Crucial Conversations: Summary & Review

crucial conversations book cover

“Crucial Conversations” (2002) is a self-help and communication skills book for business leaders who want to improve their interpersonal and communication skills through theory, practical advice, and examples.

Bullet Summary

  • Start with the heart: don’t let the need to win or look good get in the way
  • Find a common purpose and communicate that you care: it makes the conversation safe
  • Start with facts and a positive note and be curious about the other person’s stories


About The Authors: The authors are four corporate trainers who founded VitalSmarts, a business consultancy providing corporations and executives with the tools and knowledge to be more effective at work.


Why Mastering Crucial Conversations?

The authors say that very often when you found yourself stuck, it’s because of a crucial conversation that you are not having or are not having well.

What differentiates great companies from good ones, they say, is how they manage crucial conversations.
In great companies crucial conversations take place and problems are never swept under the rug.

Chapter 1: What’s a Crucial Conversation?

A crucial conversation has three ingredients:

  1. High stakes
  2. Strong emotions
  3. Opposing opinions

The author says the irony is that the more important conversations are, the poorer we handle them.
It’s because our emotions take over and our pre-cortex, the region that makes us humans basically, shuts off.

And we end up behaving like animals exactly when behaving like human beings is most important.

Poor Communicators Suffer or Get Violent

The authors say that the two most common destructive patterns relating to crucial relationships are silence and violence.

We either avoid engaging in crucial conversations or we do so hyper-emotionally and in violent ways.
Often we also swing between the two. The more we stay silent, the more we are likely to eventually explode.

Silence is much more common, and it’s very dangerous when it becomes the company’s culture.

Chapter 2: Mastering Crucial Conversations

Dialogue is the exchange of meaning when people have a conversation.

The author uses an imaginary “pool” at the center among the people conversing.
The more people can be open and put information in the pool, the more likely it is we will reach good decisions.

This is basically the principle Ray Dalio institutionalized in Bridgewater. Dalio sought a culture of radical transparency and radical open-mindedness where people are expected to speak up and share opinions (check Ray Dalio’s Principles).

Chapter 3: Start with Heart

Starting with the heart means starting within ourselves first. We need to examine our own personal contributions to the problem.

The authors also suggest that you focus and ask yourself what you really want. What you want for yourself, for the other(s), and for the relationship(s).

Looking within yourself and asking what you really want is also a great way to avoid damaging feelings such as the need to look good and to “win” the argument.

Don’t Get Stuck in The Sucker’s Choices

The authors also remind us that we often see difficult conversations as two opposing choices that cannot co-exist.
Or two bad decisions.

It’s however often not the case.
To look beyond appearances, it’s often great to ask questions such as “how can I do X and still do Y”.
Or “how can I do X without hurting Y”.

My Note:
Being honest and building rapport is such a choice. You can both build rapport in conversations and be honest (check out this analysis of Gary Vaynerchuk).

Chapter 4: Learn to Look

Learning to spot and recognize the sign of a crucial conversation is not always easy, but it’s an essential part of being successful at crucial conversations.

Especially look for signs of silence and violence.

When you see someone being silent a great way to draw them out is to ask something like:

you say you are OK, but I can see you’re not


are you sure everything is OK, you don’t sound like everything is OK

Chapter 5: Make it Safe

The authors say that when we are dealing with a crucial conversation we often feel that our message and our words are the problem.

So we water it down and look for safer alternatives. And we don’t say what we really want to say.
The key though is exactly that: being able to say what we want and need to say the most. The best way to do so is to make the conversation safe.

There are two ways to make a conversation safe:

  1. Mutual interest = they must know we care about their interests and goals
  2. Mutual respect = they must know we care about them

When our conversation partners know and believe both of those elements are in place, they can relax and really listen to what you’re saying without defensive barriers.
When they don’t believe those two are in place, we get silence or violence.

When respect has been shattered the author suggests that you:

  • Apologize (when respect is broken)
  • Contrasting (when mutual interest  is broken)
  • CRIB, an acronym to avoid miscommunication and finding out what the others really want

My Note: You have to state it and own it if it’s not “safe”
Unluckily the book starts from the premise the conversation IS safe. But what if the consequences are big from then? Then it’s NOT safe, but you still have to say it first to avoid tension.

Apologies: Also, from a social skills website such as this one, I found apologies especially captivating. Indeed a well-placed apology works wonders in mending relationships.
The authors say: the party often doesn’t want to be compensated because they’re wronged, they want to be healed because they’re wronged.

Chapter 6: Master My Stories

The authors say that our emotions come from the stories we make up, not really from reality and facts (something Tony Robbins often repeats as well).

The core of this chapter is to encourage us to look at the facts and the stories from different and more complete angles.

The authors say that when we engage in crucial conversations it’s easy getting emotional and upset. When we do that, there seems to be a tendency where we take the story the worst possible way., which further escalates emotions.

To break the negative patterns we must then look at all other possible stories and change our judgments and conclusions.
As we expand the breadth of our stories, we become calmer and better prepared to have crucial conversations.

  • Start With Facts

The authors also recommend you start crucial conversations from facts -as also suggested in Difficult Conversations-. It will be less personal and it will make you more credible.

  • Start With What You Agree

I also particularly like the suggestion of starting with what you agree, so that you begin on a positive note.
They propose the acronym ABC, meaning Agree, Build (instead of tearing down, “yes and..”), compare (what you see differently).

Chapter 7: STATE My Path

The author introduces here an acronym to help us with the crucial conversation:

  • S share the facts
  • T ell your story
  • A ask for another’s story
  • T alk tentatively
  • E encourage testing

Chapter 8: Explore Other’s Paths

When people fall into silence or violence, we need to encourage them to take the same healthier steps that we want to take for ourselves.

The authors say that we need to move beyond the simple expression of their emotions to their facts and stories.

A great way is to get curious. Ask yourself: why should a reasonable person like X act and behave like this? What brought them there? And then get down to find out what happened.

Chapter 9: Move to Action

Understanding each other and having a positive atmosphere are not our end goals. Those are the means to an end.

Once we have no silence or violence and once we have a big pool of shared meaning it’s time to move to solutions.

Always keep a record of the decisions and keep one single person accountable for a single result.

Chapter 10: Yeah, But

The authors say that most people believe those neat principles sound good but don’t really apply to their personal cases.
Well, they do. They then proceed to present several case studies to walk us through them.

I warmly invite you to get the book because examples are how we really learn.

Chapter 11: Putting it All Together

The authors suggest that to improve you:

  • Analyze the crucial conversations after they happened for lessons learned.
  • Think about patterns in your relationships.
  • Change in real-time when you notice a mistake
  • Ask friends for feedback

crucial conversations book cover

Practical Applications

The whole book will improve your communication style. The crucial points to take away for me:

Words don’t matter. Caring does.
You can say whatever you want as long as the conversation feels safe. As long as they know you have a common goal and that you care about them.

Start with what you agree
This is a small piece of advice that changes everything. Often we approach crucial conversations defensively or are already angry. Changing that mood is crucial.


More Hard Cases
I would have liked some more borderline case examples, such as people furious or screaming. But that’s just me, the book is otherwise great.


Crucial Conversations is almost a must-read for anyone serious about improving socially.

The topics are similar to Difficult Conversations, but there are a lot of different insights from each of them.
So I would recommend both.

I also enjoyed the psychology behind people who avoid crucial conversations, which reminded me of passive-aggressive personalities.

The main caveat we add is that you want to be less truthful and more strategic with manipulators, gaslighters, and what we refer to here as “turkeys”.
In that sense, acting is anyone is a worthy recipient of your full honesty is plain naive self-help.

Check out the best communication skills book or get the book on Amazon

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