Do you dread and procrastinate initiating discussions when you think others will respond negatively to what you have to say? Are you hesitant to voice an opinion because you presume negative consequences? Practicing law, by its very nature, requires a facility for difficult conversations with clients, witnesses, supervisors, direct-reports and judges where outcomes can be greatly influenced by developing skills in handling conflict. This is at the heart of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. The methods described in this book are invaluable in any profession and I have had clients transform their leadership skills by incorporating the techniques.

A crucial conversation has three elements:(1) opposing opinions, (2) strong emotions and (3) high stakes. They can happen at work or home, wherever there are things, people and conditions that we care about.

People skilled in having successful conversations find ways to get relevant information into the open in order to make the best decisions. Every person has ideas and information that make up “our personal pool of meaning.” The best decisions are made when each participant contributes to create a “pool of shared meaning.” This is “a measure of the group’s IQ.” Teams often allow one influential and powerful person to chart the course without the benefit of other perspectives.

Practicing law, by its very nature, requires a facility for difficult conversations with clients, witnesses, supervisors, direct-reports and judges where outcomes can be greatly influenced by developing skills in handling conflict. This is at the heart of “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High,”

Before I became a coach, I worked with a lawyer who had a volatile temper. He could be kind, gregarious and even warm. But then, without warning, his eyes would become steely and any trace of that humanity vanished as he excoriated whichever unlucky lawyer, paralegal or secretary happened to be in his path. A law school classmate, who I will call Steve, was offered a job at the firm directly reporting to this unpredictable lawyer. Steve called to ask me about life at the firm and I told him the good and bad as I saw it. The next staff meeting was an ordeal after Steve turned down the job and the managing partner believed that an associate was responsible and could not understand why anyone would hesitate to talk up the firm. I was outwardly impassive, but my heart was pounding and my gut tightened as I considered my options. This is where I and many others make what the authors call “the fool’s choice”:

“Option 1: Speak up and turn the most powerful person in the company into their sworn enemy.

Option 2: Suffer in silence.”

I went with the second option, but the authors argue that a third choice is available: learning how to test the safety level of sharing observations and speak up in a way that is constructive, nonthreatening, and delivered without emotion. I could have done this during the meeting or later based upon my assessment of the conditions. My racing heart and nervous stomach were signs that I did not feel safe and, if I looked around the room, I probably would have seen signs that others felt the same, even the partners.

“Crucial Conversations” explores how to become effective at dialogue by learning to notice our own behavior and that of others and testing whether or not the conditions in a high-stakes conversation allow for the contribution of controversial, potentially risky observations. Regardless of your position at work, here are some keys for navigating better conversations:

Start with Heart
We must stay attuned during conversations, to how we are responding and by reading the room. Take your own pulse first. Are you getting emotional? Feeling defensive? Wanting to win? If things feel charged, ask yourself these questions:

  • “What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?”

Learn to Look
People exhibit signs that they do not feel safe in conversations typically by going into silence or violence.

“The three most common forms of silence are masking, avoiding and withdrawing. Masking consists of understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating and couching are some the more popular forms.” Avoiding and withdrawing are self-explanatory, the latter being the course I chose in my story. Examples of moving into violence include “controlling, labeling and attacking.” The partner I described used these techniques, accusing and labeling the culprit as a traitor.

Make it Safe
It is not possible to stay in meaningful dialogue without mutual respect, and it cannot be forced or faked. Instead of focusing on how different others are from you, try to find areas of commonality. How are you similar? If you determine the person you are trying to have a dialogue with is afraid to speak up, step out of the conversation in order to restore safety.

One of my favorite techniques for restoring safety that I encourage clients to try is “contrasting.” This is a don’t/do statement that clarifies your real purpose. What could I have said to explain myself to the managing partner?

Contrasting works like this: “The last thing I want to do is make the firm look bad or devalue the opportunity of working here. What I did intend was to give Steve an idea of what to expect, providing a full picture of the experience from my perspective.” Perhaps you are rolling your eyes at the very idea of saying something like that to a partner and it is certainly not without risk. But I decided to leave the firm anyway and always wondered what would have happened if I had carefully and strategically spoken up at this or other junctures. It may be that speaking up is unwelcome and then it’s up to you to decide if you want to stick with it or explore other options.
Sometimes our actions are based upon a story we invent and tell ourselves. Three common types are victim, villain and helpless. A victim story completely exonerates us from an outcome. A villain story imputes bad motives and places all blame on others. Finally, a helpless story justifies our unwillingness to act.

In my story, I saw myself as a victim, even though I was a grown-up lawyer, arguing cases in court and fighting battles for a living. The partner, of course, was my villain and I failed to search for any reasonable steps I could take to address his behavior, fulfilling the helpless story and telling myself, “What else could I do?” In each instance, I neglected other aspects of the story and limited my own options by doing so. Would everything have been magically different if I had? Maybe not, but remaining silent ensured the status quo.

The authors have a useful acronym for how to speak persuasively: STATE.

  • Share your facts (facts and not stories; use concrete information).
  • Tell your story (a rational conclusion you glean from the facts).
  • Ask for others’ paths (their facts, stories and feelings).
  • Talk tentatively (“It seems to me that…”).
  • Encourage testing (“Do you see it differently?”).

Make a practice of setting your intentions when facing a difficult conversation, consistently evaluating safety and stepping out accordingly, checking yourself and others as it progresses, and mindfully moderating the stories you are telling yourself. Our stories fill in the blanks of what we do not know and are always negative. Always go back to the facts and avoid stories. You will have better conversations and improve decision-making without them.

Understanding how to have difficult conversations can yield gold because when people feel safe, they contribute ideas, opinions and facts decision-makers would not otherwise have. This is usually more effective than an adversarial stance, which shuts people down and requires an ability to assess and diffuse emotions, including your own.


Reprinted with permission from the February 18, 2016 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, or visit