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Book Review

Erika Chin, PhD | Victoria, BC

AAPM Newsletter — Volume 44 No. 3 — May | June 2019

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2nd Edition

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking When Stakes are High is written by the co-founders of VitalSmarts, LC, a company that specializes in corporate training and organizational performance services. First published in 2002, the second edition (2012) has some updated examples and clarifications of key points.


In this book, the authors argue that the root cause of many human relationship problems, whether in people's personal or professional lives, is due to how they behave when others disagree with them about high-stakes, emotional issues (i.e., a crucial conversation).

First Impressions

The authors do a good job at breaking down the topic of having high-stakes conversations into detailed chapters. You've probably had difficult conversations in your life. If you're like me, it's unlikely that you've gone back to do an in-depth analysis of what went wrong, what went right, or how to adjust the strategy in the future. As a result, it's natural to have developed haphazard strategies or unfortunate habits when dealing with difficult conversations. In the aftermath of a conflict, we often just want to forget and move on. If you're looking for a framework to help guide you through personal analysis and improvement, Crucial Conversations is a great starting point.

Book Structure

The first two chapters establish the authors' definition of a crucial conversation, why it is important to deal with them well, and the information flow required to have a productive conversation. The next four chapters discuss the required mindset and environment needed, as well as the tools to properly analyze and master our emotions. The final three chapters provide actionable tips on how to talk persuasively, listen sincerely, and how to effectively make and implement decisions.


To a cool head, everything in this book comes across as obvious, repetitive, and painfully common sense. It would be very easy to skim through this book and not get anything from it. The key is to replace all the stilted examples in the book with experiences from your own life. Suddenly, what would obviously be good behaviour when the mind is clear, may not be how one acts when under stress. In the book, these poor behaviours are classified into either “silence” or “violence,” where “silence” refers to avoiding or withdrawing from conversation, and “violence” can include anything from subtle manipulation to verbal attacks.


The authors state that when having a crucial conversation, it is not about winning or losing, or even coming to a compromise where no one is happy. Rather with skillful dialogue, a larger mutual purpose and better solutions can be found if there is open sharing of information.

Key points for achieving this are to always keep in mind what we really want for ourselves, for others, and for the relationship; to remember that we may not have all the information to find the best solution; to try and sincerely understand other people's perspective, and to find something about the other person we can respect and that humanizes them.


Likely, the hardest part of this book will be practicing the skills consistently when emotions are high and there is little time to think. However, the authors state that perfect recall of this book is not required. Simply being aware of when a conversation takes a turn and maintaining calm and empathy can already help. Even with the best dialogue skills, not every conversation will go our way and we must take the longer-term perspective of building rapport over time. With its practical advice, I think this book is a good start for anyone struggling with difficult conversations.

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