Crucial Conversations — Tools for Talking When Stakes are High — A Book Summary (Part 1)

Ravi Kumar
Feb 3, 2018 · 20 min read

Ratings — 4/5

This is a book that about managing crucial conversations. Not just in business but in personal and social lives most of our defining moments come from crucial or breakthrough conversations. And as I say, I remember many past events when things have been successful for me because of the way I handled a certain conversation and also remember those occasions where I blew it up completely in an emotionally charged situation.

I found myself in one such conversation sometime ago where I was to face a hostile group of people in a committee I am part of who disagreed to my way of doing things. I had prepared myself to keep my calm before we met but when accusations were hurled upon me, I just couldn’t keep my emotions in check. The conversation was a disaster and nothing productive was ever achieved. The entire episode played into my mind for days and I pondered over all the different ways I could have handled the conversation much more maturely. The problem is most of us do not have proven models to handle such conversations. And when conversations veer towards areas where emotions run high and disagreements ensue it becomes too hot to handle.

A product manager by the very nature of his role is cross functional and handling communication and interaction with varied people is of utmost importance.

Soon after that bitter experience of mine that I just shared, I chanced upon this book at a local store and lapped it up. It eventually turned out a powerful book and its timely access proved precious to me. The book is aptly titled Crucial Conversations, written by 4 eminent writers a Kerry, Joseph, Ron and Al Switzler. They are experts in the field of organisational behaviour and sociology.

I am going to summarise the insights from the book that product managers can apply in their day to day work.

The book begins with a compelling foreword by Steven Covey himself.

The book has a total of 12 chapters. In part 1, I summarize the first 6 chapters:

Chapter 1: What is Crucial Conversation?

The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation.” — NORTHCOTE PARKINSON

1. Stakes are high

2. Opinions vary

3. Emotions run strong

Chapter 2: Mastering Crucial Conversation — The Power of Dialogue

This chapter talks about the power of dialogue in mastering crucial conversations.

Filling the Pool of Shared Meaning

Chapter 3: Start with Heart: How to Stay Focussed on What You Really Want?

1. What do I really want for myself?

2. What do I really want for others?

3. What do I really want for the relationship?

4. How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

The chapter also talks about refusing the Sucker’s Choice

Chapter 4: Learn to Look — How to Notice When Safety is at Risk?

Learn to Spot Crucial Conversation

Learn to Look for Safety Problems

Look for your Style Under Stress

Chapter 5: Make it Safe: How to make it safe to talk about almost anything

In a dialog, when its safe you can say anything. gifted communicators 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 listen. If you don’t fear that you’re being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

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.

Mutual Purpose

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.

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 othersnot just our own. The purpose has to be truly mutual.

After Mutual Purpose comes Mutual Respect

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 dialogue. 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.The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the origi· nal purpose-it is now about defending dignity.

This brings to a question whether you can respect people you dont respect?

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 different 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.

When we recognize that we all have weaknesses, it’s easier 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 MAKE IT SAFE 73 others that motivates us to enter tough conversations, and it eventually enables us to stay in dialogue with virtually anyone.

The chapter then shares 3 tactics to help rebuild Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose:

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 communicate 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 remedy.

Chapter 6: Master Your Stories: How to Stay in Dialogue when you are angry, scared or hurt?

This chapter explores how to gain control of crucial conversations 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 explored thus far.

So what are the skills for mastering our stories?

In part 2, I will summarise the rest of the 6 chapters which covers topics on how to speak persuasively and not abrasively, how to turn crucial conversations into intended actions and turning ideas into habits.

Power Books

Summaries of powerful books that have shaped me

Ravi Kumar

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Product Manager at AXOOM, Germany building next gen IIoT platform and Podcaster at

Power Books

Summaries of powerful books that have shaped me