Crucial Conversations: A Look Outward


By Maggie Mullen and Erik Burns

In Part 2 of the Crucial Conversations series, we learned the about the two key ingredients for creating safety in a conversation:

  • Mutual Purpose
  • Mutual Respect

Read the May 2018 article to dive deeper into creating Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect.

Within our previous installment, we learned how to master our story and maintain a handle on our emotions by using the template below:


Now that you have a recipe for telling your story in a calm and effective way, the focus should be on your ability to be open enough to Explore Other’s Paths.1 You might have to go against common misconceptions and turn your weakness in to a strength by listening to others while also being vulnerable.


While we all believe we’re good listeners, research suggests otherwise. For example, in Julian Treasure’s July 2011 TED Talk 5 Ways to Listen Better,2 he discusses the serious problem we face as a society: losing our ability to listen. While you may disagree, perhaps we should consider the difference between HEARING and LISTENING. Treasure states that we spend approximately 60 percent of our “communication” time listening, but we retain only 25 percent of what we hear. He provides a variety of tools to sharpen your listening skills to guide you to a place he calls, “conscious listening.” Treasure states, “listening consciously always creates understanding.”

While some of us may think we are listening, consider some tools for application! In Crucial Conversations, the authors provide a template for listening skills, especially when the other individual’s emotions are hijacked.

  • Ask—invite the other person to express him- or herself openly and honestly.
  • Mirror—describe how the other person is looking and/or acting.
  • Paraphrase—acknowledge his or her story.
  • Prime—if the story still lacks all the details, offer your best guess at what the other person is thinking or feeling. Help both of you to prime the conversation in a forward direction.

In Treasure’s TEDTalk, he also provides a template for listening called RASA:2

  • Receive
  • Appreciate
  • Summarize
  • Ask


While listening is a key skill, so is showing and embracing personal vulnerability, as outlined within Crucial Conversations step Exploring Other’s Paths. Being vulnerable may appear to be weak, when in fact it is really a process of becoming self-aware by seeking to understand through a “start with heart”1 perspective while establishing your own level of sincerity, curiosity, and patience, even when the situation feels risky. Most people think of vulnerability in a very negative (or weak) context; however, we should explore the positive side of vulnerability.


The most profound statement about vulnerability comes from Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability3 TEDTalk. Brown suggests that “vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.” It is the centerpiece of our ability to connect with others, and it is those connections that give purpose and meaning to our lives.3 Without listening and without vulnerability, dialogue cannot occur. Both sides need to be their true, authentic selves to create mutual purpose, mutual respect, and a safe place to speak.


Another Perspective

For example, recall the scenario described in the second installment of the Crucial Conversations series where your manager takes over to present at the Implementation Plan Review Meeting to senior leadership and takes credit for all the work the team did.

Imagine how this crucial conversation will likely progress as you seeks to address the facts (as you see them). The “safe” part of you will likely close your ears to listening and find comfort in silence…The natural reaction is to feed on your internal emotions and find comfort in your perspective of how unfair you have been treated. In your eyes, you are a victim and your manager is a villain. The vulnerable side of you, however, opens up the possibility that your manager had a very reasonable and valid reason for taking the approach he did.

Consider an alternative perspective: Perhaps your manager was shielding you and the team from harsh criticism and backlash from a resistant member of the senior decision makers. Or perhaps your manager is under a performance review and needed to take that opportunity to demonstrate to senior leadership team how important the department is to the company.

Are your skills honed enough to HEAR and LISTEN while also being vulnerable enough to inquire into true motives behind another’s action or words? 

Listening and being vulnerable are two challenging skills to master and/or embrace, but by doing so, you’ll open yourself up to dialogue.1 Once you are in a positive dialogue, you can move toward decisions and mutually agreed upon outcomes.

However, dialogue ≠ decision-making. Dialogue is what allows you to move a crucial conversation into action and/or results.1 Carefully clarify the conclusions reached and decisions made.


“Understanding” may become “misunderstanding” if no commitment or no responsibilities are assumed, no specific objectives set, no definite expectations met, and common values and interests no longer shared. Mutual understanding may then, against all odds, end up in heartache, confusion, and bewilderment. ― Erik Pevernagie



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

5 Ways to Listen Better. TED website. Posted July 2011. Accessed April 20, 2018.

3 The Power of Vulnerability. TED website. Posted June 2010. Accessed April 20, 2018.


Maggie Mullen is business development manager at Lovelace Biomedical. Erik Burns, MA, MBA, EdD, is division chair and assistant dean of Outreach and Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Pharmacy. 

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June 2018