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The Art of The Crucial Conversation - the oil that lubricates business

16 March 2011

As a psychologist in private practice in the Sydney CBD, many of my clients come to me suffering from stress and anxiety.  Whilst the reasons for their distress are as varied as the clients themselves, there is a theme that appears time and time again in both middle managers and executives.  It has something to do with an individual’s ability to manage the anxiety that arises from disappointing others, facing conflict, challenging other people or simply ‘saying no’ to other people.  It is this anxiety that people seek relief from and the best solution I find is to take a two-pronged approach.  The first is to identify why it is so difficult for people to ‘say no’ and face real or imagined criticism or conflict from others. The second is to provide the skills of having ‘crucial conversations’.  The first step is essential since to focus on skills training without recognising powerful internal drivers to avoid anxiety often ‘at all costs,’ means that crucial conversations simply can’t be had .  Together this approach can be enormously valuable and clients that do what I call ‘the inner work’ as well as refining their communication skills, find that change is lasting – and, their anxiety manageable or a thing of the past.

What is a Crucial Conversation?

Kerry Patterson et al (2002) used the term Crucial Conversation in the book Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High.  They define a Crucial Conversation as one in which:

  • Opinions vary
  • Stakes are high
  • Emotions run strong

Imagine the potential for crucial conversations in the workplace?  Opinions differ all the time together with emotions as people have different beliefs about how things should be done, how resources should be apportioned and the likely outcomes of action.  When the stakes are of these differences are high – and this can be in terms of human resources, finances, strategic, diplomatic costs and more, we have a Crucial Conversation. 

Whilst I would encourage people to read this book, I would like to share with you some key bits of wisdom I have learnt over the years from my clients that might shed light on how to acquire the art of having crucial conversations.  

  • Crucial conversations with others must be preceded with the ability to have crucial conversations with yourself.
  • When you can handle your own emotions about something, you will handle other people’s emotional reactions to what you have to say.
  • When a person is able to reflect on the effect they or their message has on the other person and empathise with the other person’s perspective ‘in the moment’, they can maintain a co-operative dialogue and salvage a conversation that might otherwise be conflictual.
  • Trust between people is essential to navigate to a good outcome of a crucial conversation.  
  • It is easier to convey challenging information when one’s request or comment is balanced with more positive support for the other person’s point of view.  

The first three points relate to the changes that must come from within a person – the ‘inner work’ I referred to earlier.   This is essential if the person suffering from anxiety is to find long-term solutions to working with diverse perspectives whilst obtaining cooperation from others.  I tell my clients that anxiety is a feeling rising from within that is shouting very loudly to be heard.  It is my job to work with them to find the language of that anxiety.  Invariably, in the social context, it arises when a person fears being criticised, made to feel foolish, undermined or experiencing a feeling of inadequacy.  These internal fears are often so great that they prevent a person from attempting crucial conversations. Instead they avoid them at all costs, giving rise eventually to more conflict and cost.  

The last two points relate to some of the conditions under which an effective crucial conversation can be had.  Whilst it is outside the words of this blog to provide an in-depth training in the art of crucial conversations, suffice to say that trust, empathy and respect for other people’s perspective is essential. Without these crucial ingredients, one has to resort to force or organisational rank to make their point rather than gaining cooperation and ideally collaboration from others.


Patterson, P. Grenny, J. McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2002) (2002) Crucial Conversation in the book Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High.  NY: McGraw Hill



  • Anastasia Parrish

    Anastasia Parrish 9 years ago

    I like the idea: \"anxiety is a feeling rising from within ...shouting very loudly to be heard\". But in a group - a family or a workplace - all will feel anxiety at some time. So what about case of competing anxieties? His, hers, theirs. Does squeakiest wheel get to win the calm? Does compassion work; compassion for others, for self. Do anxieties work like the wind in the trees; after a storm of anxieties rattle the leaves, the tree remains. So, anxieties as wind. But younger women also face chemical storms; PMT storms...