Crucial Conversations: A Book Review

Someone somewhere recommended that someone read Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, and we thought that was a good idea, so one of us checked it out from the library.  She had to recall it, and it has been recalled on her, so up on her Amazon wishlist it goes.

We think this is a great book, and wish everybody would read it.  As #1 was reading it, she thought back to previous crucial conversations and how the ones that went well tended to follow their advice and the ones that went off the rails really could have benefited.

The basic premise of the book is that if you pretend to (or actually believe in) give (ing) the benefit of the doubt to people and keep your thoughts focused on the end goals with that in mind, attacking problems instead of people, you’re more likely to get what you really want, make good decisions, foster a positive environment, deescalate potentially fraught situations, and get a reputation for being professional and reasonable that will help you in the future.

They summarize their technique with the following steps:

1. Start with heart. Focus on what you really want, and what you really don’t want.
2. Learn to look. Pay attention to emotions, problems, silencing, and the conversation no longer feeling safe for at least one party.
3. Make it safe. Fix misunderstandings, apologize as necessary. (I’ve found this step incredibly helpful in blaming things on miscommunications and going back to the big goal– what we both want– really does seem to defuse situations.)
4. Master my story. Separate facts from narrative– know which is which. State the facts.  Choose a good narrative. (This is where you give the best possible story behind the other person’s actions rather than the one that may actually be true. I have found that occasionally when I ascribe positive motives to people, they tend to start believing those motives themselves.)
5. STATE my path. Share your facts. Tell your story. Ask for other’s paths. Talk tentatively. Encourage testing. These are all things a good leader will do– you’re more likely to accept a decision you don’t agree with if you trust the process that came to it. (The difference between our provost saying, “I’m the decider” and a better communication of, “Here are the pros and cons of each choice. These are the reasons I made this choice over the other choice.” I really wanted to send hir a copy of this book. BTW, hir decision was terrible and has already had some pretty nasty consequences.)
6. Explore other’s paths. Ask. Mirror. Paraphrase. Prime. Agree. Build. Compare. These are ways of talking about alternative views and coming to the best decision for your main goal while making people with other views feel validated and focused on their main goals.
7. Move to action. Decide how you will decide. Document decisions and follow up. (A meeting in which you discuss, come to an agreement and then don’t do action items is a waste of time.)

They share a lot of really helpful language along with their process.  While reading the book, I thought back to good bosses I’ve had and bad bosses I’ve had, and the good bosses almost instinctively use these techniques.  Heck, my father-in-law uses these techniques.  It’s been helping me a lot with some of the dramatic fall-out of the provost’s bad decision.

It’s not a perfect book– it almost seems like there’s some victim-blaming in the middle, and it isn’t until very near the end of the book that the book specifies that no, a woman does not have to put up with sexual harassment on her own.  This is a shame because some of the examples they use are very close to sexual harassment, and although the actions they suggest are appropriate, they come too close on the heels of admonitions to accept the role you had in whatever tragedy is going on.  Their example seems to suggest that muggings are the only crimes in which the victim is not at fault.  Sexual harassment is never the victim’s fault, and they would do well to point that out far earlier.

The book doesn’t separate by gender.  It tells everybody to use some of the softening language that Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office tells women to avoid, which may be problematic.  We know that people have different reactions to male and female managers saying the same thing in the same way– are the suggestions in this book truly gender neutral?  We don’t really know.

An interesting thing to note– in the back of the book one of the authors mentions that they get fan mail from people who have only read the introduction and the first chapter.  Apparently those first ideas of just giving people the benefit of the doubt and focusing on the big goals make a huge difference for some people.  We do think the rest of the book is worth reading through because it gives helpful language that does deescalate situations.

Also:  We’ve posted this on a Monday because it’s about work and career, but many of these techniques also work well in personal relationships.  They also give examples from marriages and dealing with teenagers.

What do you find works for dealing with other people at work?  Do you have recommendations for books on communication or otherwise dealing with coworkers?  Have you read this one?

23 Responses to “Crucial Conversations: A Book Review”

  1. gwinne Says:

    I might add this to my summer reading list. Sounds useful, though it also sounds like I tend to do most of those things anyway but find myself in situations with others who don’t… My current work problem has to do with colleagues firing off long nasty emails. I could probably handle the content in a different medium…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes, the book has a *lot* in it about what to do when others are acting inappropriately.

      When emails get like that, I’ve started to refuse to engage via email. Our current chair has this problem– perfectly reasonable in person or even over the phone, but on email ze’s awful. Since at least a couple of my other colleagues have started politely saying that as well to him (it’s so hard to read tone, so easy to mis-communicate, etc.), the chair actually has started acknowledging that ze has a problem with email.

  2. bogart Says:

    Thank you for this recommendation; I’ve checked, and my U’library has it (and available, no less) so now am debating whether to get it easily as an e-book or make the trek to check out the audiobook. The latter probably better as I need some listening material.

  3. Rented life Says:

    I think it was Nice Girls that a former coworker had read and sent a group of her female friends a summary and advice–once a week per chapter. I found it annoying to have someone do this–without asking–so I can’t comment if the information was actually helpful.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I wasn’t particularly impressed by Nice Girls– another one of those books that gives advice but doesn’t really have any research base… I think we now know a lot more about why women don’t do the things they suggest in that book (because they get punished for it, or perhaps, as crucial conversations suggests, they do what actually works).

  4. chacha1 Says:

    I think I have read this. It was either this or “Crucial Confrontations.” I found whichever of them it was in the break room at a job, and read it on my lunch hours because after the first chapter I was thoroughly hooked. I wish my mother would read either of them. :-(

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The two books look super-similar — the amazon reviews didn’t seem to think a person needed to read both. Yeah, I often wish specific people would read them (cough upper administration cough).

  5. Cloud Says:

    Ooh. I’ll have to check this out. I’m just finishing up Dweck’s Mindset (finally!) so have room for another “work/management” book. Also, my former boss has asked me to recommend some things it read to help him become a better manager. This sounds like it might be a good book to recommend to him. Thanks for posting this!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Mindset is awesome too (though to be honest we kind of skipped through some of the middle chapters because they were repetitive).

      What he really probably needs is some information on implicit bias. I don’t know of any good books/manuals about it, but I bet somewhere there’s a reading list. I’ve read some really good individual articles on the topic, but I haven’t seen a full literature review. That doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist though.

      • Cloud Says:

        He needs a lot of things, really- he’s starting from scratch. But, I’m encouraged he now wants to learn. Apparently, my resignation was a jolt! He really, really, really needs to read and “get” Mindset, but the repetitive aspect of the book makes me loathe to recommend it to him- I think he’d get annoyed, give up, and then not learn about mindsets. I’m looking for a good short summary to include in a links list for him (which I am assembling at his request).

        And yeah, a primer on implicit bias would be useful… but I’m not sure I can go there. I did have a conversation with him that skirted the topic. I might have to leave it at that. (It is complicated- I can explain more 1:1 if you’re curious.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        There’s a good article that came out in PLOS one last summer that shows that people who are *aware* of their implicit bias are much less likely to actually discriminate.

      • Liz Says:

        @Cloud: It’s frustrating when your dissatisfaction must be a catalyst to make “duh!” kinds of changes, but I’m very glad to hear your boss woke up and is making an effort to change.

  6. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    Hmm. . .I thought *you’d* already recommended it at least once. Maybe it was someone else. In any case, I bought it and read most of it sometime in the last few months, because it seemed to keep coming up in blog conversations, recommended by people whose perspective I value. I, too, thought it was good, with one proviso: if one doesn’t know one’s interlocutor well, one needs to be alert to any signs that the person is mentally ill — specifically, that (s)he has a personality disorder (or is somewhere on that spectrum, and, like many things, personality-driven problems do exist on a spectrum). There is a minority (but a substantial minority) of people in this world, some of whom very high functioning in most areas of their lives, to whom it’s really not a great idea to give the benefit of the doubt, especially if you have reason, from past experience, to believe that you’ve become the projection screen for whatever unhappiness is going on inside their heads. Because *they’re* stuck in their own assumptions about your motivations, your judgment of them, etc., etc., and completely unable to escape from them (at least not without long and intensive work with a therapist), there’s simply no way to make conversations with them safe, for them or you.

    As you may guess from the above, I’ve had considerable, and painful, experience with one such person (someone who married into my family and has caused considerable conflict, some of it attributable in part to dysfunction that was already present, but multiplied way, way beyond its original amount). Once you’ve encountered someone like that, perhaps especially in a particular role, there *is* a danger of being overly alert for signs of similar danger (and I suspect that danger would be much greater for someone who grew up with a parent or other significant family member with a personality problem). On the other hand, if you, like I, grew up among fallible but basically reasonable people, and naturally tend, in part out of that experience, toward the Crucial Conversations approach, you can really be blindsided, and possibly seriously harmed, by your first encounter with a pathological narcissist, or someone with borderline or antisocial personality disorder, precisely because you keep thinking there’s some way to return the conversation to a zone that feels safe to all involved. In my experience, even family therapists can fall prey to this over-optimism (and be pretty shocked by the wreckage, especially if their standard advice to get feelings on the table has seriously escalated the situation, which it can).

    So, I guess I’d recommend reading Crucial Conversations along with something that addresses the question of determining whether your interlocutor him/herself is “safe.” Cloud and Townsend’s _Safe People_ comes to mind, though it’s a bit simplistic, focused mostly on dating/friendship relationships, and very much from a conservative Christian viewpoint. Gavin de Becker’s _The Gift of Fear_ is also good (though it deals with pretty extreme situations), as is anything by Susan Forward (_Emotional Blackmail_, _Toxic Parents_). My personal favorite, though, is Oldham & Morris’ _The New Personality Self-Portrait_ (which is no longer very new — 1995), precisely because it talks about personality traits on a spectrum, from the normal to the pathological, and tries to help readers both work with people who simply have different personality styles than their own (a good complement to _Crucial Conversations_) and detect when they’re dealing with someone whose personality is too extreme to make working with that person normally a realistic possibility (a good corrective to _Crucial Conversations_’ possible blind spot).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We have recommended CC in comments, after reading it after someone else recommended it in comments. (This post was started a lonnnng time ago. You’ll see a lot of started-a-long-time-ago posts over the summer!)

      Great point about the book’s blind spot. My view with people like that is to stay the hell away and hope they don’t notice me, but as you point out, it can be difficult to realize who they are etc. I think it may relate to what we said above about gender– women may need to be more attuned to the possibility of danger (the authors of the book are all men) because the world is a much more dangerous place for us. Crazy people are more likely to mess with us and are of a danger to us.

    • Liz Says:

      AMEN. There are people who know exactly how to imitate the sound of compromise, change, and love, but who then renege or act exactly the opposite of how they said they would. Once you recognize one of these, I agree: don’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. Any conversation is a false hope and investment in futility.

      It’s easier to recognize those people, the ones who want to constantly stay in favor (to manipulate you to their advantage), than it is to recognize those who use people up. That is, there’s a separate category of people like one of my coworkers who are best of friends until they feel it no longer benefits them. She and I used to talk intimately (professional stuff) and be friends somewhat outside of work. Now, she literally passes my desk every day without ever saying hello, and gives me sneers and subtle cues of dislike when I need to coordinate something. The exception is when she can teach me and be authoritative over me… Meh, it’s sad, I do miss the friendship, but apparently it was superficial. I don’t need that in my life.

    • chacha1 Says:

      Could not agree more with this. At the very job where I discovered the “Crucial” book, I had to deal with several people who were happily camped at the toxic end of the spectrum. Have no idea, and frankly don’t care, if their issues were due to mental disorder or just to being bitches. Once I figured out there was no good outcome for me in trying to deal with them, I just shut them out. Life got better.

  7. Kellen Says:

    I picked up a copy of crucial conversations a couple of months ago. Found it to be useful, but then got busy with work and didn’t finish it. I’m not sure yet whether I agree that using “softening language” is a bad thing. I’m sure in most people’s lives, it’s a good idea to communicate this way – and most people aren’t exactly aiming for the corner office, even if this does hurt their competitiveness.
    The beginning of this book really helped me see that I was making up a lot of “stories” for why people did things, and then letting that affect my emotions, even though I didn’t know the real story. It didn’t help me STOP being upset about my imagined explanations, but it did prompt me to go and ask someone for the real story. Once I was told the real story, I did feel marginally better, even though, to be honest, the real story wasn’t a good one, but it wasn’t the huge gender-favoring I had thought it was.
    I should probably give the rest of the book a read sometime!

  8. Leah Says:

    unrelated request for a future post:
    do you know any economic evidence that relates minimum wage increases and cost of living? I’ve tried to find papers, but economics is not my field. Specifically, is there evidence that increasing the minimum wage increases the costs of goods and services? If yes, what sort of ratio are we looking at? Is this a 1:1 ratio (as in, it’s no good to raise the minimum wage), or is there an appreciable increase in purchasing power if the minimum wage is increased?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:


      There are well over 500 papers (literally) on the topic of the effects of the minimum wage. We don’t really know the answer. As to whether or not it directly increases inflation, probably not so much. Most of the literature addresses the question of whether or not it decreases employment. The economic theory predicts that an increase in the minimum wage decreases the number of workers demanded. However, there’s also empirical evidence that it doesn’t, possibly because places that employ minimum wage workers have monopsony power (which is like monopoly power, but over workers instead of consumers).

      The three big arguments are: 1. Card and Kruger (the classic PE/NJ minimum wage experiment), 2. David Neumark (he says economic theory holds), 3. Meer and West (this is a new paper that says that both 1 and 2 are right, but *long term* employment goes down– people don’t get fired, and the margin is on hiring.)

      • Leah Says:

        I’m specifically really interested in the costs of goods and services, because I want to know if there’s any research behind that idea. People I “discuss” this issue with will often say “sure, increase the minimum wage. Milk right now is $4 a gallon. Double the minimum wage, and milk will be $8 a gallon. Great!” I maintain that the costs of goods and services is much more complex, and increasing the minimum wage doesn’t result in an identical cost of products. I mostly reason this based on purchasing power and the minimum wage, sine that’s been eroded over time (as in, goods/services have gone up without a matching increase in minimum wage).

        I have been reading the stuff on levels of employment. But, at some level, you have to have the employees to provide the service.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Click to access WP1317_Basker.pdf

        Here ya go. An elasticity of 1 would mean a one-for-one increase (or -1 is a one-for-one decrease). They’re finding .09 and note that others have found elasticities between .07 and .16.

        I know that one of the authors on this study does really good work (her work on Walmart is probably the most prominent)– I don’t know the other author. So I would tend to trust that the paper is a high quality paper and does a good job with the literature review.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        China’s minimum wage going up would do more for our product costs than our minimum wage changing.

        IIRC, most of the studies on that specific question have focused on fast-food costs, with one on pizza making the news a while back. IIRC, they were talking like 30cents increase in pizza costs for whatever increase in the minimum wage they were arguing over. It’s definitely not doubling food costs, especially since agricultural workers aren’t as subject to the minimum wage (there are a lot more ways for ag workers to get around it, for example by hiring 14 year olds).

        Employees are only needed to provide services for service-related things. Most other things can be outsourced to other countries or replaced by machines if worker costs get too high. Additionally there’s a black market for illegal immigrants who can be paid lower wages. So there’s a lot of places for markets to adjust.

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