What Is a Crucial Conversation?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. —George Bernard Shaw

Communication is a common challenge we all face both personally and professionally, especially when working within today’s technology-rich world.

How do we master the art of communication to fit our needs, personalities, or situations? Paul Barnwell talked about the challenges he sees with his students in his 2014 article in The Atlantic.1 Our ability to have conversations starts early on, and according to Barnwell, “conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill….” As professionals within a globally diverse industry, this lack of skill can have deep consequences. Barnwell describes the painful struggles he observes in his classes and asks a poignant question: “Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?” 

What is the impact of our failure to learn these skills early in our adolescence? What impact does it have on our adult life, our adult relationships? And more important, what impact does it have when a conversation turns difficult, or even crucial?

According to Patterson et al in their book Crucial Conversations,2 everyone experiences crucial conversations through their everyday interactions. A simple conversation can turn crucial in a matter of minutes when opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions are running strong.2

Apr18_CSuccess2.gifThe problem with crucial conversations is that most people avoid them. If they do dive in, their delivery is poor.

Hijacked by Emotions

The culprit is often our emotions. They typically get the better of us and don’t prepare us to lead a fruitful conversation. Our emotional intelligence goes out the window. (See the article Managing Conflict in the August 2017 AAPS Newsmagazine Online.) We tend to communicate by the seat of our pants and often act in self-defeating ways.2

We encounter these crucial conversations all the time, but we don’t recognize them or understand their importance. Does this sound familiar? As we enter an uncomfortable conversation, our physiology begins to respond (nervous stomach, increased heart rate, etc.) when we shift into a pivotal moment in the conversation. Most people react to this change physically, emotionally, or behaviorally, or a combination of any of the three. Think about the last time you had a confrontation with your boss, your spouse, or your neighbor. How did you respond? Did your face get red? Did your voice get louder, your words faster? Did you react with anger?

What makes someone an effective communicator? According to Patterson et al, the “key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues”. They point out that you do not have to choose between being honest and being effective or between candor and your career.2

According to the authors,2 people typically fall into three categories when it comes to how they handle their conversations:

  • People who digress into threats and name-calling (violence),
  • People who revert to silent fuming (silence), or
  • People who speak openly, honestly, and effectively.

Think about the people you like working with. Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you see them speaking openly and honestly?


Taking Control

The good news is you do have the ability to master crucial conversations, and it starts with the Power of Dialogue!2

The key to having effective, powerful dialogue with others lies in your ability to get all the relevant information out in the open in a manner that leaves everyone feeling safe to openly and honestly express their opinions.

These dialogue skills are learnable—and they start with you!

You can learn how to talk, listen, and act to improve your dialogue with others, but it does require you to look inward and understand your own motivation in a given situation.

Celeste Headlee offers simple tips to having a better conversation in her 2015 Ted Talk 10 Ways to Have A Better Conversation.3 Here are a couple of key takeaways, which will be helpful as you enter a crucial conversation:

  • Listen and don’t pontificate.
  • Enter every conversation understanding that you have something to learn.

When you are in the midst of a conversation you feel is heating up, ask yourself these questions:2

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I want for this relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Are the words you’re speaking and the body language you’re using allowing others in the room to feel safe, to honestly express their opinion?

Or have you moved your colleagues into a corner of silence or shameful name-calling? Clint Smith poetically stated in his 2014 Ted Talk The Danger of Silence, “Silence is the residue of fear…because it does not feel safe.”4 Crucial Conversations points out that in the corporate world the “predictor of success or failure (with regards to Key Performance Indicators) was whether people could hold five specific crucial conversations. In most organizations, people fall silent in crucial moments. Silence fails; silence kills.”

So how do you work to improve yourself in a crucial conversation? By understanding your “Style Under Stress.”

Take this easy 33-question assessment to help you understand how you respond in a crucial conversation. 

Once you have your Style Under Stress, you can begin to pay attention to your own actions and work on your behavior. Do you have a tendency to move toward silence, or move toward violence?2 Over the next 30 days, be mindful of how you are acting, speaking, and responding in a crucial conversation. Take notes and self-assess.


1. Barnwell P. My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation. The Atlantic. Published April 22, 2014. Accessed February 28, 2018.

2. Patterson K, Grenny J, McMillan R, Switzler A. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Second Edition. New York: McGraw Hill; 2012.

3. 10 ways to have a better conversation. TED website. Posted May 2015. Accessed February 28, 2018.
4. The danger of silence. TED website. Posted July 2014. Accessed February 28, 2018.  

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Career Success
April 2018