My three takeaways from the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

SueAnne Li
5 min readJun 6, 2021
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

The Book — Crucial Conversations — is a great tool for improving our conversations skills. The book provides a lot of concrete and practical tips on how to navigate a crucial conversations, but it will be really hard to talk about all of them here. Instead of touching on every major points made in this book, I would like to share with you my three favorite takeaways from this book. Before we dive into that, I want to first quote the book on what is the definition of “crucial conversations”, as the basis of this book.

There are three characteristics of crucial conversation, as opposed to casual conversation:

1. Stakes are high — the result of this conversation can impact our quality of life

2. Opinions vary — people involved in the conversation does not agree with one another

3. Emotions start to run strong — we might feel attacked, frustrated, angered, misunderstood… and in an emotional state as a reaction

1. Naturally we are not at our best during crucial conversations, that is okay to admit and that’s why we need to practice to get better at it!

Often times during crucial conversations, we are not as smart and performant as we usually are. Because of our “survival instinct” that can be traced back to the hunter age, it was often a “fight or fleet” reaction naturally spawned in us during crucial conversations. As a result, we often facepalm with regretful thoughts such as “I wished I had the courage to not stay silent” or “I wished I did not act so aggressively” when we recover from the survival mode in crucial conversations. Knowing that it is built in us to suck at crucial conversations allows me to be more forgiving to myself and more empathetic towards others; at the same time, it’s definitely not an excuse to not get better at it, especially when we are equipped with the how! That brings us to the second point:

2. When safety is broken in conversation, number one priority is to restore that safety before continuing with the original topic.

A lot of times crucial discussions are not going anywhere because the sense of safety is broken. When people start to feel unsafe/frustrated, they often choose to clam up or fire away. It is important to catch when the conversation has turned into an unsafe space, and in such case, the top priority is to rebuild that safety before proceeding with the original topic. The book provides three tips to rebuild safety:

  • Apologize when appropriate — Before apologizing, there is an implied precondition that the part we play in this conversation has (directly or indirectly) led to an unsafe situation, and we fully realize and admit it. Without such realization, the apology will be neither sincere nor meaningful. It is not easy to apologize, especially during crucial conversations, but it is the critical first step to make others feel respected again. However, sometimes it is possible we do or say nothing wrong, but people misunderstand our intent.
  • Constrast with Don’t and Do — How do we know if misunderstanding has formed? What we can do is to address others’ concerns and re-assure others of our intention. Communicate clearly what we really Don’t want and what we Do want. (Ex: I really don’t want you to feel like I am downplaying your effort; I really do want us to share the success of this project equally.) By doing so, it bridges the misunderstanding of intentions to eliminate the opposition.
  • Create a mutual purpose — Sometimes we did not do anything wrong nor was there any misunderstanding; we simply cannot come to an agreement because we seem to have different purposes. The book invents the acronym CRIB to help us remember what to do:
  1. C — Commit to seek mutual purposes — we need to find / reinstate a common purpose in order to bring it back to track.
  2. R — Recognize the purpose behind the strategy — sometimes we confuse the how we want it with why we want it, sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back to look at the why and not the how.
  3. I — Invent mutual purpose — if turns out there’s no mutual purpose yet, try to look at things from a different perspective. What can be our mutual purpose to move on with this disagreement? The why from R can also help with inventing a mutual purpose.
  4. B — Brainstorm New Strategies — Hopefully by this step the safety has been restored, and we can go back to the discussion of original topic.

By practicing these introspective mental framework, we can gather our thoughts and see the whole picture more clearly during crucial conversations to drive the discussion back to safety. Like previously mentioned, remaining calm is against our instinct in survival mode, so it definitely require practice to obtain such skills!

3. Recognize the story we tell ourselves, and not dwell on false assumptions about others

Our mind forms stories about what others say that lead to how we feel about it. Sometimes, our brain takes the shortest route and assume the worst intention from others. One example the book gave was two co-workers presenting a project to the boss: Co-worker A goes off-script and ends up presenting all the points by himself, leaving co-worker B nothing left to say in front of the boss. In this situation, it is super tempting for B to assume A want to steal all the credits. The book proposes a question we can ask ourselves to reframe the situation: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?” Let our brain form a different story about it through this question, and if we really struggle to find an explanation and it bothers us to the core, talk to the person about this matter to figure out their real intention. It is unwise to be immersed in resentment towards others based on a false assumption; it wastes so much of our mental energy, while the other person can be totally innocent and clueless. I have to admit that I am also guilty of indulging myself in resentment based on assumptions without reality-check. Because it is just easier to stay in a passive negative mode that sucks away energy for a few days versus having a mentally demanding conversation with the said person for 30 minutes, am I right? But it will just be like that one app we forget to close on our phone that’s running in the background and draining the battery; it does not help with the progression of the matter, and it’s better to resolve it once and for all. Now, what if the person really is as evil as what we believe they are after we talk with them? The discussion is out-of-scope for this book, but in that case I think we will be fully justified to get rid of this person from our lives!

And that brings us to the end of this article! There are a lot of other useful things in the book I did not get to mention, so I recommend also reading this book and find out what are your favorite takeaways. Cheers to us on our way to become better crucial conversationists! 😄