Crucial conversations.

When my wife and I got together the other night after separate travels, she asked me if I’d ever heard of a book entitled Crucial Conversations. She had learned a little bit about it on her trip and was quite enthusiastic.


No I hadn’t. But this is one of those titles and one of those questions that make my antennae go up. I was sitting at the computer and so typed in the title on Google.

Hmm again.

A lot of entries. Maybe I was the only person in America to be in the dark.

One entry caught my eye: Crucial Conversations Explained in 2 Minutes – You Tube.

Two minutes? Even though I tend to attention deficit disorder (a real asset in 21st-century life), I could invest that amount of time.  I gave the video a look.

And now I’m urging you to do the same.

Turns out, according to the video, that crucial conversations have three defining features:

High stakes. Strong emotions. Different opinions.

Hmm (one more time; I seem to be saying that a lot lately)

Those three attributes would seem to fit the majority of conversations, maybe…

…to such an extent that the word crucial may be redundant. It might be closer to the truth that there’s no other kind. You and I may think a given conversation is inconsequential – with that waitress or the grocery checker or the gas jockey or the mailman or IT vendor or building security or the distant cousin or that street person. We may want to take shortcuts, and get back to things and people that matter more in our busy lives. But that exchange may look altogether different to the other party.

Fact is, the less important it seemed to us, the more likely that it seemed dismissive and/or off-putting to that person.

Every conversation matters. That’s especially true at home (and it’s the weekend so back to that in a moment) but it’s also true at work.

Think about some of the professional conversations you and I have going on across our nation and the world:

A dialog on climate change – the science and the policy.

A negotiation on federal budget priorities, with domestic so-called discretionary programs pitted against one another and backing up against the fiscal cliff and sequestration.

A conversation on weather warnings and risk communication…whether these are being butchered, or going really well…and how they might be further improved in either case.

A national discussion on natural disaster losses and who should pay, and why.

The Keystone pipeline.


The ethics of science.

The age of the Earth.



These all look to be crucial to me. And we’ve by no means exhausted the list.

Getting that far took less than 30 seconds of the clip. What was covered in the rest?

According to the video, the goal in conversations like these is to get unstuck…and to do that, we apparently need everyone’s input. We’re told to start by examining our own hearts and motives. We’re then supposed to look for signs that the conversation has become crucial, in the three senses: high stakes, strong emotions, differences of opinion. At such a transition, the conversants stop feeling safe, and shut down. By being sensitive, we can consciously recreate a safe environment, and ensure that our narratives don’t trigger negative emotions but are positive instead…and thus re-open the discussion. We can learn to state our views in ways that are direct but respectful. And get the views of others on the table as well. And then we’ll be able to move from conversation to action.

If you take the time to watch the video, which says all this more eloquently than I ever could, you, like me, will be struck by the fact there’s no escape clause. There’s nothing to the effect that “If you’re in the right, then you can skip/ignore these rules, because you have the truth on your side.”

That omission is anathema to many people, not least among them scientists. Everything we learned in all our formal training…all the mathematics and all the experiments and observations and data and statistics…every aspect of logic and analysis tells us that to be right is to hold the trump card. Nothing else matters.

Surely the point of all conversation is more about proclaiming truth than these rules of process. Surely it’s more like a game of chess leading to checkmate than holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

There’s a second problem with all this that bothers most of us. Why should it be all about making the other person feel safe? What about me? I don’t feel safe either. Why aren’t others concerned about making me feel safe?

Left unsaid in this short video is a basic spiritual reality:

You and I have to find our safety from some other source…not that other person. Only when our basic need has been met can we minister to their needs. And the only place we can find that safety is deep within ourselves. Some can claim to find it in their own inner strength. Some find it from God Himself…the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

The weekend…removed a bit from the conversation…is the best time to get grounded in that safety.

We claim to be evidence-based beings. Our experience teaches us anew every day that proclaiming truth and then seeking to build relationships and trust doesn’t seem to work. We are more than stuck.

We need to reverse the order. We need to start with building relationships and trust. Then we don’t have to proclaim truth. We won’t be the only ones, the voices crying in the wilderness.

Truth will emerge from every quarter. We’ll be co-generators of truth. What’s more, we’ll be free to act on it.

Let’s try it. What have we got to lose?

[At home as well as work, by the way. I think that’s what my wife was trying to tell me.]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Crucial conversations.

  1. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, it seems to me that most conversations don’t have high stakes, they are fairly low level social communications. In extending “high stakes” to all conversations, you remove any significance from the word “crucial,” which I assume alludes to conversations which have higher stakes because of their potential impact on us and others. That said, I hope that I approach all conversations with good volition and regard for other parties.

    We are exhorted to “Start with heart.” Fair enough, volition is critical, but how do we ensure good volition? It can certainly be done, but it’s not easy, it requires a level of self-knowledge, self-awareness and detachment which most of us lack. There’s actually a bigger issue, of how we can eradicate tendencies to selfish and harmful behaviour, to live in a way which is good for us and good for others. That done, we’ll carry an intrinsically good heart into all interactions, whatever the context.

    Most of the conversations I’ve had in the last few days were in an acute cardiology ward of a major hospital after a heart attack. High stakes indeed, but I was able to stay relaxed, not focussed on my own issues but helping others – both staff and patients – to be as happy and at ease as the environment allowed. I had some great conversations.

    As for truth, it won’t just emerge, it’s something we need to actively seek, be open to and accept. When “crucial” conversations fail, it’s often because the participants don’t have this strong commitment to truth and understanding.

    • William Hooke says:

      Michael! A heart attack? Sorry to learn of this but gladdened that you’re well enough to continue posting thoughtful comments on blogs. I hope you recover fully, and soon.

      And this comment was particularly insightful. I quite agree that one interpretation of what I was saying would cheapen the meaning of “crucial.” Good catch! I was trying (unsuccessfully), to make a point in passing…that every interaction however trivial it may seem to us shapes and influences the course of history and subsequent outcomes.

      Your comment about “start with heart” is spot on. It strikes me that the hopeful bit here is that the best way to “start with heart,” is not by adding something, but rather by subtracting every thing else. If we let go of all the self-interest and baggage that has us so wound up, what remains is “heart.” And your ability in the acute cardiology ward to help others, both staff and patients? That’s modeling that desired behavior, that’s being the change you want to see in the world.

      Good on you.

      And a postscript. You’re right about the truth bit. That’s probably a little more hard-won than I suggested.

      Get well soon, Michael.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *