.

If you continue to return to the original problem (coming in

late) without talking about the new problem (failing to live up to

commitments), you’re stuck in “Groundhog Day.” We talk about

this problem using the Groundhog Day movie metaphor. If you

return to the same initial problem, you’re like Bill Murray in the

movie-you’re forced to relive the same situation over and over

rather than deal with the bigger problem. Nothing ever gets


The Solution

Learn to Look for patterns. Don’t focus exclusively on a single

event. Watch fol’ behavior over time. Then STATE Your Path by

talking about t h(: pu1 t(:rn, Por example, if a person is late for


meetings and agrees to do better, the next conversation should

not be about tardiness. It should be about his or her failure to

keep a commitment. This is a bigger issue. It’s now about trust

and respect.

People often become far more emotional than the issue they’re

discussing warrants because they’re talking about the wrong

issue. If you’re really bothered because of a pattern, but you’re

talking about this latest instance, your emotions will seem out of

proportion. In contrast, an interesting thing happens when you

hold the right conversation. Your emotions calm down. When

you talk about what’s really eating you-the pattern-you’ll be

able to be more composed and effective.

Don’t get pulled into any one instance or your concern will

seem trivial. Talk about the overall pattern.


BUT . . .

IVE BEEN TOLD THAT I should never go to bed angry. Is

that always a good idea?”

The Danger Point

Once you’ve become angry, it’s not always easy to calm down.

You’ve told yourself an ugly story, your body has responded by

preparing for a fight, and now you’re trying your best not to

duke it out-only your body hasn’t caught up with your brain.

So what do you do? Do you try to stay in dialogue even though

your intuition tells you to back off and buy some time? After all,

Mom said, “Never go to bed angry.”

The Solution

Okay, so your mom wasn’t exactly right. She was right by sug­

gesting that you shouldn’t let serious problems go unresolved.


She was wrong about always sticking with a discussion, no mat­

ter your emotional state. It’s perfectly okay to suggest that you

need some time alone and that you’d like to pick up the discus­

sion later on-say, tomorrow. Then, after you’ve dissipated the

adrenaline and have had time to think about the issues, hold the

conversation. Coming to mutual agreement to take a time-out is

not the same thing as going to silence. In fact, it’s a very healthy

example of dialogue.

As a sidenote on this topic, it’s not such a good idea to tell oth­

ers that they need to calm down or that they need to take some

time out. They may need the time, but it’s hard to suggest it with­

out coming off as patronizing. “Take ten minutes, calm down,

and then get back to me.” With others, get back to the source of

their anger. Retrace their Path to Action.


BUT .. .

MY TEENAGE SON is a master of excuses. I talk to him

about a problem, and he’s always got a new reason

why it’s not his fault. ”

The Danger Point

It’s easy to be lulled into a series of never-ending excuses-par­

ticularly if the other person doesn’t want to do what you’ve

asked and learns that as long as he or she can give you a plausi­

ble reason, all bets are off.

“I go to work before my son leaves for school, and he’s con­

stantly late. First he told me that he was late because his

alarm broke. The next day the old car we bought him had

a problem-or so he says. Then his friend forgot to pick

him up. Then he had a hl!ad cold and couldn’t hear his new

a I” 1’1ll . Thl!11 . . . ”


The Solution

With “imaginative” people, take a preemptive strike against all new

excuses. Gain a commitment to solve the overall problem, not sim­

ply the stated cause. For instance, the first time the person is late,

seek a commitment to fix the alarm-and anything else that might

stand in the way. Repairing the alarm only deals with one potential

cause. Ask the person to deal with the problem-being late.

“So you think that if you get a new alarm, you’ll be able to

make it to school on time? That’s fine with me. Do what­

ever it takes to get there on time. Can I count on you being

there tomorrow at eight o’clock sharp?”

Then remember, as the excuses accumulate, don’t talk about the

most recent excuse; talk about the pattern.



WHAT IF THE PEOPLE you talk to not only are angry. but

also become insubordinate? How do you handle that?”

The Danger Point

When you’re discussing a tough issue with employees (or even

your kids) , there’s always the chance they’ll step over the line.

They’ll move from a friendly dispute to a heated discussion and

then into the nasty territory of being insubordinate or acting dis­


The trouble is, insubordination is so rare that it takes most

leaders by surprise. So they buy time to figure out what to do.

And in so doing, they let the person get away with something

that was way out of line. Worse still, their perceived indifference

makes them an accomplice to all future abuses. Parents, on the


other hand, caught by surprise, tend to respond in kind, becom­

ing angry and insulting.

The Solution

Show zero tolerance for insubordination. Speak up immediately,

but respectfully. Change topics from the issue at hand to how the

person is currently acting. Catch the escalating disrespect before

it turns into abuse and insubordination. Let the person know

that his or her passion for the issue at hand is leading down a

dangerous trail. “I’d like to step away from this scheduling issue

for a moment-then we’ll come right back to it. The way you’re

leaning in toward me and raising your voice seems disrespectful.

I want to help address your concerns, but I’m going to have a

tough time doing so if this continues.”

If you can’t catch it early, discuss the insubordination and seek

help from HR specialists.



SOMETIMES I LET A PROBLEM go for a long time, and

then when I bring it up, I say something just awful.

How do I recover from this?”

The Danger Point

When other people do things that bother us, and then we tell

ourselves a story about how they’re bad and wrong, we’re setting

ourselves up for an unhealthy conversation. Of course, when we

tell ourselves an ugly story and then sit on it, it only gets worse.

Stories left unattended don’t get better with time-they ferment.

Then, when we eventually can’t take it anymore, we say some­

thing we regret .


The Solution

First, don’t repress your story. Use your STATE skills early on,

before the story turns too ugly. Second, if you have let the prob­

lem build, don’t hold the crucial conversation while angry. Set

aside a time when you can discuss it in a calm fashion. Then,

using your STATE skills, explain what you’ve seen and heard,

and tentatively tell the most simple and least offensive story.

“The way you just told me that our neighbor thinks I’m a real

idiot has me worried. You smiled and laughed when you said it.

I’m beginning to wonder if you take pleasure in running to me

with negative feedback. Is that what’s going on?”

If you do say something horrible-“You’re cruel, you know

that? You love to hurt me and I’m sick of it” -apologize. You

can’t uming the bell, but you can apologize. Then STATE Your




WHAT IF SOMEONE has a hygiene problem? Or maybe

someone’s boring and people avoid him or her. How

could you ever talk about something personal and

sensitive like that?”

The Danger Point

Most people avoid sensitive issues like the plague. Who can blame

them? Unfortunately, when fear and misapplied compassion rule

over honesty and courage, people can go for years without being

given information that could be extremely helpful.

When people do speak up, they often leap from silence to vio­

lence. Jokes, nicknames, and other veiled attempts to sneak in

vague feedback are both indirect and disrespectful. Also, the

YEAH, BUT 2 1 1

longer you go without saying anything, the greater the pain when

you finally deliver the message.

The Solution

Use Contrasting. Explain that you don’t want to hurt the person’s

feelings, but you do want to share something that could be help­

ful. Establish Mutual Purpose. Let the other person know your

intentions are honorable. Also explain that you’re reluctant to

bring up the issue because of its personal nature, but since the

problem is interfering with the person’s effectiveness, you really

must. Tentatively describe the problem. Don’t play it up or pile

it on. Describe the specific behaviors and then move to solu­

tions. Although these discussions are never easy, they certainly

don’t have to be offensive or insulting.


BUT. ..

MY CHILDREN are constantly playing word games. If I

try to tell them that they shouldn’t have done some­

thing, they say I never told them exactly that. They’re

starting to get on my nerves. ”

The Danger Point

Sometimes parents (and leaders) are tricked into accepting poor

performance by silver-tongued individuals who are infinitely

creative in coming up with new ways to explain why they didn’t

know any better. Not only do these inventive people have the

ability to conjure up creative excuses, but they also have the

energy and will to do so incessantly. Eventually they wear you

down. As a result, they get away with doing less or doing it


poorly, while hard-working, energetic family members (or employ­

ees) end up carrying an unfair share of the load.

The Solution

This is another case of pattern over instance. Tentatively STATE

the pattern of splitting hairs and playing word games. Let them

know they aren’t fooling anyone. In this case, don’t focus exclu­

sively on actions, because creative people can always find new

inappropriate actions. “You didn’t say I couldn’t call her ‘stu­

pid.”’ Talk about both behaviors and outcomes. “You’re hurting

your sister’s feelings when you call her stupid. Please don’t do

that, or anything else that might hurt her feelings.”

Use previous behavior as an example, and then hold them

accountable to results. Don’t get pulled into discussing any one

instance. Stick with the pattern.


u YEA H,

I’VE GOT A LOT OF GOOD people working for me, but

they’re too full of surprises. When they run into prob­

lems, I only find out after it’s too late. They always

have a good excuse, so what should I do?”

The Danger Point

Leaders who are constantly being surprised allow it to happen.

The first time an employee says, “Sorry, but I ran into a prob­

lem,” the leaders miss the point. They listen to the problem,

work on it, and then move on to a new topic. In so doing, they

are saying: “It’s okay to surprise me. If you have a legitimate

excuse, stop what you’re doing, tum your efforts to something

else, and then wait until I show up to spring the news.”

YEAH. BUT 2 1 3

The Solution

Make it perfectly clear that once you’ve given an assignment,

there are only two acceptable paths. Employees need to complete

the assignment as planned, or if they run into a problem, they

need to immediately inform you. No surprises. Similarly, if they

decide that another job needs to be done instead, they call you.

No surprises.

Clarify the “no surprises” rule. The first time someone comes

back with a legitimate excuse-but he or she didn’t tell you

when the problem first came up-deal with this as the new prob­

lem. “We agreed that you’d let me know immediately. I didn’t get

a call. What happened?”


BUT. ..

WHAT IF THE PERSON you’re dealing with violates all of

the dialogue principles most of the time-especially

during crucial conversations. ”

The Danger Point

When you look at a continuum of dialogue skills, most of us (by

definition) fall in the middle. Sometimes we’re on and some­

times we’re off. Some of us are good at avoiding Sucker’s

Choices; others are good at making it safe. Of course, you have

the extremes as well. You have people who are veritable conver­

sational geniuses. And now you’re saying that you work with

(maybe live with) someone who is the complete opposite. He or

she rarely uses any skills. What’s a person to do?

The danger, of course, is that the other person isn’t as bad as

you think-you bring out the worst in him or her-or that he or

she really is that bad . and you try to address all the problems at



The Solution

Let’s assume this person is pretty bad all of the time and with

most everyone. Where do you start? Let’s apply a metaphor here.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Choose your

targets very carefully. Consider two dimensions: ( 1 ) What both­

ers you the most? “He or she is constantly assuming the worst

and telling horrible stories.” (2) What might be the easiest to

work on? “He or she rarely shows any appreciation.”

Look for those areas that are most grievous to you and might

not be all that hard to talk about. Pick one element and work on

it . Establish Mutual Purpose. Frame the conversation in a way

that the other person will care about.

“I love it when we’re feeling friendly toward each other. I’d

like to have that feeling more frequently between us. There

are a couple of things I’d like to talk about that I’m pretty

convinced would help us with that. Can we talk?”

STATE the issue, and then work on that one issue. Don’t nag;

don’t take on everything at once. Deal with one element, one day

at a time.

1 2

To improve is to changei
to be petfoct is to change often.


Change Your Life
How to Turn Ideas into Habits

One day you “overhear” yourself enthusiastically talking about a

professional wrestling match. You’re speaking with such gusto

that you give yourself the willies. You think to yourself: “You

know what? It’s time to expand my cultural horizons.” So you

vow to read more widely and to watch three programs on the sci­

ence channel for every episode of reality TV.

While you’re at it, you commit to trimming down a bit as well.

A reasonable diet and moderate exercise program couldn’t hurt.

To top it all off, you note that you’re nearly consumed with your

work, so you swear to spend more time with your family.

More culture, better health, a stronger family-certainly you’ll

quickly transform such worthy desires into daily habits.

Hardly. Changes of this sort are rarely easy. When it comes to

turning out· wispy hopl!s into concrete realities, our success rate


is mixed at best. This being the case, what are our chances of

improving something as deeply rooted in our psyches as the way

we communicate? Actually, it depends. There are a lot of vari­

ables that affect our chances. Consider the following factors .


You’ve been asked to conduct your first meeting. To avoid

embarrassing yourself, you read a book where you learn all about

agendas, pacing, and the like. When it’s time to lead your first

meeting, you arrive early, adjust the chairs, set the markers just

so, and lay out an agenda for each participant. As participants

arrive, you greet them cordially. Then you kick off the meeting

with a rousing icebreaker and you’re off and running.

Implementing meeting skills is as easy as falling off a log.

That’s because meetings are evident. You know when you’re in

one. You’re seated at a table along with a bunch of other people.

How could you not know you’re in a meeting? They’re also pre­

dictable. You can plan for them. You even have time to go over

underlined portions from the book.

Crucial conversations, in contrast, are far less evident. You

don’t sit in a crucial conversations room. You don’t pass around

a picture of your Path to Action. Instead you get thrown into a

heated discussion where you rarely think, “Oh yes, I’m in the

middle of a crucial conversation. That means I need to think

about all that stuff I read last week.”

Discussions are also less predictable. Nobody sends you an

invitation stating: “Would you please engage me in a crucial con­

versation next week after the team meeting where you’re going

to make a policy that will miff me?” High-risk discussions don’t

come with notices and reminders. More often than not, they

come as unwelcome surprises.



Emotions don’t help much either. And, of course, crucial con­

versations are defined by their emotional characteristics . Your

ability to pull yourself out of the content of a discussion and to

focus on the process is inversely proportional to your level of

emotion. The more you care about what’s happening, the less

likely you are to think about how you’re conducting yourself.

It’s almost unfair. The bigger the deal, the less likely you are

to bring your newly acquired skill-set into the conversation. Like

it or not, if your adrenaline is flowing, you’re almost guaranteed

to jump to your Style Under Stress.

Between surprise and emotion, it’s hard to know which is the

bigger enemy of change. Both make it hard to remember to act

in new ways.


Now let’s look at still another enemy of change-scripts . Scripts

are pre bundled phrases we use in common conversations; they

form the very foundation of social habits and often make change

almost impossible. Consider the following.

When we learn to speak, first come words, then phrases, and

then scripts. The larger the bundles of words we carry around, the

less we have to worry about combining them into sensible expres­

sions. Also the less we have to fret over syntax or grammar-that

work has already been done for us.

Unfortunately, predetermined expressions also put us into a

sort of mental autopilot. Consider what happens when you walk

into a fast-food restaurant. Do you think about the words you’ll

choose? Probably not. That’s because when you enter familiar

circumstances, you’re carrying not only words and phrases, but

an ent i re script in your head.


With a script, you know both sides of the conversation. You

know that the person at the counter is going to ask for your

order. You’re certain that the perky young woman with the paper

hat is going to ask you if you want fries. Even if you include fries

in your original request, she’s still going to ask, “Do you want

fries with that?” And if you say yes, you can bet the farm that

she’s going to ask, “Do you want to super-size that?”

The good news about packing around scripts is that you don’t

have to give conversation much thought. The bad news is that

the more scripted an interaction, the more difficult it is to pull

yourself out of the routine and try something new. For example,

as you walk up to a fast-food counter, your spouse reminds you

to ask for extra ketchup.

You step up to the counter and say: “I’ll have two house spe­

cials, three kiddy delights . . . ” and then you slip into autopilot.

The words that pour out of your mouth have no relation to your

thoughts. Your brain is somewhere else entirely. You’re musing

over a menu that sports a sandwich made out of “ribs” that have

no bones. “What poor animal has boneless ribs?” you’re think­

ing to yourself.

And guess what? As you robotically state your order, one

word spilling out after another, you forget to ask for extra

ketchup. What do you expect from a person who’s devoting no

real brain time to the interaction? In fact, your spouse’s request

never even makes it onto your radar screen-which is currently

filled with images of Jell-O-like, ribless creatures mooing and

slithering across a backdrop painted by Salvador Dali.

Scripts place us on a smooth and familiar track. They take us

across known territory and at a comfortable pace-freeing our

brains for more novel work. But then again, when we’re on rails,

we travel along the prescribed route with such finesse and ease

that it’s almost impossible to make an unscheduled turn.



So let’s see what we’re facing when we try to change our Style

Under Stress. Tough conversations come at us out of nowhere,

fill us with adrenaline, and evoke comfortable (but not neces­

sarily good) routines. They are spontaneous, emotional, and

backed by years of practice.

Consequently, when you examine people working through

crucial conversations, they look a lot more like racehorses charg­

ing out of the gate than human beings making choices . Conver­

sationalists are shocked into motion by surprise, whipped up to

speed by high stakes and strong emotions, and propelled along a

completely predictable course by scripts that offer few if any



Given the challenges of altering routine scripts, can people

actually change? Early in our research, we (the authors) once

examined forty-eight front-line supervisors who were learning

how to hold crucial conversations. As we watched the trainees

back at work, it became clear to us that only a few of them

transferred what they had learned in the classroom back to

their work site. The bad news is that most of them didn’t

change an iota. The good news is that some of them did. In

fact, they used the new skills precisely as instructed.

The supervisors who found a way to apply the new skills

taught us the following four principles for turning ideas into


• First, master the content. That means not only do you have

to be able to recognize what works and why, but you have to

generate new scripts of your own.


• Second, master the skills. You must be able to enact these new

scripts in a way that is consistent with the supporting princi­

ples . As it turns out, simply understanding a concept isn’t

enough. While it’s helpful, even necessary to talk the talk, you

have to be able to walk the talk. You have to be able to say the

right words with the right tone and nonverbal actions. When

it comes to social skills, knowing and doing are two different


• Third, enhance your motive. You must want to change. This

means that you have to care enough about improving your

crucial conversation skills to actually do something. You have

to move from a passive sense that it would be a good idea to

change, to an active desire to seek opportunities . Ability with­

out motive lies dormant and untapped.

• Fourth, watch for cues. To overcome surprise, emotion, and

scripts, you must recognize the call to action. This is usually

people’s biggest obstacle to change. Old stimuli generate old

responses. If a problem doesn’t cue your new skills, you’ll return

to your old habits without even realizing you missed a chance to

try something new.

Master the Content

There’s too much material in this book to try to master in one sit­

ting. Despite the fact that you may have read this book rather

quickly, a rapid once-over rarely generates much of a change in

behavior. You may have a feel for the content, but probably not

enough to propel you to change.

Here are some other steps you can take to help master the



Do something. Years ago, Dale Carnegie recommended that

you read his now classic How to Win Friends and Influence

People one chapter at a time. Then, once you finished the chap­

ter, he suggested you go out and practice what you learned from

it. We agree. Pick a chapter you found relevant (possibly one

with a low score in your Style Under Stress test) and read it

again. This time, implement what you learned over a three- to

five-day period. Look for opportunities. Pounce on every chance

you get. Step up to the plate and give the skills a try. Then pick

another chapter and repeat the process.

Discuss the material. When you first learn something, your

knowledge is “preverbal.” That is, you might recognize the con­

cepts if you see them, but you’re not able to discuss them with

ease. You haven’t talked about them enough to make them part

of your functional vocabulary. You haven’t turned the words

into phrases and the phrases into scripts. To move your knowl­

edge to the next level, read a chapter and then discuss it with a

friend or loved one. Talk about the material until the concepts

come naturally.

Teach the material. If you really want to master a concept,

teach it to someone else. Stick with it until the other person

understands the concept well enough to pass it on to someone


Master the Skil ls

There’s a story going around the self-help talk circuit about a

Vietnam War prisoner who played golf in his head in order to

help maintain his sanity. He’d mentally step up to each hole at

his favorite golf course and “play” an entire round. After being

released, he eventually found his way to the course, where he

promptly shot his best score ever, one under par. When his

friends acted astonished at his new-found talent, he explained,


“Why shouldn’t I have shot under par? I never once shot over

par while I was in prison.”

This tale is routinely used to teach the power of mental prepa­

ration. Gurus can’t say enough about the power of the mental

game. While we agree that thinking is an essential part of the

process, we’d like to emphasize the greater importance of doing.

Evidence suggests that mental preparation can make some dif­

ference in execution, but thinking isn’t enough. If you really want

to improve your ability, practice. Step up to problems and give

the material a try.

Rehearse with a friend. Start by rehearsing with a friend. Ask

a colleague or coworker to partner with you. Explain that you’d

like to practice the skills you’re learning. Briefly discuss the skill

you’ll be attempting. Provide the details of a real problem you’re

facing. (Don’t include names or otherwise violate privacy

issues.) Next, ask your friend to play the role of the other person

and practice the crucial conversation.

Ask your partner to give you honest feedback. Otherwise you

could be practicing the wrong delivery. Remember, practice

doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. Insist that

your practice partner hold you to a high standard. Make sure

you’re constantly improving.

Practice on the fly. You’re going to be holding crucial conver­

sations at home and at work, or you wouldn’t have bought this

book in the first place . So practice the skills you’ve been read­

ing, teaching, and rehearsing. If you have children, hardly a day

will pass that you won’t have a chance to practice.

Start immediately. If you wait until you’re perfect before you

give something a try, you could be waiting a long time. To make

it safe, pick a conversation of only medium risk. Trying out

something new is hard enough without applying it to a monu­

mental problem.


Practice in a training session. For those of you who would like

more material and practice opportunities than you can extract

from a book and other static materials, attend one of our live

training seminars. Give us a call and see if you can either sched­

ule a session at a location near you or bring the training into your


Our training materials library is equipped with a variety of

delivery tools ranging from leader-guided workshops to off-site

intensive courses.

Enhance Your Motive

We all have ideas about how to motivate others, but how do you

motivate yourself? While you may feel 1 00 percent committed to

improving your crucial conversations right now, what can you do

when you’re staring at an angry coworker and your commitment

to improVIDent drops to, say, 1 0 percent?

The truth is that we often need to take steps to ensure that our

most well-founded wishes (those made during peaceful moments

where we’re taking an honest look at the future) survive turbu­

lent, less forward-looking circumstances.

Apply incentives. Start with the obvious. Use incentives. For

example, people going through self-help courses are often

encouraged to put their money where their mouth is. Every time

they fulfill an assignment, they’re given back a portion of their

tuition. On the other hand, if they don’t step up, it costs them.

When incentives are added, results improve fairly dramatically.

So every time you deftly hold a crucial conversation, celebrate

your victory. Treat yourself to something you wouldn’t otherwise

enjoy. And don’t wait for perfection. Celebrate improvement. If

you used to get in a heated argument every time you brought up

a cel-tain problem. and now the interaction is merely tense, enjoy


the victory. Self-improvement is achieved by individuals who

appreciate direction more than those who demand perfection.

Apply disincentives. You might consider disincentives as well.

Take a look at what went on at Stanford a few years back.

Subjects who were trying to lose weight were asked to write a

donation check to an organization they despised. These checks

were then set aside, never to be mailed unless the subjects failed

to live up to their goals-at which point five hundred dollars

was sent to Americans for Nuclear Proliferation or something

equally distasteful to the subject. As predicted, subjects did bet­

ter when they used disincentives.l

Go pUblic. Let others know that you’re trying to routinely

hold crucial conversations. Explain what you’re doing and why.

Over half a century ago, Dr. Kurt Lewin, the father of social psy­

chology, learned that when subjects made a public commitment

to do something, they were more likely to stay the course than if

they kept their wishes to themselves.2 Tell people what your

goals are. Get social pressure working in your favor.

Talk with your boss. If you want to take it a step further, sit

down with your boss and explain your goals. Ask for his or her

support. If you want to put some real teeth into your goal, build

your plan into your performance review. As a leader, you’re almost

always asked to pick one “soft area” listed on your performance

review forms and work on it. Select dialogue. You might as well

tie your plans for improvement into the formal reward system.

Align your personal, family, and organizational goals to a single

goal-improving your dialogue skills.

Remember the costs; focus on the reward. Perhaps the most

predictive piece of social science research ever conducted was

completed with small children and marshmallows. A child was

put in a room and then told that he or she could have either one

marshmallow now or two if he or she was willing to wait until

the adult returned in a few minutes. The adult would then place


one marshmallow in front of the child and exit. Some of the chil­

dren delayed gratification. Others ate the marshmallow right

away. Researchers continued studying these children.

Over the next several decades, the children who had delayed

gratification ended up doing far better in life than those who

hadn’t. They had stronger marriages, made more money, and

were healthier.3 This willingness to do without now in order to

achieve more later turns out to be an all-purpose tool for success.

How did the children who were able to delay gratification

fight off their short-term wishes? First, they looked away from

the scrumptious marshmallow that sat in front of them. No use

torturing themselves with the vision of what they couldn’t have.

Second, they kept telling themselves that if they waited, they

would get two, not one. What could be simpler?

As you step up to a crucial conversation and wonder if it’s

really worth trying out something new and untested, remind

yourself why you’re trying new skills in the first place. Focus on

improved results. Remember what happens when you fall back

on your old methods.

Think “things.” How can things help motivate you? Actually,

this particular concept isn’t easy to grasp. An example might

help. You’re unsuccessfully trying to lose weight. It turns out

that your early-morning iron will turns into midday rubber as

your stomach begins to growl and you sniff the air of the restau­

rant you frequent for lunch. What can you do with things to help

keep you on track?

Pack a sensible lunch first thing in the morning when your will

is strong. Take no money with you. That way it won’t be easy to

cave in to your weaker, afternoon wishes. By structuring around

your self-control cycles, you heighten the power of your stronger

motives whi le lessening the blow of you weaker moments.

Schedule crucial conversations when you’re feeling confident.

Practice befurehHnd. Ta ke nutes . Set up your office the way you


would like. Anned with smart timing and material support,

you’re far more likely to step up to tough problems effectively.

Build in Cues

To remind yourself to use your new skills, create helpful cues.

Mark hot spots. People who go through stress-reduction train­

ing learn to mark physical items that are closely linked to their

sources of tension. People who freak out in traffic put a small red

circle on their steering wheel. Individuals who are constantly in

a rush put one on their watch.

When it comes to the tough conversations you face, you might

want to make use of small visual cues as well. Place one on the

computer that spits out results that drive you nuts. Build a cue

into your copy of the agenda of any meeting that typically serves

up tough problems.

Set aside a time. Perhaps the best way to remind yourself to

use your new skills is to set aside a time each day to walk around

in search of both successes and problems. When you see a suc­

cess, celebrate. When you encounter a problem, bring your best

dialogue tools into play.

Read reactions. If you’re not doing a good job of holding cru­

cial conversations, the results are going to be right in front of

you. If you see that you’re getting off track, back up and start

over. Use real-life cues (e.g., the other person’s jaw tenses, he or

she clams up, etc.) to remind yourself that maybe it’s time to try

a new tactic. If necessary, apologize. Move to an earlier place in

the discussion and follow the process.

Build in permanent reminders. Order a poster of the model,

place it on the wall, and look at it each morning as you start the day.

Carry a reminder. Along with the poster, order a set of cue

cards you can tuck into your purse or shirt pocket.



We’ve tried to include in this book everything you’ll need to con­

duct crucial conversations. Our goal was to provide a complete,

stand-alone tool for personal change. Nevertheless, when it

comes to improving social interactions, the digital domain has a

lot to offer as well. Audio, video, and other digital tools can

enhance your learning experience.

As an additional resource, we invite you to our website. There

you’ll find a variety of tools for helping you transform the printed

word into daily actions. Digital tools include conceptual, behav­

ioral, and cuing tools.

Conceptual Tools

Watch. To give you live-action views of the skills we cover, we’ve

added video examples to our website. Visit us at www.crucial­ and check out video clips for specific skills.

Listen. Many people enjoy listening to audiotapes or CDs as

they commute to and from work each day. We’ve put together an

audio mastery course that not only reviews the material chapter

by chapter, but also provides audio examples of what the skills

sound like when put into action. Move your knowledge from the

abstract to the concrete as you hear how the theories translate

into words and the words build into usable scripts .

Behavioral Tools

If you’d like to practice specific skills with the aid of a role-play

tool, go to our website and check out Free Resources to down­

load role-play rehearsals. Print out the role plays and then work

with a partner until you’ve mastered the skill.


Cuing Tools

Visit to sign up for regular tips,

reminders, and other resources to keep you watching for oppor­

tunities to use your crucial conversations skills .


We’ll be forever indebted to the wonderful people who allowed

us to roll up our sleeves, work side by side with them, and study

their best practices. We’re particularly grateful to individuals

who allowed us to watch them as they struggled to work through

crucial conversations. It’s hard enough to sort out facts, stories,

and feelings without being scrutinized under a microscope while

you’re doing it.

We hope that by sharing the theories, skills, and models we’ve

learned from these dear friends and colleagues, we’ll help you

feel more comfortable stepping up to your own crucial conver­

sations. You’ll be able to add to the pool of available meaning,

make better decisions, and work in a way that both gets the job

done and enhances your relationships.

So we encourage you to pick a relationship. Pick a conversa­

tion. Let others know that you’re trying to do better, then give

it a shot. When you blow it, admit it. Don’t expect perfection;

aim for progress. And when you succeed, celebrate your suc­

cess. We hope you’ll take pleasure in knowing that you’re

improving and so are your relationships. Finally, when the

chance arises, help others do the same. Help friends, loved

ones, and coworkers learn to master their own high-stakes dis­

cussions. Help strengthen organizations, solidify families, heal

communities, and shore up nations one person-one crucial

conversation-at a time.



1 . Hermann Simon, Hidden Champions: Lessons from 500 of the World’s

Best Unknown Companies (Boston: Harvard Business School Press,

1 996), 1 95.

2. Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman, We Can Work It Out: Making

Sense of Marital Conflict (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1 993), 20-22,

37-38 .

3. Allen Beck et ai., Survey of State Prison Inmates, 1991 (Washington,

DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1 993), 3-5, 6, 1 1 , 1 3, 1 6.

4. Dean amish, Love and Survival: The Healing Power of Intimacy (New

York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1 998), 63.

5. amish, Love and Survival: The Healing Power of Intimacy, 54-56.


1 . Olivia Barker, “4 Studies Aim to Reduce, Resolve Medical Mistakes,”

USA Today, Dec. 8, 1 999.


1 . The Arbinger Institute, Leadership and Selfdeception: Getting out of the

Box (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, June 2000), 72-74.


1 . Sydnor B . Penick, R . Filion, S. Ross Fox, Albert Stunkard, “Behavior

Modification in the treatment of Obesity,” Psychosomatic Medicine 33

( 1 97 1 ) : 49-55.

2. Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.,

1 984), 25.

3 . Yuichi Shoda, Walter Mischel, and Philip K. Peake, “Predicting adoles­

cent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of

gratification ,” Developmental Psychology 26 ( 1 990): 978-86.


Action, moving to:
decisions leading to, 1 61-1 78, 1 85,

1 88, 1 92
lack of initiative, 204-205
(See also Path to Action)

Adrenaline, 4, 35

failure to keep, 1 97-198
resolving differences, 82-88,

1 56-1 58, 188
Allen, Woody, 27
Anger, 206-207, 209-2 1 0

contrasting, 79
exploring others’ paths, 1 55
regrettable statements, 2 1 0
restoring safety, 76, 92

Archimedes, 1 7
Arguments, 1 2-13, 65, 1 56-158, 1 88
Asking others’ opinions, 1 3 1 , 141-159,

1 85, 1 87, 1 90
Assignments, follow up, 176-178, 1 85,

1 88, 1 92, 204–205
Attacking, 54, 61, 1 82-1 85
Audio dialogue learning tools, 227

decision making, 1 63-1 64
overly deferential persons, 198-200

A voidance behavior:
dialogue model, 182-185
difficult situation, 20 1-202
silence strategy, 2-3, 37, 52, 6 1

nggrcssiVl’, 50- ‘j I
uVoiduI1l’l’, 2 i, n, ‘1.1, h i , 10 1 .1()2

Behavior (Cont, ) :
controlling, 53, 61
dialogue model, 1 82-185
harassment, 1 94-195
insubordination, 208-209
mirroring, 149-150
motives, denoting, 42
observing, 48-49, 67-68, 105
overly sensitive persons, 1 96
path to, 95, 1 02-1 1 2, 1 17
patterns, 204-206, 207-208, 2 11-2 1 2
self-defeating strategies, 6-7
self-monitoring, 55-63

Blame, 29
Body language:

mirroring, 1 49-1 50
Mutual Respect, 71-72

Building on agreement, 1 57-158, 1 88
Butler, Samuel, 23

Career improvement, 9-10
Carnegie, Dale, 221

clarifying, 40-43
command decisions, 1 68-1 69
consensus decisions, 171-173
distasteful, 37-4 1 , 1 08-109,

1 1 4-1 1 5, 1 20-121 , 1 22
important, 27
learning tools for, 1 84, 1 86
voting decisions, 170-171

Churchill, Winston, 2 15
City Slickers (film), 20
Command decisions, 165, 168-1 69, 178

JcciHion making, 1 67


Commitment (Cont. ) :
Mutual Purpose, 83-84, 87, 92
public, 224

Communities, 1 3- 1 4
Comparisons i n disagreements, 1 58, 1 88
Conditions of conversations, 45-63
Confidence, 1 2 1 , 1 29
Consensus, 1 66, 171-173, 1 78
Consultation, 165-166, 1 69-1 70, 1 78
Content of conversations:

about, 46, 66-68, 88, 1 83
overly sensitive persons, 1 96

Context of conversations, 79-80
Contrasting for misinterpretation:

overly sensitive persons, 1 96
personal observations, 2 1 1
safety, 76-82, 88, 89, 92, 130-131

Control, limits on, 29-30, 42
Controlling behavior, 53, 6 1 , 1 82-1 85
Conversations (See specific topics)
Cooperation, 1 67
Crime, 1 4
Cues for dialogue skills, 226
Curiosity, 1 43-145, 1 59

acting upon, 1 74-1 78, 1 85, 1 88
making, 1 62-1 74, 1 85, 1 88

Defensiveness, 1 96
Devil’s advocate, playing, 135, 1 99-200
Dialogue skills:

about, 20-26
consultation decisions, 1 69-1 70
improving one’s own, 27-43
lack of, 2 1 3-2 1 4
learning tools, 1 79-1 92, 21 5-228

Difficult situations, 1 93-2 1 4
Disagreements, resolving, 82-88,

1 56-1 58, 1 88
Diseases, life-threatening, 1 5- 1 6
Documenting work, 1 77, 1 78, 1 88, 1 92

crucial conversations, 2, 4, 48-49
learning dialogue skills, 2 1 7, 220
mastering, 93-1 18
Mutual Respect, 71-72
retracing path, 102, 1 1 7, 1 84
safety problems, 49-51
strong beliefs, 1 36-140

Empathy, 72-74, 142-156
Excuses, 207-208, 2 11-2 1 2

failing to keep agreements, 1 98
lack of initiative, 204-205
putting decisions into action,

1 75-1 76, 178

interpretations, 1 05, 1 1 7, 203
resolving differences, 1 56-1 58
retracing Path to Action, 102
sharing, 1 24-135, 1 40, 1 87
useful stories, 1 1 2-1 1 5

Fear (See Safety)
Follow up to assignments, 1 76-1 78,

1 85, 1 88, 1 92, 204-205
Fuller, Thomas, 1 93

Glaser, Ronald, 1 5

determining, 27-43, 1 84, 1 86, 1 89
learning dialogue skills, 223-226

Groundhog Day (film), 205

Harassment, 1 94-1 95
Health, personal, 1 5- 1 6
HeltJless Stories, 108-109, 1 1 4-1 1 5,

1 1 8

motives, 30-33
observations, 2 1 0-2 1 1
(See also Sucker’s Choices)

How to Win Friends and Influence
People (Carnegie), 22 1

Humanization of others, 1 1 3-1 1 4
Humility, 121-122, 1 3 1

Immune systems, 1 5- 1 6
Improvement o f dialogue skills and con

versation, 27-43
clarifying choices in, 27, 40-43
limits on control, 29-30, 42
motivation for, 30-43

Influence, personal, 1 7-20

free flow, 20-23
resolving differences, 1 57-158

Initiative, lack or, 203-205
Insubordination, 20H-209

Intent, 68-70, 76-82, 1 08, 21 1
Internet for learning tools, 227-228

Jerry Springer Show (television
program), 1 4

Johnson, Samuel, 1 6 1

Kellogg, Marjorie, 65
Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice, 1 5

Labeling, 53-54, 6 1 , 108, 1 82-185
Learning dialogue skills, 1 79-1 92,

2 1 5-228
Lewin, Kurt, 224
Limits on control, 29-30, 42
Listening skills, 1 41-159

Markman, Howard, 1 2-13
Masking, 52, 6 1 , 67, 1 82-1 85
Maslow, Abraham, 171-172
Mirroring, 1 49-1 50, 1 55, 1 59, 1 85,

1 87, 1 90
Models of dialogue skills, 1 82-1 85

clever stories, 1 07, 108
learning dialogue skills, 220,

others’, 98, 1 54
own, 30-37

Murray, Bill, 205
Mutual Purpose:

avoidance behavior, 202
dialogue learning tools, 1 87, 1 89
difficult personal situations, 21 1
harassment, 1 95
inventing, 85-86, 87, 92
lack of dialogue skills, 2 1 4
safety, 68-70, 76-92

Mutual Respect:
dialogue learning tools, 187
safety, 7 1 -74, 76-92

Notarius, Clifford, 1 2-13

Objects, using to learn dialogue skills,

Online fuJ’ lcw’ning louis, 227-228

othCJ’H·. I ) I . 1 4 1 l ‘llJ. I HI). 1 87. 1 90
silurinR. I . 2 1


Opinions (Cont, ) :
strong beliefs, 136-1 40
(See also Talking tentatively)

Options (See Choices)
Organizational success, 1 0-12
Ouida, 45

Paraphrasing, 1 50- 1 5 1 , 1 55, 1 59, 1 85,
1 87, 1 90

Parker, Dorothy, 1 1 9
Parkinson, C. Northcote, 1
Path to Action:

about, 98-99
difficult situations, 1 23-135, 1 40, 203
harassment, 1 95
others’, 1 4 1-1 59, 1 90-1 92
retracing, 1 02-1 1 2, 1 17, 184, 1 87,

1 90
Patience, 1 45, 1 59, 202
Patterns of behavior, 204-206, 207-208,

21 1-2 1 2
Performance reviews, 224
Persuasion with facts, 1 26-127, 140
Physical reactions:

adrenaline, 4, 35
observing, 48-49, 226

Pool of Shared Meaning:
about, 21-25
dialogue model, 1 82-185
listening to others, 141-1 59
risky information, 1 1 9-140
silence, 5 1
violence, 53

Powell, John, 1 79
Practicing dialogue skills, 222-223, 226,

Priming, 1 5 1-153, 155, 1 59, 1 85, 187,

1 90
Productivity, 1 0, 1 1

different, 82-88
Mutual (See Mutual Purpose)

Quality, 1 1

Regrets, 209-21 0
Rehearsal o f dialogue skills, 222
Relationships, 1 2-13, 68-74, 1 95-1 96

harassment, 1 94- 1 95


Respect (Cont. ) :
lack of, 208-209
Mutual, 7 1 -74, 76-92, 1 87

Revenge, 37
Rusk, Dean, 1 4 1

avoidance behavior, 20 1
failure, 37, 65-74
learning dialogue skills, 1 80-1 92
listening to others, 142, 143, 148
organizational skills, 1 1
overly sensitive persons, 196
Pool of Shared Meaning, 2 1
priming, a s listening tool, 1 5 1-153
restoring, 74-92
risky topics, 1 2 1 – 1 23, 130-131
watching for problems, 49-54

Scripts for dialogue skills, 21 7-220

interpreting observations, 93-1 1 8
overly deferential persons, 1 99
rari ty of, 45
strong beliefs, 1 38-1 40
Style Under Stress, 56-62

Self-justification, 106- 1 1 2
Sellouts, 1 09-1 1 2
Sensitivity t o others, 1 95-1 96, 2 1 0-2 1 1
Sexual harassment, 1 94-195
Shakespeare, William, 99

about, 51-53, 6 1
dialogue model, 1 82-185
overly sensitive persons, 195- 1 96
strong beliefs, 1 37
watching for, 1 02, 1 1 7, 141-142,

1 80- 1 8 1
Sincerity, 1 43, 1 48
Speaking skills, 1 1 9-140, 187, 1 49- 1 50

mastering, 93-1 1 8, 1 84, 1 90
overly sensitive persons, 1 96
regrettable statements, 2 1 0
retracing Path to Action, 1 02, 1 1 7,

1 84, 1 87, 1 90
telling, 1 28-1 3 1 , 1 40, 1 87, 1 90

Stress, Style Under, 56-62, 1 82-183
Sucker’s Choices:

about, 37-4 1 , 43, 1 08-109
difficult topics, 1 20- 1 2 1 , 1 22

Sucker’s Choices (Cont. ) :
Helpless Stories, 1 14-1 1 5
and honesty, 30-33, 2 1 0-21 1
learning tools, 1 84, 1 86

Surprises, 5, 193-194, 2 1 2-2 13, 21 6,

Talking tentatively:
avoidance behavior, 20 1
opinions, 1 3 1-135, 1 36, 140, 1 87
overly sensitive persons, 1 96
personal observations, 21 1
regrettable statements, 2 1 0

Time constraints:
decision making, 1 73-1 74
taking action, 1 76, 1 78, 1 88, 1 92

Time-outs, 207

conversations becoming crucial,

insubordination, handling, 209
mastering stories, 1 00, 102

Tone of voice, 149-150

audio dialogue learning tools,227
for learning dialogue skills,

1 79-192, 2 1 5-228
priming, as listening tool,

1 51-153
video dialogue learning tools, 227
website for learning tools,

Topics of crucial conversations:

common, 7-8
difficult, 1 1 9-140
organizational, 1 1- 1 2

Trust, failed, 200-20 1

Vague situations, 202-203
Victim Stories:

about, 106-107, 1 1 8
behavior patterns, 204, 205-206,

useful stories, 1 1 2-1 1 3

Video dialogue learning tools,

Villain Stories:
about, 1 07-108, 1 1 8
failed trust, 20 I
harassment , I q4

Villain Stories (Cont. ):
Helpless Stories, 1 09
useful stories, 1 13-1 1 4

about, 5 1 , 53-54, 6 1 , 1 4 1- 1 42
dialogue model, 1 82-1 85
strong beliefs, 1 37
watching for, 102, 1 1 7, 1 80-181

Vocabulary (See Words)
Voting, 1 66, 1 70-1 7 1, 1 78

Website for learning tools,


Winning, 36, 136-1 40, 170-171
Withdrawal, 52-53, 6 1 , 182-1 85,

20 1-202

emotional, 103-104
judgmental, 1 05-106
mirroring, 149-150
word games, 21 1-2 1 2

About the Authors

Kerry Patterson ([email protected]) began his research into the

challenges of developing and maintaining healthy organizations

during his doctoral work at Stanford University. He has taught at

the Graduate School of Management at Brigham Young

University, and for over two decades has worked as a consultant

on extensive culture-change projects. His award-winning, video­

based training programs have been used successfully by hundreds

of the Fortune 500 companies. Among his many clients are Ford

Motor Company, Allstate, and Intermountain Health Care.

Joseph Grenny ([email protected]) cofounded California

Computer Corporation. He also cofounded Unitus, a nonprofit

organization that helps the third-world poor achieve economic

self-reliance. He has taught and coached thousands of corporate

and government leaders around the world. In the past seventeen

years he has designed and implemented major change initiatives

for numerous clients including IBM, AT&T, Lockheed Martin,

the state of California, and Columbia HealthCare.

Ron McMillan ([email protected]) holds advanced degrees in

sociology and organizational behavior. He cofounded Covey

Leadership Center and was vice president of research and devel­

opment foJ’ seven years. He serves on the board of directors of

Amcl’icull Fu m i ly I ns t i tute . For over twenty-five years, he has


worked with a variety of groups, ranging from unions and first­

level managers to CEOs and corporate executives, on topics

including team development, personal vitality, and leadership.

His clients include the Saturn Division of GM, Procter &

Gamble, Disney, Aetna, Nike, and Lennox.

Al Switzler ([email protected]) is on the faculty at the Exec­

utive Development Center at the University of Michigan.

Previously, he has taught at Auburn University, the University of

Kentucky, and the Graduate School of Management at Brigham

Young University. He has served as president of two consulting

firms, vice president of marketing for an information firm, and

director of training and management development for a health­

care company. He has worked with hundreds of clients, including

Key Bank, Philips Electronics, the U.S. Department of Energy,

and aGE Energy Corp.

The authors founded VitalSmarts ( 1 990), coauthored The Bal­

ancing Act; Mastering the Competing Demands of Leadership

( 1 996) , and have codeveloped dozens of training programs.

About Vita/Smarts

For twenty-five years, the authors have been helping individuals,

teams, and organizations improve the way they approach their

crucial conversations. They have worked with union, corporate,

and government leaders as well as front-line employees in hun­

dreds of organizations-including over three hundred of the

Fortune 500 companies. These experiences have consistently led

to significant, rapid, and measurable improvement in results.

Through these experiences the authors have developed a variety

of proven resources that can help you master your crucial conver­

sations. They include:

• Video illustrations of skills

• Assessment of personal, team, and organizational crucial

conversation skills

• Multimedia newsletter that describes best practices, applica-

tions, and fun tips

• Audio Mastery Course

• Self-study course for teams, couples, and small businesses

• Reminders and cues

• Live web trainings with authors


• Public training courses and special events

• In-house training and certification

• Retreats and keynotes

• e-training

To inquire about these and other resources and solutions,

contact us at:

1 -800-449-5989

We’d like to hear about your attempts to improve your crucial

conversations. Visit us at and

share what you’ve done. Your example can help others and may

be included in an upcoming publication.

Are you stuck with another assignment? Use our paper writing service to score better grades and meet your deadlines. We are here to help!

Order a Similar Paper Order a Different Paper