Crucial Moments Decide Tools and Resources

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Your business success hangs on your ability to handle high-stakes, high-emotion conflict conversations…

When it comes to tricky moments in your business, when opinions differ, tensions rise and emotions flare up, how do you or any member of your team react?

In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember that how you manage a conversation around these difficult issues can define the success of your business, the strength of your team and your ability to move forward.

It can also be hard to know how to tackle such a conversation, when the adrenalin is flowing and frustration is simmering.

We fear this sort of confrontation so much that we avoid it as often as we can. There are likely times when you have avoided it yourself, both personally and professionally.

As the outcomes of these crucial conversations can have a lasting impact on the individuals involved, in both your business and your team, ask yourself this one question:


How do I develop my crucial conversation skills to better resolve the important issues in my business and to build stronger relationships?

STOP rushing into high-emotion, high-stakes conflict like someone drunk on adrenalin

START recognising the 3 elements of a crucial issue and then pursue genuine, respectful dialogue that builds the pool of meaning

The one ‘BREAKTHROUGH QUESTION’ you must ask to help yourself…


How do I develop my crucial conversation skills to better resolve the important issues in my business and to build stronger relationships?

If you handle these issues poorly or not at all, it will lead to strained or even broken relationships, resulting in a disenfranchised, unhappy and divided team – not good for your business.

By building your crucial conversation skills and discovering how to speak and be heard (and encouraging others to do the same), you will empower your team to come up with ideas, make shared decisions and then act on those decisions with togetherness and commitment.

Remember, this does not just apply to your business. There will have been and will be many times in your personal life when you have disagreed with a family member or a friend, and you probably look back and wish one or both of you had handled the situation better.

Perhaps you have a difficult relationship with a sibling or are dealing with a moody teenager or are arguing with a spouse over money or with an ex-spouse about seeing the children. There are endless moments in life, both personally and professionally, where building your crucial conversation skills will enable you to handle these situations better – helping you to resolve the issue and to strengthen relationships.

The rule of 3 when it comes to having a crucial conversation

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

So, what is a crucial conversation?

You may think a crucial conversation only happens between heads of state, government leaders, management and workers, shareholders or, generally, people in power. It is true that they will have crucial conversations, but a crucial conversation is actually any conversation that really matters to the people having it.

They happen all the time, to everyone and anyone, and are the everyday conversations of your home life, your business life and everything in between.

But what changes a conversation from a normal ‘chat’ to a ‘crucial’ one?

In their book, Crucial Conversations, Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, et al., believe that a crucial conversation has 3 elements:

Image taken from:

In their book, the authors state that a crucial conversation is characterised by these 3 conditions:

  1. Opposing Opinions – disagreement exists, and the opinions matter a great deal to each party.
  2. StrongEmotions – feelings are running high; tension is high, and the adrenalin is flowing.
  3. High-Stakes – the outcome matters a great deal.

If these elements do not exist, the conversation you are having is not a crucial conversation.

If there are no opposing opinions, there is no argument or discussion to be had because there is no disagreement.

Without strong emotions, the conversations would not seem important enough – if you're not emotionally invested or emotionally connected to your position, what is the point?

If there are no high stakes attached to the outcome of the conversation, there is no jeopardy. The conversation will lack passion and real meaning. If both parties truly care about the consequences resulting from the conversation, then it is worth having and is therefore crucial.

Remember, a crucial conversation is one between two or more people where there are opposing opinions, strong emotions and where the stakes are high.

Think about the conversations you have in your business, or in your home for that matter, and how many of them are crucial.

Now that you know the 3 elements of a crucial conversation, you need to decide HOW you respond.

You have 3 choices:

  1. Silence – you can do nothing, say nothing and hope that the issue goes away. If it does not, you can still avoid the conversation – no one can force you into talking if you don’t want to.
  2. Violence – metaphorical, not physical – you can try and convince (with inflammatory words, intimidation, control) people around to your way of thinking, or just shout your point of view, without giving the other person any airtime.
  3. Dialogue – you can handle the conversation with open and honest dialogue, listening to the other individuals involved. Dialogue works best when there is a free flow of honest conversation between 2 or more people. It works even better when you are openly encouraging the other person to speak freely, airing all views and creating a shared pool of meaning (more on that later).

Which choice will you make when crucial conversations happen in your business?

7 principles to help you with a crucial conversation

(Adapted from Crucial Conversations, 3rd edition: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, et al.)

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” – Ambrose Bierce

We have all said things in the heat of the moment which we later regret, especially when we are emotionally invested.

This has likely happened to you at home, with friends or in your business.

It’s why it’s said that you should never discuss politics or religion at a dinner party.

People care passionately about certain subjects and will have opinions which they will want to share. They often believe that YOU need to hear what THEY have to say.

Human beings can be good at listening – but are they really GOOD at LISTENING? Yes, you can hear what the other person is saying, but do you really HEAR it, take it on board and respect the words as something that they, just like you, feel strongly about.

Because opinions differ, emotions run high and everyone cares about the desired outcome, crucial conversations can be difficult to navigate. It's hard for both parties to come out of such a conversation unscathed.

But there is a way in which these crucial conversations can be a catalyst for good in your business. They can air and resolve important issues, not only preserving relationships but strengthening them.

Image taken from the book Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, et al.

When you follow the 7 crucial conversation principles, it’s a win-win for both parties, as these principles enable all involved to engage in successful conversations that will lead to a positive outcome.

Try using these principles when the next crucial conversation crops up in your business.

1. Start with heart – Focus on what you really want for yourself and ensure that you don’t make poor choices in a desire to win. Also, focus on what the outcome will look like for others and try seeing it from their point of view. This helps maintain perspective.

2. Learn to look – Read the room, become aware of body language, including that of yourself. Hostility and a breakdown in the conversation is obvious by the way people respond to you and the words that people use.

3. Make it safe – People feel safe when they are certain of your intentions. But beware, once someone sees that you are being disrespectful, the conversation lacks meaning and they will go into defence mode.

When you demonstrate that you care about what the other party is saying and about their concerns, you demonstrate that you are working towards a mutual purpose. You are committed to honouring their desired outcome as well as your own. Without mutual respect and mutual purpose, there can be no crucial conversation.

4. Master your stories – Avoid emotionally driven stories that have differing versions of the truth. State the facts and maintain constructive and worthwhile dialogue.

5. State your path - Share your facts, Tell your story, Ask for others facts and stories, Talk tentatively and Encourage testing to make it safe to express a different view (more on this later).

6. Explore others’ paths — Be genuinely curious, ask questions, repeat their answers back to them to reinforce that you have heard what they are saying and be patient in listening to other people’s facts and stories.

7. Move to action – The crucial conversation has to end at some point and the agreement must drive results. It’s therefore vital that you make decisions, assign tasks and schedule follow up. This gives both parties a sense of certainty that they have been heard and that the conversation will result in actionable change.

When you put the 7 principles into action during your next crucial conversation, record what worked and what did not work for you, as well as the things you got right and wrong, so that you are even more prepared next time. Remember, building your crucial conversation skills takes time. Every conversation is unique, so you will ALWAYS be learning.

Grow your shared pool of meaning

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears – by listening to them.” – Dean Rusk

At the heart of the book Crucial Conversations is the pursuit of genuine respectful dialogue.

This involves creating and building a shared pool of thoughts and feelings.

At the start of the conversation, the pool does not exist. If these conversations have occurred in your business, they perhaps started something like this:

‘I believe one thing, you another, I have my truth, you yours, I have one story, you another…’

BUT for genuine dialogue to take place and for the conversation to be successful, all parties must feel safe to contribute their own views to a shared pool of meaning – no matter how divisive, how controversial or how different they are from the other parties involved.

As the manager or leader of a business, it is your job to ensure that everyone has a voice, as there will naturally be louder personalities and voices involved in this dialogue. Your job is to ensure that everyone contributes to the pool.

Here is a story demonstrating how the shared pool works:

A business has 2 different teams performing the same roles in 2 different locations. These teams naturally do things slightly differently.

The business suddenly decides to close one of the offices and merge the teams. The business is doing well, so there will be no job losses, but the team leaders and team managers all believe that their way of doing the job is the best.

To begin with and to avoid the argument, the MD sits the teams together and hopes that, over time, there will be a natural coming together of their functions and their work. But this does not happen.

Instead, the divide grows as each team tries to outdo the other. This becomes such a preoccupation for both teams that their performance and that of the business declines.

The MD decides to have a crucial conversation with the team leaders and all members of the newly combined team using a shared pool of meaning, where each person is able to share how they really feel, including the emotions they are experiencing, the ideas they have and the outcomes they would like to see.

These meetings happen once a week for 6 weeks, and the MD notices something with each meeting:

‘Team members from each team who performed the same job role started sitting next to each other, as they realised that the ideas and feelings they had expressed in the shared pool of meaning were not that far apart. The outcome they wanted was almost the same, so they started working together on process improvements and knowledge sharing.’

It took 2 months for this team to share, learn and listen to each other and to understand all points of view.

The result was that they all adopted the best working patterns, picking a little bit from each team. Now that they were working together, they were also able to come up with new ideas for improving processes.

The team became so successful that, less than 12 months later, the business was recruiting into the team and growing its profits.

STATE your case

When a crucial conversation needs to be had in your business, you want to do it right. You want productive dialogue, and you don’t want your team to go into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode.

As outlined above, productive dialogue relies on your building a shared pool of meaning. Here is a proven formula from the book Crucial Conversations, which you can follow to help you maintain that dialogue all the way through the conversation – STATE.

Taken from the book Crucial Conversations, image from

Share your facts – these are the facts that are indisputable and obvious to all.

Tell your story – your version of the facts, sharing the impact that this issue has had on you and others.

Ask for other views – ask others to share their stories and encourage them to be as honest and open as possible; really listen to what they have to say.

Talk Tentatively – take the arrogance, emotion and resistance out of the conversation by using respectful language.

Encourage testing – embrace all views – you are seeking a third way, not just your way or theirs, but the best way.

Below is a great mind map taken from Whitney Johnson on Twitter (@LearnwithMrsJ), explaining the importance of stating your path when it comes to having successful crucial conversations in your business.

The book and other resources

Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes are High

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

Crucial Conversations provides information about how you can acquire powerful skills to ensure that every conversation – especially those that are difficult – leads to the results you want. Written in an engaging and witty style, the book teaches readers how to be persuasive rather than abrasive and how to get back to productive dialogue when others blow up or clam up. It explains the necessary skills for mastering high-stakes conversations, regardless of the topic or person.

Buy Crucial Conversations here.

What people are saying about this book:

"Crucial Conversations draws our attention to those defining moments that literally shape our lives, our relationships, and our world. . . . This book deserves to take its place as one of the key thought leadership contributions of our time." – Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

"I have bungled countless crucial conversations – either by letting my emotions spiral out of control or by avoiding conflict altogether. The authors walk you step by step down the path of productive dialogue. It’s an exceptionally helpful book for leaders, parents, and anyone who has struggled to communicate effectively when it matters most." – Angela Duckworth, New York Times bestselling author of Grit

“It’s hard to improve on a classic. For 20 years, Crucial Conversations has been the go-to resource for people, teams, and organizations looking to improve how they work and live together. And yet, in this new edition, the authors have made these classic skills more relevant than ever."—Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and New York Times bestselling author of The Power of Habit

"This is a must-have manual for navigating the tough conversations that occur in every aspect of life. Brilliantly researched, easy to read, and highly practical…bravo!"—David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done

Watch this 15-minute talk from Joseph Grenny (one of the authors of Crucial Conversations) as he discusses the importance of THAT moment that predicts how you are going to do in a crucial conversation and the importance of ensuring that everyone shares their story. He also recounts a great story about a windbreaker and maple syrup.

Watch the video here.

If you want to go even deeper into the subject of Crucial Conversations, here is a 30-minute talk from Joseph Grenny's keynote speech at the 2015 VitalSmarts REACH conference on Mastering the Art of Crucial Conversations.

Watch the video here.

This animated Crucial Conversations summary from ‘Successful by Design’ will teach you the communication skills you need for that next ultra-important conversation in your life. Whether it is at work or at home, mastering crucial conversations is an essential life skill at which we can all improve.

Watch the video here.

Here is another excellent animated summary of the book from

Watch the video here.


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