6 Lessons from Crucial Conversations | Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler

The Secrets to Making Hard Conversations Easy

Jack Yang
5 min readSep 13, 2020
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High


I picked up this book when I was looking for tips that can help to improve my conversation skills, especially for the difficult ones, since I always have trouble communicating effectively when things get intense. Unfortunately, in our lives many important conversations go astray due to angry, lies and etc. and most people are not taught to handle such cases. I am delighted to say that this helps me tremendously in this area. The book consists of 7 sections that teach you what crucial conversations are and how to be better at it. Each section has its own tips, formulas, and case studies so that you can better apply those principles to your scenario. Initially, based on the title, I thought the book would only be applicable to difficult conversations, but it is much more than that. The lessons, at their core, are appropriate for daily conversations and relationship building because they help to make the conversations feel comfortable and honest for both parties.

Score: 4.75/5

Who should read it: anyone is interested in building up communication skills


1. What are crucial conversations and why we are bad at it?

Crucial conversations, as the authors defined, are discussions between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, or emotions run strong. These conversations are can vary from a discussion between you and your boss on whether you should get a raise to a fight between you and your spouse on what to do for Friday night. This kind of conversation is extremely important since the ability to hold such conversations can directly predict relationships and the success of projects. However, most people are not taught to handle these tough exchanges. Since we are kids, we get awarded for being right. As we grew up to become adults, we hold the same “must-win” mentality in our conversations. Instead of trying to find the best solution for the problem, we try to be correct. Another reason that we are bad at crucial conversations is that we are risk-averse. Rather than risking to have a conversation that could potentially turn bad, we would rather just not have the conversation in the first place and continue to keep the problem to ourselves.

2. Conversations are NOT competitions. They are collaborations.

As mentioned previously, people tend to treat conversations as another form of competition or examinations to see who is correct. With the mindset, it is very difficult to hold a conversation without turning it into a heated debate. The authors suggest an important shift of concept is treating conversation as a process in which people add meanings to a shared pool of information, while some ideas are controversial, people feel safe and do their best to ensure all ideas are contributed. This is a completely different take on conversations and the single most important theme throughout the entire book. In the upcoming lessons, we will explore how to achieve conversations as collaborations.

3. Start With Your Heart

One of the most important aspects of a conversation is the mindset you bring to the conversation. If your goal is to build a better relationship with your spouse, you probably wouldn’t fight over what to do for your anniversary. If your goal is to convince your dad to stop smoking, you probably would frame your message more strategically. In another word, before stepping into a conversation, think of the result you want to achieve, or begin with the end in mind. Setting your goals before the conversation helps you to stay focused throughout the exchange. When the other party says something offensive, or when you about to burst out something you would regret, always consider if what you are about to say would contribute to achieving your desired outcome. In addition, by understanding your own motive, your brain will help you to search for underlying options to more effectively, and self-inspect if your intention makes sense.

4. Make the conversation safe

This another key component of a conversation. Safety and respect are things you will NOT notice if they are there, but you will notice if they are NOT there. When people get defensive or aggressive, it usually means they lack safety in the discussion. One way to ensure safety is to establish a mutual purpose, which means both parties are working toward a common goal. This relates back to the previous lesson on identifying your intention before the conversation. When the common ground is set, the other person would feel like you are his/her friend instead of an enemy, and the conversation would go a lot smoother and efficient. Another way to ensure safety is to use contrasting. This is especially powerful when you are telling the other person something that sounds like against their best interest. The formula of contrasting looks like this: “I don’t… I do….”. In the “I don’t” part, you should address others’ concerns that you don’t respect them, or have a malicious intention. In the “I do” part, you should clarify your real purpose, and hopefully your mutual purpose. For example, if you are trying to find a way to tell your roommate to clean up after himself, you can use the formula as such: “Look, I don’t mean to sound criticizing or only looking out for myself, I want to keep our apartment nice and clean when people visit and for both of us. Could you clean up the dishes after you are done?”

5. Separate Stories and Facts

We have a tendency to fabricate stories in our mind to make facts more colorful than it is. For instance, you might think your spouse is cheating on you because he/she is being very distant lately, however, it just so happens that your spouse is under a lot of stress and don’t feel like talking. If you try to pick a fight with your imagery story, the outcome will not be ideal for either party. Therefore, before going into a crucial conversation, you should state the facts and try to separate fictional stories from real ones. This sounds much simpler than it really is. In real-life scenarios, we often let emotions cloud our thinkings and start to make up and believe in stories that are coherent with our emotions. The best strategy is to take a deep breath and analyze the situation once you have a calm mind.

6. The Formula to Crucial Conversations: STATE

By the end of the book, the author gives a formula for handling crucial conversations. The formula can summarize with the acronym STATE:

  • Share your facts: In the first step, after you establish your goal and mutual purpose for this conversation, and separate the stories from the facts, you put your facts on the table
  • Tell your story: It is important to tell YOUR story in this step to help the other person understand where you are coming from.
  • Ask for other’s path: In this step, you try to understand where the other person is coming from. To do so, you should ensure the conversation is safe and both parties are respected
  • Talk Tentatively: In this step, you are trying to better understand the other person’s position, as well as offering some potential solutions for the conversation. Contrasting fits great in this step
  • Encourage Testing: just like in software developments, where ideas are tested iteratively to ensure their efficiency, you should do the same by asking opposing views