When people first hear the term “crucial conversation,” many conjure up images of presidents, emperors, and prime ministers seated around a massive table while they debate the future of the world. Although it’s true that such discussions have a wide-sweeping and lasting impact, they’re not the kind we have in mind. The crucial conversations we’re referring to in the title of this book are interactions that happen to everyone. They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life.
Now, what makes one of your conversations crucial as opposed to plain vanilla? First, opinions vary. For example, you’re talking with your boss about a possible promotion. She thinks you’re not ready; you think you are. Second, stakes are high. You’re in a meeting with four coworkers and you’re trying to pick a new marketing strategy. You’ve got to do something different or your company isn’t going to hit its annual goals.
Third, emotions run strong. You’re in the middle of a casual discussion with your spouse and he or she brings up an “ugly incident” that took place at yesterday’s neighborhood block party. Apparently not only did you flirt with someone at the party, but according to your spouse, “You were practically making out.” You don’t remember flirting. You simply remember being polite and friendly. Your spouse walks off in a huff.
And speaking of the block party, at one point you’re making small talk with your somewhat crotchety and always colorful neighbor about his shrinking kidneys when he says, “Speaking of the new fence you’re building . . .” From that moment on you end up in a heated debate over placing the new fence—three inches one way or the other. Three inches! He finishes by threatening you with a lawsuit, and you punctuate your points by mentioning that he’s not completely aware of the difference between his hind part and his elbow. Emotions run really strong.
What makes each of these conversations crucial—and not simply challenging, frustrating, frightening, or annoying—is that the results could have a huge impact on the quality of your life. In each case, some element of your daily routine could be forever altered for better or worse. Clearly a promotion could make a big difference. Your company’s success affects you and everyone you work with.
Your relationship with your spouse influences every aspect of your life. Even something as trivial as a debate over a property line affects how you get along with your neighbor. If you handle even a seemingly insignificant conversation poorly, you establish a pattern of behavior that shows up in all of your crucial conversations.
By definition, crucial conversations are about tough issues. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to back away from discussions we fear will hurt us or make things worse. We’re masters at avoiding these tough conversations. Coworkers send email to each
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 effectively hold tough conversations about virtually any topic.