Key Terms from Crucial Conversations

I wrote this up and gave it out as a handout at one of my recent communication classes at the Happiness Institute.  Crucial Conversations is one of my favorite books on communication, and I particularly like some of the terms it defines.  Here it is!

Start with Heart

To have a good dialogue, figure out what your goal is at the beginning and stay focused on it no matter what.

Ask yourself, “What do I want for me, for others, and for this relationship?”

When our motives change, it’s usually without conscious thought on our part.

When you’re not sure of your motives, ask: “What am I doing, and if I had to guess, what would it say about my underlying motive?”

Once you get back to what you do want, ask yourself, “How could I behave to get these results?”

Three motives that won’t really get you what you want:

  • wanting to win
  • seeking revenge
  • hoping to remain safe

The Pool of Shared Meaning

The goal of a difficult conversation is to get all the relevant information out in the open.

Sucker’s Choice

The Sucker’s Choice is when we tell ourselves a story about how we’re caught between two distasteful options so justify saying or doing something that violates our own values.

To deal with the Sucker’s Choice, clarify what you really want, what you really don’t want, and ask yourself how you can get both.


In difficult conversations, look for signs of either silence or violence in the other person and interpret them as data that tells you the other person is not feeling safe.

Signs of silence:

  • understating or selectively showing our true opinions
  • sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching
  • steering away from sensitive subjects
  • withdrawing entirely–leaving the conversation or the room

Signs of violence:

  • trying to force others to think about things your way, including:
    • cutting other people off
    • overstating your facts
    • speaking in absolutes
    • changing the subject
    • using directive questions to control the conversation
  • labeling (putting a label on ideas or people so you can dismiss them as being part of a general category)
  • attacking (moving from trying to win the argument to trying to make the other person suffer)

You can help others move from silence or violence to dialogue by demonstrating that their concerns are discussable.

Safety = Mutual Purpose + Mutual Respect

If the other person is using silence or violence, take it as a sign that one of the conditions of safety is being violated.

Mutual Purpose: Do other people believe that I care about their goals in this conversation? Do they trust my motives?

Mutual Respect: Do other people believe that I respect them? Feelings of disrespect tend to come from dwelling on the differences between yourself and others. To respect someone more, think about the similarities between you and the other person.

Contrasting to Regain Safety

Sometimes, people will hear things as bigger or worse than we intend. One tool we can use in these situations is Contrasting, where you clarify:

“I don’t mean X, I do mean Y.”

Contrasting can be used preemptively or after the fact.

STATE when you have something difficult to share

  • State your facts.
  • Tell your story.
  • Ask for others’ opinions.
  • Talk tentatively.
  • Encourage testing.
    • If you sense that the other person doesn’t actually agree with you, play Devil’s Advocate to make it safe for them to speak up.

The 3 Kinds of Clever Stories.

  • Villain Stories (It’s all your fault.)
  • Victim Stories (It’s not my fault.)
  • Helpless Stories (There’s nothing else I can do.)

To neutralize these stories, tell the rest of the story by asking:

  • “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do what the person is doing?”
  • “Am I pretending not to notice my own role in the problem?”
  • “What do I really want for me, others, and the relationship? What would I do right now if I wanted those results?”

Responding to Others’ Stories

Tell yourself, “Wow, he must have told a really interesting story!” and get curious. Figuring out where someone is coming from in a difficult conversation is like starting to read a mystery novel halfway through.

Learn to Look

Get in the habit of asking yourself, “Are we in dialogue or out of it?”

When you notice that you’re not in dialogue, say it outloud. “I think we’ve moved away from dialogue.”

Video of me talking about Villain, Victim, and Helpless Stories

I’ve been planning to upload video blog posts for a while now, but hadn’t actually gotten around to doing it for a number of excuse-type reasons.

So, since I subscribe to the philosophy that not only is “perfect the enemy of the good”–“good enough is the enemy of at all“, I’ve posted something.  Expect more in the future!

Here it is: