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Unfortunately, it’s human nature to back away from discussions we fear will hurt us or make things worse. We’re masters at avoid­ ing these tough conversations. Coworkers send email to caI.:h


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other when they should walk down the hall and talk turkey. Bosses leave voice mail in lieu of meeting with their direct reports. Family members change the subject when an issue gets too risky. We (the authors) have a friend who learned through a voice-mail message that his wife was divorcing him. We use all kinds of tactics to dodge touchy issues.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you know how to handle (even master) crucial conversations, you can step up to and effec­

tively hold tough conversations about virtually any topic.

Crucial Conversation (kroo shel kan’viir sa’shen) n A discussion between two or more people where ( 1 ) stakes are

high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.


Just because we’re in the middle of a crucial conversation (or

maybe thinking about stepping up to one) doesn’t mean that we’re in trouble or that we won’t fare well. In truth, when we face crucial conversations, we can do one of three things:

• We can avoid them.

• We can face them and handle them poorly.

• We can face them and handle them well.

That seems simple enough. Walk away from crucial conversa­ tions and suffer the consequences. Handle them poorly and suf­ fer the consequences. Or handle them well.

“I don’t know,” you think to yourself. “Given the three choic­ es, I’ll go with handling them well.”

We’re on Our Worst Behavior

But do we handle them wel l? When talking turns tough, do we pause, takc a deep brcuth, unnl.>uncc to our innerselves, “Uh-oh,




this discussion is crucial. I’d better pay close attention” and then trot out our best behavior? Or when we’re anticipating a poten­

tially dangerous discussion, do we step up to it rather than scam­ per away? Sometimes. Sometimes we boldly step up to hot topics, monitor our behavior, and offer up our best work. We mind our Ps and Os. Sometimes we’re just flat-out good.

And then we have the rest of our lives. These are the moments when, for whatever reason, we either anticipate a crucial conver­ sation or are in the middle of one and we’re at our absolute worst-we yell; we withdraw; we say things we later regret. When conversations matter the most-that is, when conversations move from casual to crucial-we’re generally on our worst behavior.

Why is that?

We’re designed wrong. When conversations tum from routine to crucial, we’re often in trouble. That’s because emotions don’t

exactly prepare us to converse effectively. Countless generations of genetic shaping drive humans to handle crucial conversations with flying fists and fleet feet, not intelligent persuasion and gen­ tle attentiveness.

For instance, consider a typical crucial conversation. Someone says something you disagree with about a topic that matters a great deal to you and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The hairs you can handle. Unfortunately, your body does more. Two tiny organs seated neatly atop your kidneys pump adrenaline

into your bloodstream. You don’t choose to do this. Your adrenal glands do it, and then you have to live with it.

And that’s not all. Your brain then diverts blood from activi­ ties it deems nonessential to high-priority tasks such as hitting

and running. Unfortunately, as the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood, the higher-level reasoning sections of your brain get less. As a result, you end up facing challenging

conversations with the same equipment available to a rhesus monkey.




We’re under pressure. Let’s add another factor. Crucial con­ versations are f

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