Book Review: Crucial Conversations

Damon Allison
Mar 4, 2018 · 9 min read
Simple: Love & Respect People

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:12)

Even in such technical lines as engineering, about 15% of one’s financial success is due one’s technical knowledge and about 85% is due to skill in human engineering, to personality and the ability to lead people. — Dale Carnegie

Your success in life is determined by how you deal with people more than any other single factor. People decide to help you. People decide to hire you. People decide to love you. People decide to leave you. For everything you do in life, you deal with people.

Crucial Conversations is a book that addresses dealing with people. The authors claim the root cause of success and failure in life is the result of how people handle “crucial conversations”. A “crucial conversation” is an “emotionally charged, high-stakes” issue between people.

As humans, we strive to avoid confrontation. When we get into “crucial conversations”, we, as humans, are conditioned to react to confrontation by fighting or flighting. We get quiet, upset, yell, turn rude, snarky, and miles of other very bad things.

The book’s claim : if we can manage to think smart, logically, and be willing to work toward a common goal, we can succeed in these “crucial conversations” and thus life.

So, how do you master “crucial conversations”? The authors give ample advice which can be boiled down into taking a few logical, rational actions:

  • Treat others as you would yourself.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Communication is a skill. Skills needs to be practiced to be improved. Analyze, review, and grow your communication skills.

Yes, the same advice we teach preschoolers (the golden rule, be nice to others, use your “listening ears”, etc) is the same advice this book preaches. You know what — people need the reminder.

My personal action items from this book

  • Analyze the conversations, motivations, and actions of myself and others.
  • Always respect people — everyone. Not always agree, but respect.
  • Know what I want from each conversation.


While I agree with the principals and fundamentals as laid out in this book, I think the authors missed at least addressing a vastly more important issue regarding “crucial conversations” — preventing them.

Relationships don’t start with “crucial conversations”. By the time relationships and conversations turn “crucial”, you’ve built a relationship. You’ve had many conversations and events to shape that relationship. Conversations (and really, relationships) turn “crucial” when you’ve made so many mistakes that the only way forward is to have a “crucial conversation”.

The authors give a (probably true, but hand chosen to fit the narrative) example of a wife who accuses her husband of having an affair. She gives him crude remarks, lets the situation boil over, and gets upset without asking him to tell the truth. All of these conversations, the nagging remarks, the rude jokes, are all failed “non-crucial” conversations that eventually lead to the “crucial” conversation. Had they simply addressed the issue up front it would have never turned “crucial”. And that, to me, is the ultimate advice on how to handle “crucial conversations” — prevent them!

But lets get real. Regardless of how successful we are at preventing them we’re going to find ourselves in “crucial conversations”. We could have a perfect relationship with a co-worker when he decides he wants to make a bad purchase or hire the wrong people. We have to confront it. The advice here makes you realize you need to step outside of the moment, think about the goals and desires you’re looking to fulfill, and act accordingly. That advice is timeless — be wise — follow it.

Like any book in dealing with behavior change, in order to see results in your life you need to practice. Everything you’re going to see below should be obvious to you. The challenge is incorporating them into your daily life, iterating, and improving.

Making a concerted effort to improve your relationships takes real work. People are hard, relationships are hard. But people are the most valuable thing you have on this planet — they are worth it!


Chapter 1 : What is a Crucial Conversation

  • High stakes, emotionally charged conversations.
  • Communication, especially in cross functional/department/continent/company teams is critical for success.
  • Mastering Crucial Conversations means mastering dialogue. People are the most important thing on this planet. If you master dealing with others, you will be successful.
  • By mastering crucial conversations, you can improve your career, health, relationships, and company.
  • Projects fail because of poor communication.

Chapter 2 : Mastering Crucial Conversations

  • The “fool’s choice” is when you choose between losing an argument to keep peace with another person or fight for what you believe and end up ruining the relationship.
  • It’s a “fool’s choice” because it’s a lose-lose situation. You either lose the argument (and have to deal with the outcomes) or lose the relationship.
  • The authors claim that you don’t have to fall into a “fool’s choice”. Rather, you can have healthy dialog with the other person and reach a mutual conclusion.
  • By contributing your ideas in a dialog with the other person (what the authors call the “filling the pool of shared meaning”) as opposed to arguing you can reach a mutual agreement.
  • Not speaking up is making a decision. It’s a decision not to participate. No action is an action.

Chapter 3 : Start With Heart

  • Before you can master dialogue with others, you need to master your inner dialogue. Realize what’s in your heart and what you believe.
  • You must have a strong value system. When going gets tough, you’ll fallback on your values.
  • Forget the desire to “win”. Work toward the desire to solve problems and move the relationship / project / whatever forward. Trying to “beat the other person” is a recipe for failure.
  • Stay focused on what you really want from the conversation. When our tempers flare up, our motives and goals can change. Our goal turns from solving a problem to winning an argument. Don’t fall into the trap of argument — stay focused on the mutual goal of finding the optimal solution.
  • Focus on fixing yourself first. Are you the problem? Are you causing issues? Understand your personal dialogue and work toward making it productive and positive.
  • Start with the heart. Begin high risk conversations with the right motives. Stay focused on those no matter how bad the conversation can turn.
  • A “fools choice” is an either / or choice where one person loses. “If I speak up, I’ll get them mad and we won’t be friends. If I don’t speak up this situation will turn out bad”. Good communicators will beat the fools choice by finding ways to come to a conclusion that benefits all people involved.
  • The desire to win continually drives us away from healthy dialogue.
  • Focus on what you want. When trouble starts, challenge your brain. Take an outside look at how you are acting and the situation as a whole. Think of ways to improve the conversation so both sides walk away happy. State out loud (in your mind) what the ideal outcome of the conversation is and don’t stray from working towards that. Also know what you don’t want. “I don’t want to lose my friendship with this person.”
  • Notice when your motivations are changing from the initial objective to winning an argument.
  • Contribute to a “shared pool of understanding”. Focus on advancing the conversation toward mutually beneficial outcomes by contributing constructive information into the conversation.

Chapter 4 : Learn to Look

  • Know when safety in a conversation is at risk.
  • Learn to spot crucial conversations. Some people feel their body or adrenaline, others can feel the emotions. Recognize when you’re entering a crucial conversation.
  • Watch out for safety problems. When people don’t feel safe, they go into fight or flight mode. The conversation will not be productive.
  • If people feel safe, they’ll be able to accept bad news easier. When others feel unsafe, they will put up walls. Look for silence and violence as ways that people feel unsafe.
  • Watch your own style under stress. Are you resorting to silence or violence? Watch how you’re acting in conversations and adjust as necessary. You must monitor your own actions.
  • When you notice you’re in a crucial conversation, pull your mind out of it and look at the problem from the outside. My mentally taking yourself out of the heat of the battle, you challenge your mind to think about the problem, not get into an emotional battle

Chapter 5 : Make it Safe

  • If people feel safe, conversations are productive. If you spot safety risks, step back, build safety, and the conversation will be productive.
  • The best don’t play games. They get right to the point with honesty, make the conversation safe, and jump back in.
  • Work towards a mutual purpose. Both sides must feel they are working towards a mutual solution. You must really care about the outcome for the other person.
  • For example, if you are trying to get a promotion or more work, you must find a mutual purpose for your boss or for the company. If your purpose benefits the company or other people, your boss will listen.
  • Maintain a mutual respect. If people feel you don’t respect them, they will disengage and fight to get it back. Always honestly respect others. Watch for signs that people are defending themselves or becoming angry.
  • Be humble and truly value others.
  • What should you do if you do not have mutual respect or mutual purpose
  • Apologize when appropriate.
  • Confirm your respect with a don’t / do transition. “(Don’t) I don’t want you to think I don’t value your opinion. (Do) I think you are doing a great job.” Now that you have confirmed your respect, you can continue the conversation.
  • How to create a mutual purpose? CRIB!
  • Commit to seeking a mutual purpose.
  • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy.
  • Invent a Mutual Purpose.
  • Brainstorm new strategies.

Chapter 6 — Master My Stories

  • Don’t let your emotions control you — control your emotions!
  • People invent stories to justify their actions or make them feel better. Be better than that! Tell the truth to yourself and truly question if the story you are telling is the truth from both perspectives or something you are making up to justify your actions.
  • Other people don’t make you mad — you make yourself mad! You determine how you react when you feel like someone wronged you.
  • Control your stories. The stories you tell yourself determine how you feel. For example if someone cuts you off while driving, you can approach it in two ways. One way will make you upset, the other you’ll feel more relaxed.
  • “Jerk! You don’t know how to drive!”
  • “He must be in a hurry.”
  • Any set of facts can be construed into different stories. You control what story you tell yourself. Don’t play the victim if the facts don’t line up.
  • Before you start creating stories, think about the facts! Emotions can drown out facts.

Chapter 7 : STATE My Path

  • Speak persuasively, not abrasively. Be humble.
  • STATE :
  • Share your facts — stick to the truth.
  • Tell your story — explain what you think.
  • Ask for other’s paths — encourage others to share.
  • Talk tentatively — don’t force your story or act as if you’re right.
  • Encourage testing — make it safe for others to tell their story.

Chapter 8 : Explore Others’ Paths

  • Listen to others. Be curious. Care about others. Respect others.
  • Help others think.
  • Reflect back to others what you are feeling and thinking.
  • Look for common ground. There are probably parts that you both agree with. Find them.
  • You may be fighting over a small thing. Make sure you’re not disagreeing over a trivial matter — focus on the real problem.

Chapter 9 : Move to Action

  • How do you turn a conversation into results?
  • Set clear boundaries towards who is going to act, what they are responsible for doing, and set a deadline.
  • To make a decision to move forward, there are different ways to act:
  • Command : turn decisions over to others.
  • Consult : talk with others before making a decision. This can mitigate risk.
  • Consensus : everyone must agree. Can get ugly. Only do this if everyone needs to be on board with the conclusion.
  • How do you choose which approach to action you should take?
  • Who cares? Only involve people who care.
  • Who knows? Involve only those who can contribute.
  • Who must agree?
  • How many people is it worth involving?
  • The clearer the deliverables and expectations, the less surprise or argument there will be.
  • Document your work. Hold people accountable by writing up a summary of the action, deadline, etc.

Chapter 10 : Yeah, But

  • What to do in tough situations?
  • They go into discussing different types of people (sensitive, doesn’t deliver, doesn’t respect authority, etc).

Chapter 11 : Putting It All Together

  • Learn to look — look at your conversations and think about how you are dealing with people and conversations.
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