Book Summary: A manual for conversations that matter.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Third Edition

by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Emily Gregory

Relationships, careers, organizations, and communities benefit when the people involved have the skills to openly and successfully discuss high-stakes, emotional, controversial issues — when they have the skills to engage in and guide crucial conversations successfully.

Crucial Conversations walks you through an entire toolset for staying cool and getting results during these challenging conversations. In addition to the opening chapters that describe crucial conversations, the book is organized into three parts. Part one covers what to do before a conversation. Part two addresses how to manage crucial conversations, including managing yourself. Part three outlines how to wrap up crucial conversations and move from dialogue to action.

The authors are international corporate consultants and leaders at Crucial Learning, which offers communication, leadership, and performance courses. Nearly half of the Forbes Global 2000 have used their courses.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links:  eBook | Audiobook | Print

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s authors.


A Crucial Conversation is…

a discussion between two or more people

where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.

They aren’t plain vanilla discussions. They “transform people and relationships,” often resulting in a new level of bonding (or the opposite).

Why We Avoid or Mishandle Crucial Conversations

  • How our emotions work. Evolution has given us physiology better suited to “flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.” When the conversation turns tough, our brain diverts energy from its reasoning parts, routing it to various brain parts and muscles associated with fight and flight.
  • We’re under pressure. These conversations occur spontaneously, seeming to come out of nowhere when we least expect them.
  • We’re baffled. Because we haven’t seen many examples of effective communication, we don’t know where to start.
  • We engage in self-defeating behavior. We resort to strategies better suited for keeping us from getting what we want because our brain is dumbed-down.

To Master Crucial Conversations, Master Dialogue

  • Dialogue is “the free flow of meaning between two or more people.” In crucial conversations, finding a way to get all relevant information on the table and create a free flow of relevant information between participants is critical.
  • When the conversation turns crucial, we think we must make a “fool’s choice.” A choice between speaking up and suffering the consequences or suffering in silence. In either case, it’s the antithesis of dialogue.
  • Successful dialogue requires a shared pool of meaning. We bring different pools of information into a crucial conversation. We must build a shared pool.
  • Strive to make everyone feel comfortable contributing their ideas, even if they appear to be controversial, wrong, or contrary to your beliefs. Ensure that all ideas are heard, regardless of whether you agree with them.
  • Expanding the pool of shared meaning helps in two ways:
    • People make better choices when they receive accurate, relevant information. A larger shared pool leads to more intelligent decisions.
    • It leads to synergy. People will act with unity and conviction on decisions because the meaning is shared.
  • In any decision-making process, the greater the shared meaning in the pool, the better the choices, the greater the unity, and the stronger the conviction. When people purposefully withhold meaning from one another, individually intelligent people can do collectively stupid things.

To Master Dialogue, Start With Heart – Your Own Heart

Use the Start with Heart questions:

What do I want… for myself? For others? For the relationship?

How would I act if I wanted these results?

  • Work on yourself first. When a conversation is not going well, not only does our behavior degenerate but so do our motives, which we frequently don’t notice. We must fix our belief that other people are “the cause” of the problem. You’re the only person you can work on.
  • Watch out for the derailers. Under perceived attack, our heart can take a quick, unconscious turn. Facing pressure and strong opinions, we can quickly lose sight of our goal and instead look for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace.
    • Winning. Our culture celebrates winning, often regardless of the cost. It’s ingrained.
    • Punishing. Anger can move us from wanting to win to wanting to harm.
    • Keeping the peace. We choose silence and accept the certainty of bad outcomes to avoid an awkward conversation.

Focus On What You Want

  • Our motives can change in an instant and without our awareness. When adrenaline kicks in, it does our thinking for us, and our motives follow suit.
  • We can redirect our hearts by asking some simple but potent questions. Taking a step back can help you focus on motives that allow for dialogue. Look at yourself as an outsider would and ask:
    • “What is my behavior saying about my underlying motive?”
    • “What do I want for myself, for others, and for the relationship?”
    • “If I wanted these results, how would I behave?”
  • Asking these questions returns what’s important to us to center stage, and it changes our physiology. Presenting our brains with a demanding question redirects the previously diverted blood flow back to the reasoning part of the brain and away from the fight or flight mechanism.

Refuse the Fool’s Choice

  • Refusing the Fool’s Choice forces your brain to solve a more complex problem. It’s possible to share your concerns, listen sincerely to others, and build relationships simultaneously. Because of our brain’s dumbed-down condition, we don’t consider it possible to achieve results and maintain relationships.
  • To avoid the Fool’s Choice, set up new choices. (1) Identify what you truly want. (2) Determine what you don’t want. (3) Give your brain a more complicated problem to solve. Combine your “want” and “don’t want” into an “and” question that forces you to look for a creative and productive alternative.

Notice When Safety Is at Risk

Watch for conditions. When stakes and emotions are high, most of us have trouble dual-processing (watching content and conditions). To catch problems early, be on the lookout for three things:

  1. Notice when a conversation becomes crucial. Some people notice physical signals first, such as a knot in the stomach. Others notice emotions first – fear, hurt, anger, or reacting to or suppressing certain feelings. Others notice behaviors first, such as raising their voice or pointing a finger.
  2. Look for signs of “silence” or “violence.” People get defensive because they no longer feel safe, not because of what you say. The problem isn’t with the message but with how the conversation is going.
  3. Watch out for your stress-induced style. Pay attention to your actions and their impact. The book includes a style under stress self-assessment available online at: Be vigilant about your impact on safety.

Handle Silence and Violence

When people feel unsafe, they often follow one of two unhealthy paths: silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or violence (trying to force meaning into it).

  • Silence is withholding information to avoid problems, but it restricts meaning. Maskingavoiding, and withdrawing are common forms of silence.
  • Masking is understating or selectively revealing our opinions. Popular forms include sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching.
  • Avoiding involves talking but without addressing the real issues.
  • Withdrawing means exiting the conversation, possibly the room.
  • Violence is the verbal act of trying to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view. It undermines safety by forcing meaning into the pool through controllinglabeling, and attacking.
    • Controlling. Coercing others to agree with you. 
    • Labeling people or ideas to dismiss them using stereotypes.
    • Attacking. Moving from winning the argument to inflicting pain on the other person. Belittling and threatening are two tactics.

Take Steps to Make It Safe

Step out, make it safe and then step back in. When you or others don’t feel safe sharing what’s on your mind, don’t stay stuck in what’s being said. When others move toward silence or violence, take action to make the conversation safe. Once safety has been restored, return to the content of the dialogue.

Notice which safety condition is at risk.

  • Mutual Purpose. Do others trust your motives? Do they think that you care about their goals?
  • Mutual Respect. Do others think you respect them?

Maintain Mutual Purpose

  • Conversations often go awry not because people dislike the content but because they think it implies malice (even if delivered gently). Other people must see that you’re working toward a common goal and that you value their interests, values, and goals. And vice versa.
  • Signs that Mutual Purpose is threatened: The conversation has become a debate. There are signs of defensiveness or hidden agendas. People are making accusations, or you’re circling around the same topic.
  • Mutual Purpose isn’t a technique. We must genuinely care about others’ interests, not just our own.

Maintain Mutual Respect

  • Mutual respect is essential to dialogue. While it’s there, nobody notices. Without it, people can’t stop thinking about it.
  • Telltale signs: People defend their dignity instead of engaging in the conversation’s original purpose.
  • Working with people we don’t respect. Disrespect is based on focusing on others’ differences. Try to empathize without excusing their behavior. Recognizing our own shortcomings can help us feel connected. 

What To Do Once You Step Out

To build mutual respect and purpose, apologizecontrast, and work on mutual purpose.

  • When appropriate, apologize. If you’ve violated respect, apologize. Genuine apologies change hearts. Your motives change. 
  • Use Contrasting to fix misunderstandings. When people misunderstand, and you start arguing over the misunderstanding, stop and use Contrasting, which is a do/don’t statement:
    • I don’t want… Start with what you don’t intend or mean. Address others’ concerns that you don’t respect them or that you have a malicious purpose.
    • I do want… Then explain what you do intend or mean. Confirm your respect or clarify your real purpose.
    • The “don’t” part is the more important of the two because it deals with the misunderstanding that has put safety at risk.
  • Contrasting is not apologizing. It is not a way of taking back something we’ve said that hurts the feelings of others. Instead, it ensures that what you said didn’t hurt more than it should have.
  • Work on Mutual Purpose. There are four skills involved in creating Mutual Purpose. (They form the acronym “CRIB.”)
    • Commit to seeking Mutual Purpose. To return to dialogue, you must agree to agree. Commit to staying in the conversation until you both find a solution that serves a purpose that you both share.
    • Recognize the purpose behind the strategy. Before you can agree on a Mutual Purpose, you must know people’s purposes. Break away from the conversation to identify the purposes behind the strategies. As you let go of strategies and focus on purposes, you’ll discover alternatives that meet both of your needs.
    • Invent a Mutual Purpose. If you’re still at odds after clarifying everyone’s purposes, look for a higher or longer-term purpose that’s more motivating and rewarding than the ones dividing you.
    • Brainstorm new strategies. After building safety through a shared purpose, you can return to dialogue and brainstorm strategies that suit everyone’s needs.

Master Your Stories

Our stories create emotions that drive action. Other people don’t make you mad, scared, annoyed, or insulted. You do. You create your emotions.

  • You have two options after creating upset emotions: Act on them or let them act on you. This means that you either master strong emotions or let them rule you.
  • Our stories are a part of our “Path to Action:”See & Hear —> Tell a Story —> Feel —> Act
    • See & Hear—We observe what others are doing.
    • Tell a story—We tell ourselves a story about the action we’ve observed. Stories are our perceptions of the facts. They are our guesses for why, how, and what. And we make judgments that lead us to conflate stories with facts.
    • Feel—Our body responds to the story with emotion.
    • Act—We respond to emotions with actions.
  • We tell ourselves stories even if we are not aware of them. Storytelling happens snap-judgment fast. 
  • An infinite number of stories can be told using any set of facts. Our stories are simply that: stories. A highly influenced interpretation of the facts.
  • If we take control of our stories, they won’t control us. We control how we tell stories, but once we tell them, they control us. But we can break the loop by telling different stories—by retracing our Path to Action.

Skills For Mastering Your Stories

  • Retrace your Path to Action:
    • Notice your behavior. Ask yourself, “Am I in a state of silence or violence?”
    • Connect with your emotions. What emotions are motivating me to behave in this manner? Does this fit the circumstances?
    • Examine your stories. What story is causing these feelings?
    • Return to the facts. What evidence do I have to back up my story?
  • Notice your behavior. You don’t have to stop and question your actions constantly. But, if you are slipping into silence or violence, you have good reason to stop and take stock.
  • Expand your emotional vocabulary. How do you describe your feelings when you’re experiencing strong emotions? Is your vocabulary rich, or do you mainly use simple terms like “angry” and “sad”?
  • Don’t mistake stories for facts. When you see your stories as facts, you don’t question them. 

Watch for Three “Clever” Stories

  • To justify our ineffective behavior, we tend to tell clever stories in three predictable ways.
    • Victim stories (“it’s not my fault”) portray us as innocent victims, exaggerating our innocence.
    • Villain stories (“it’s all your fault”) exaggerate the guilt or “stupidity” of the other person. Labeling is a standard device in villain stories. It’s okay to insult or abuse “a jerk,” but we must be cautious with a living, breathing person.
    • Helpless stories (“there’s nothing I can do”) make us think we are powerless to do anything. 
  • Clever stories get us off the hook. We conveniently absolve ourselves of any responsibility when, in fact, we’ve been partially responsible. We’re off the hook if we look good while making others look bad.
  • We often tell clever stories because of our own sellouts. We sell out when we act consciously against our sense of what is right. If we don’t own up to our mistakes, we will find ways to justify them. Once we’ve sold out, we only have two options: own up or try to justify it.
  • Clever stories leave out critical information about ourselves, others, and our options. Telling the rest of the story turns a clever story into a useful one.
  • By considering alternative motives, we relax our absolute certainty long enough to allow dialogue, which is the only reliable way to discover others’ genuine motivations.

We tell a clever story when we want self-justification more than results.

Tell a Useful Story

  • If you notice clever stories, stop and tell a useful story instead. A useful story elicits emotions that lead to healthy action.
  • Turn a clever story into a useful one by telling the rest of it:
    • Transform victims into actors. Whenever you talk about yourself as an innocent victim, ask yourself, “Are you pretending not to see your role?” This question forces you to admit that maybe you did contribute to the problem.
    • Turn villains into humans. Consider why a reasonable, rational, decent person would do what this person is doing before you label or otherwise vilify them. 
    • Turn helpless into capable. If you lament your own helplessness, return to your original motivation and then eliminate the Fool’s Choice that has made you powerless.
  • Telling the rest of the story liberates us from unhealthy emotions—we become masters of our emotions rather than hostages.

How to Speak Persuasively, Not Abrasively

Sharing challenging information can be risky. Speaking your mind honestly and respectfully makes it safe for others to hear what you have to say and respond. It requires confidencehumility, and skill.

  • Confidence. Confident that your opinions deserve to be placed in the pool of meaning.
  • Humility. Recognize that you don’t own the truth or always have to win. Your opinions are just a starting point.
  • Skill. Don’t make the Fool’s Choice; make it safe for you and others to speak.

STATE Your Path

Check in with yourself using the Start with Heart questions. Then STATE your path:

  • Share your facts. Share your Path to Action, starting with the least controversial, most persuasive elements.
  • Tell your story with confidence and humility. Describe what you’re starting to conclude.
  • Ask others to STATE their paths. Encourage others to share their facts as well as their stories.
  • Talk tentatively but not wimpy. State your story as a story, not a fact. Make it clear you are sharing an opinion.
  • Encourage testing. You can only express your opinion as strongly as you are willing to encourage others to challenge it.
    • Invite opposing views. If others disagree, that’s great. Respect them for being brave enough to express themselves, especially if their views are controversial or touchy.
    • Play devil’s advocate. Consider playing devil’s advocate. Demonstrate disagreement by opposing your own position. Continue until your motives become clear.

Explore Others’ Paths

You can’t force people to talk, but you can make it safer for them to speak up. They resorted to silence or violence for a reason. They fear dialogue will expose them. Make it safe for them to share their path.

Encourage others to retrace their path. Start with Heart, then listen.

  • Be sincere. Invite others to share their thoughts to add to the pool of meaning.
  • Be curious. Getting to the truth starts by making it safe for people to express the stories that motivated them to resort to silence or violence.
  • Stay curious. Rather than overreacting, stay curious. Give your brain something to focus on. Ask: “Why would a rational, decent person say this?”
  • Be patient. Thoughts often change quickly, but strong emotions endure. Emotion-inducing chemicals can remain in the bloodstream even after the conversation has shifted.
  • Break the cycle. Their Path to Action is already in progress whenever others are silent or violent. Step out, make it safe, then step back in and retrace their Path to Action together.

Four power listening skills: Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, or Prime (AMPP)

  • Ask to get things started. The most straightforward way to get others to share their Path to Action is to invite them.
  • Mirror to confirm their feelings. Describe how they look or act as if you are a mirror.
  • Paraphrase to acknowledge the story. Don’t simply repeat what they said. Instead, put the message in your own words, usually in condensed form. When you ask people what they want, they engage their brains in a way that moves away from attacking or avoiding. It also helps them figure out what the problem is.
  • Prime when you think the other person has something else to share, and you might get them to share it with a little more effort.

Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing. You’re trying to understand their viewpoint, not necessarily agree with it.

Remember Your ABCs

  • Agree when you agree. Don’t turn an agreement into an argument. If you agree with someone, say so.
  • Build when others leave out key details. Point out where you agree, and then add what was left out.
  • Compare when you disagree. Compare your path with the other person’s. Rather than saying the other person is wrong, say you’re different.

Turn Crucial Conversations into Action and Results

As you move from meaning-making into action-taking, new challenges can arise. No matter how much of the meaning is shared, it doesn’t guarantee that all will agree on what to do with it. Two common problems: (1) confusing dialogue with decision-making, and (2) delaying or not making decisions as expected.

Decide how to decide. Don’t let people think that dialogue is the same as making a decision.

  • When the line of authority is clear, whoever is in charge gets to choose the decision-making method.
  • When the line of authority isn’t clear, the pool of shared meaning must include how the decisions will be made and by whom.

Four common ways to make a decision: commandconsultvote, and consensus. They represent increasing levels of involvement. With increased involvement comes increased commitment but also decreased decision-making efficiency.

  • Command. The person in charge makes the decision.
  • Consult. The decision-maker gathers ideas and support before making the decision.
  • Vote. Everyone (or a designated group) votes. This works well when efficiency is essential, and you’re choosing between many great choices.
  • Consensus. This method is best for high-stakes, complex issues or issues where everyone must agree.

How to choose a method. Four questions to help you choose between the four methods:

  1. Who’s interested? Include only those genuinely interested in the decision and/or will be affected.
  2. Who knows? Involve the people who have the expertise you need.
  3. Who must agree? Involve those whose authority or influence you’ll need to implement the decision.
  4. How many people should be involved? Involve the fewest people possible to ensure a quality decision and support. 

Make assignments to put the decisions into action:

  • Who? When it’s time to distribute assignments, remember “we” means “not me.”
  • Does what? Clarify the deliverables.
  • By when? Make sure the milestones and deadlines are clear.
  • How will you follow up? Schedule the check-ins, updates, and reporting. Record commitments and follow up on them.

Getting started. Here are two ways to increase your capacity to engage in dialogue.

  • Learn to look. Hone your skill at noticing when you are in or out of dialogue.
  • Make it safe. Dialogue is a free flow of meaning, and the number one flow-stopper is a lack of safety. Make dialogue safe when you see that you and others have strayed from it. 

It’s not about communication; it’s about results.

You need not be perfect. You needn’t worry if you make only stuttering progress. These moments are indeed crucial, and a little bit of change can lead to an enormous amount of progress. 

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: eBook | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.7 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.1 of 5 stars
Page count: 299
Publication date:  October 26, 2021
Author website:

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