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viduals with differing views are sick or deranged. Battles

ensue. In addition to how people behave in public forums, private

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behavior affects community health as well. Take, for example,

the problem of crime. You might be shocked to discover a rather tragic statistic. Not everyone in prison is a career criminal who

was born into a horrible family, then shaped by abuse and neg­ lect into a seething sociopath. In fact, over half of the people

who are convicted of violent crimes are first-time offenders who

commit crimes against friends or loved ones.3

How could this be? Violence is often preceded by prolonged periods of silence. Most inmates once held a job, paid their

bills, and remembered their friends’ birthdays. Then one day, after allowing unresolved problems to build up and then boil over, they attacked a friend, loved one, or neighbor. That’s right, convicted first-time offenders are often not career crimi­

nals . They’re our frustrated neighbors. Since they don’t know what to say or how to say it, they opt for force. In this case, the inability to work through tough issues devastates individuals, ruins families, and poisons communities.

What about where you live? What crucial issues does your community face? Are there conversations that people are not holding or not holding well that keep you from progress? Is crime skyrocketing? Do your community meetings look more like the Jerry Springer show than an energetic forum for

healthy communication? If so, both you and the community have a lot to gain by focusing on how you handle high-stakes discussions.




Improve Your Personal Health

If the evidence so far isn’t compelling enough to focus your attention on crucial conversations, what would you say if we told you that the ability to master high-stakes discussions is a key to a healthier and longer life?

Immune systems. Consider the ground breaking research done by Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Dr. Ronald Glaser. They studied the immune systems of couples who had been married an aver­ age of forty-two years by comparing those who argued constantly with those who resolved their differences effectively. It turns out that arguing for decades doesn ‘f lessen the destructive blow of constant conflict. Quite the contrary. Those who routinely failed their crucial conversations had far weaker immune systems than those who found a way to resolve them well.4 Of course, the weaker the immune system, the worse their health.

Life-threatening diseases. In perhaps the most revealing of all the health-related studies, a group of subjects who had contracted malignant melanoma received traditional treatment and then were divided into two groups. One group met weekly for only six weeks; the other did not. Facilitators taught the first group of recovering patients specific communication skills. (When it’s your life that’s at stake, could anything be more crucial?)

After meeting only six times and then dispersing for five years, the subjects who learned how to express themselves effectively

had a higher survival rate-only 9 percent succumbed as opposed to almost 30 percent in the untrained groUp.5 Think about the implications of this study. Just a modest improvement in ability to talk and connect with others corresponded to a two-thirds decrease in the death rate.

We could go on for pages about how the ability to hold cru­

cial conversations has an impact on your personal health. The evidence is mounting every day. Nevertheless, most people find




this claim a bit over the top. “Come on,” they chide. “You’re say­

ing that the way you talk or don’t talk affects your body? It could kill you?”

The short answer is yes. The longer answer suggests that the negative feelings we hold in, the emotional pain we suffer, and

the constant battering we endure as we stumble our way through unhealthy conversations slowly eat away at our health. In some cases the impact of failed conversations leads to minor problems. In others it results in disaster. In all cases, failed conversations never make us happier, healthier, or better off.

So how about you? What are the specific conversations that gnaw at you the most? Which conversations (if you held them or

improved them) would strengthen your immune system, help ward off disease, and increase your quality of life and well-being?


When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions start to run strong, casual conversations become crucial. Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. The consequences of either avoiding or fouling up crucial con­ versations can be severe. When we fail a crucial conversation, every aspect of our lives can be affected-from our careers, to our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health.

As we learn how to step up to crucial conversations-and

handle them well-with one set of skills we can influence virtu­ ally every domain of our lives.

What is this all-important skill-set? What do people who sail through crucial conversations actually do? More importantly, can we do it too?




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