Sarah Nilsson JD, PhD, MAS
Sarah NilssonJD, PhD, MAS



Crucial Conversations


Nothing fails like success – when a challenge in life is met by a response that is equal to it, you have success. But when the challenge moves to a higher level, the old, once successful response no longer works – it fails. Thus, nothing fails like success.


Crucial conversations transform people and relationships. They are anything but transacted – they create an entirely new level of bonding. They produce what Buddhism calls the “middle way” – not a compromise between two opposites on a straight-line continuum, but a higher middle way, like the apex of a triangle. Because two or more people have created something new from genuine dialogue, bonding takes place.


To know and not to do is really not to know.


The root cause of many, if not most, human problems lies in how people behave when others disagree with them about high stakes, emotional issues.


The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. - - - - George Bernard Shaw


Crucial conversations are day-to-day conversations that affect your life.

A discussion between 2 or more people where:

(1) Opinions vary;

(2) Stakes are high; and 

(3) Emotions run strong.


Ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well.

The consequences of either avoiding or fouling up crucial conversations can be severe.

When we fail a crucial conversation, every aspect of our lives can be affected - from our careers, to our communities, to our relationships, to our personal health.



At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations - ones that we are either not holding or not holding well.

20 years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the KEY SKILL of effective leaders, teammates, parents, and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues.

25 years of research in 17 different organizations has taught us that individuals who are the most influential - who can get things done and AT THE SAME TIME build on relationships - are those who master their crucial conversations.


The predictor of success or failure was whether people could hold 5 specific crucial conversations.

Companies with employees who are skilled at crucial conversations:

  1. Respond 5 times faster to financial downturns – and make budget adjustments far more intelligently than less-skilled peers.
  2. Are 2/3 more likely to avoid injury and death due to unsafe conditions.
  3. Save over $1,500 and an 8-hour workday for every crucial conversation employees hold rather than avoid.
  4. Substantially increase trust and reduce transaction costs in virtual work teams. Those who cannot handle crucial conversations suffer in 13 different ways (backstabbing, gossip, undermining, passive aggression, etc.) as much as 3 times more often in virtual teams than in collocated teams.
  5. Influence change in colleagues who are bullying, conniving, dishonest, or incompetent. When nearly 1,000 respondents were asked, 93% of them said that, in their organization, people like this are almost UNTOUCHABLE – staying in their position 4 years or longer without being held accountable.


The key to real change lies not in implementing a new process, but in getting people to hold one another accountable to the process. And that requires crucial conversations skills.


In the WORST companies, poor performers are first ignored and then transferred.

In GOOD companies, bosses eventually deal with problems.

In the BEST companies, everyone holds everyone else accountable – regardless of level or position. The path to high productivity passes not through a static system, but through face-to-face conversations.




Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

- - - Martin Luther King, Jr.



We mistakenly believe that we have to choose between telling the truth and keeping a friend.



The free flow of meaning between 2 or more people.

When it comes to risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves and others) out into the open.

At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information.

People openly and honestly express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories.

They willingly and capably share their views, even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular.


To achieve dialogue rather than make the fool’s choice we must fill the pool of shared meaning.

Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand.

This unique combination of thoughts and feelings makes up our personal pool of meaning.

This pool not only informs us, but also propels our every action.

When 2 or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition we do not share the same pool.

Our opinions differ.

I believe one thing; you another.

I have one history; you another.

People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the SHARED pool – even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.

Now, obviously, they do not agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.

As the pool of shared meaning grows, it helps people in 2 ways:

  1. As individuals are exposed to more accurate and relevant information, they make better choices. In a very real sense, the pool of shared meaning is a measure of a group’s IQ. The larger the shared pool, the smarter the decisions. And even though many people may be involved in a choice, when people openly and freely share ideas, the increased time investment is more than offset by the quality of the decision. When the shared pool is dangerously shallow, when people purposefully withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people can do collectively stupid things.
  2. Since the meaning is SHARED, people willingly act on whatever decisions they make – with both unity and conviction.


The pool of shared meaning is the birthplace of synergy.


Every time we find ourselves arguing, debating, running away, or otherwise acting in an ineffective way, it is because we do not know how to share meaning.

Instead of engaging in healthy dialogue, we play silly and costly games:

  • Salute and stay mute – we move to silence – we do not confront people in positions of authority.
  • Freeze your lover – we give loved one the cold shoulder in order to get them to treat us better.
  • We rely on hints, sarcasm, caustic humor, innuendo, and looks of disgust to make our points.
  • We play martyr and then pretend we are actually trying to help.
  • Afraid to confront an individual, we blame an entire team for a problem – hoping the message will hit the right target.
  • Not knowing how to stay in dialogue, we try to force our meaning into the pool.
  • We rely on violence – anything from subtle manipulation to verbal attacks.
  • We act like we know everything; hoping people will believe our arguments.
  • We discredit others; hoping people will not believe their arguments.
  • We borrow power from the boss; we hit people with biased monologues; we make hurtful comments.
  • All to compel others to our point of view!!!



Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret

- - - Ambrose Bierce


1st principle of dialogue – START WITH HEART

Your own heart.

If you cannot get yourself right, you will have a hard time getting dialogue right.

When conversations become crucial, you will resort to the forms of communication that you have grown up with – debate, silent treatment, manipulations, and so on.

People who are best at dialogue understand WORK ON ME FIRST, US SECOND.

They realize not only that they are likely to benefit by improving their own approach, but also that they are the only person they can work on anyway.

As much as others may need to change, or we may WANT them to change, the only person we can continually inspire, prod, and shape – with any degree of success – is the person in the mirror.

There is a certain irony in this fact.

People who believe they need to start with themselves do just that.

As they work on themselves, they also become the most skilled at dialogue.

The irony – it is the MOST talented, not the least talented, who are continually trying to improve their dialogue skills. As is often the case, the rich get richer.

Skilled people START WITH HEART.

They begin high-risk discussions with the right motives, and they stay focused no matter what happens.

They maintain focus in 2 ways:

  1. They are steely-eyed smart when it comes to knowing what they want. Despite constant invitations to slip away from their goals, they stick with them.
  2. Skilled people do not make FOOL’S CHOICES. Unlike others who justify their unhealthy behavior by explaining that they had no choice but to fight or take flight, the dialogue-smart believe that the dialogue, no matter the circumstances, is always an option.




You can ask yourself these questions either when you find yourself slipping out of dialogue or as reminders when you prepare to step up to a crucial conversation.

  • 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?

Find your bearings.

Take charge of your body.

Asking questions about what we really want serves 2 important purposes:

  1. Reminds us of our goal.
  2. Juices up our brain to help us keep focused.


When you refuse the FOOL’S CHOICE – when you require your brain to solve the more complex problem – more often than not, it does just that.

You will find there is a way to share your concerns, listen sincerely to those of others, and build the relationship – all at the same time.

And the results can be life changing.



The BEST at dialogue refuse FOOL’S CHOICES by setting up new choices.

They present themselves with tougher questions – questions that turn the either/or choice into a search for the all important and ever-elusive AND.

It is an endangered species.

  1. Clarify what you want. You have a head start if you START WITH HEART. If you know what you want for yourself, for others, and for the relationship, then you are in a position to break out of the FOOL’S CHOICE.
  2. Clarify what you really do not want. This is the key to framing the AND question. Think of what you are afraid will happen to you if you back away from your current strategy of trying to win or stay safe.
  3. Present your brain with a more complex problem. Finally, combine the 2 into an AND question that forces you to search for more creative and productive options than silence and violence.

I have known a thousand scamps; but I never met one who considered himself so. Self-knowledge isn’t so common.

- - - Ouida


Social first aid: by watching for moment a conversation starts turning unhealthy, you can respond quickly.

In truth, most of us do have trouble dual-processing (simultaneously watching for content AND conditions – especially when both stakes and emotions are high.

It helps to watch for 3 different conditions:

  1. The moment a conversation turns crucial
  2. Signs that people do not feel safe (silence or violence)


Learn to spot crucial conversations

Stay alert for the moment a conversation turns from a routine or harmless discussion into a crucial one.

To help catch problems early, reprogram your mind to pay attention to the signs that suggest you are in a crucial conversation.

  1. Physical signals – their stomach gets tight, or their eyes dry. Look to your body for your cues when conversations get tough. See them as signs to step back, slow down, and START WITH HEART before things get out of hand.
  2. Emotions – they realize they are scared, hurt, or angry and are beginning to react to or suppress these feelings. See them as signs to step back, slow down, and take steps to turn your brain back on.
  3. Behavioral – like an out-of-body experience. See themselves raising their voice, pointing their finger like a loaded weapon, or becoming very quiet.


Learn to look for safety problems

People who are gifted at dialogue keep a constant vigil on safety.

When it is safe, you can say anything.

Dialogue calls for the free flow of meaning.

And nothing kills the free flow of meaning like fear.

When you fear that people are not buying into your ideas, you start pushing too hard.

When you fear that you may be harmed in some way, you start withdrawing and hiding.

If you do not fear that you are being attacked or humiliated, you yourself can hear almost anything and not become defensive.

People only become defensive when they no longer feel safe.

The problem is not the content of your message, but the condition of the conversation.

That means that the first challenge is to simply see and understand that safety is at risk.

When it is unsafe, you start to go blind.

Do not let safety problems lead you astray. 


Silence and Violence

As people begin to feel unsafe, they start down 1 of 2 unhealthy paths.

  1. Silence – withholding meaning from the pool. Silence consists of any act to purposefully withhold information from the pool of meaning. It is almost always done as a means of avoiding potential problems, and it always restricts the flow of meaning. Methods range from playing verbal games to avoiding a person entirely. 3 most common forms:
    1. Masking – understating or selectively showing our true opinions. Sarcasm, sugarcoating, and couching are popular.
    2. Avoiding – steering completely away from sensitive subjects. We talk, but without addressing the real issues.
    3. Withdrawing – pulling out of a conversation altogether. We either exit the conversation or exit the room.
  2. Violence – trying to force meaning in the pool. Violence consists of any verbal strategy that attempts to convince, control, or compel others to your point of view. It violates safety by trying to force meaning into the pool. Methods range from name-calling and monologuing to making threats. 3 most common forms:
    1. Controlling – coercing others to your way of thinking – either by forcing your views on others or dominating the conversation. Methods include cutting others off, overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, changing subjects, or using directive questions to control the conversation.
    2. Labeling – putting a label on people or ideas so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category.
    3. Attacking – speaks for itself. You have moved from winning the argument to making the person suffer. Tactics include belittling and threatening.


Look for your style under stress

Low self-monitoring: we all have trouble monitoring our own behavior at times.

We usually lose any semblance of social sensitivity when we become so consumed with ideas and causes that we lose track of what we are doing.

We try to bully our way through.

We speak when we should not.

We withdraw into a punishing silence.

We do things that do not work.

All this in the name of a cause.


Your Style Under Stress Test

Online Assessment



A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in baskets of silver.

- - - Proverbs 25:11


Make it Safe


Mutual Purpose – The Entrance Condition

Crucial conversations often go awry not because others dislike the CONTENT of the conversation, but because they believe the content (even if it is delivered in a gentle way) suggests that you have a malicious intent.

Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that you are working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values.

And vice versa.

You believe they care about yours.

Consequently, Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue.

Find a shared goal, and you have both a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.


Watch for signs that Mutual Purpose is at risk.

If it is at risk, we end up in debate.

When others start forcing their opinions into the pool of meaning, it is often because they figure that we are trying to win and they need to do the same.

Other signs that purpose is at risk include defensiveness, hidden agendas (the silence form of fouled-up purpose), accusations, and circling back to the same topic.

2 crucial questions to determine when Mutual Purpose is at risk:

  1. Do others believe I care about their goals in this conversation?
  2. Do they trust my motives?


Remember the mutual in Mutual Purpose.

Mutual Purpose is not a technique.

To succeed in crucial conversations, we must really care about the interests of others – not just our own.

The purpose has to be truly mutual.

If our goal is to get our way or manipulate others, it will quickly become apparent, safety will be destroyed, and we will be back to silence and violence in no time.

Before you begin, examine your motives with the Start with Heart questions:

  1. What do I want for me?
  2. What do I want for others?
  3. What do I want for the relationship?


Look for the mutuality.


Mutual Respect – the Continuance Condition

Mutual Respect is the continuance condition of dialogue.

As people perceive that others do not respect them, the conversation immediately becomes unsafe and dialogue comes to a screeching halt.

Respect is like air.

As long as it is present, nobody thinks about it.

But if you take it away, it is ALL that people can think about.

The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose – it is now about defending dignity.


Telltale signs.

To spot when respect is violated and safety takes a turn south, watch for signs that people are defending their dignity.

Emotions are the key.

When people feel disrespected, they become highly charged.

Their emotions turn from fear to anger.

Then they resort to pouting, name-calling, yelling, and making threats.

To determine when Mutual Respect is at risk ask:

  • Do others believe I respect them?

Can you respect people you do not respect?

Feelings of disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves.

We can counteract these feelings by looking for ways we are similar.

Without excusing others’ behavior, we try to sympathize, even empathize, with them.


3 hard-hitting skills that the best at dialogue use:

  1. Apologize – when you have made a mistake that has hurt others, start with an apology.

An apology is a statement that sincerely expresses your sorrow for your role in causing – or at least not preventing – pain or difficulty to others.

Now, an apology is not really an apology unless you experience a change in heart.

To offer a sincere apology, your motives have to change.

You have to give up saving face, being right, or winning in order to focus on what you really want.

You have to sacrifice a bit of your ego by admitting your error.

But, like many sacrifices, when you give up something you value, you are rewarded with something even more valuable – healthy dialogue and better results.

  1. Contrast – to fix misunderstanding

When others misinterpret either your purpose or your intent, step out of the argument and rebuild safety by using a skill called contrasting.

Contrasting is a DO NOT/DO statement that:

  • Addresses others’ concerns that you do not respect them or that you have a malicious purpose (the DO NOT part)
  • Confirms your respect or clarifies your real purpose (the DO part)

Contrasting is not apologizing.

It is not a way of taking back something we have said that hurt others’ feelings.

Rather, it is a way of ensuring that what we said did not hurt more than it should have.

Contrasting provides context and proportion.

Use contrasting for prevention or first aid – when we are aware that something we are about to drop into the pool of meaning could create a splash of defensiveness, we use Contrasting to bolster safety – before we see others going to either silence or violence.


          3. Create a Mutual Purpose

The best at dialogue use 4 skills to create a Mutual Purpose (CRIB):

  • Commit to Seek Mutual Purpose

Make a unilateral public commitment to stay in the conversation until you come up with something that serves everyone.

Start with Heart by committing to stay in the conversation until we invent a solution that serves a purpose we both share.

Agree to agree.

Stop using silence or violence to compel others to our view.

Surrender false dialogue, where we pretend to have Mutual Purpose (calmly arguing our side until the other person gives in).

Suspend our belief that our choice is the absolute best and only one.

Open our mind to the fact that maybe, just maybe, there is a third choice out there – one that suits everyone!

Be willing to verbalize this commitment even when our partner seems committed to winning.

Act on faith that our partner is stuck in silence or violence because he or she feels unsafe.

If we build more safety – by demonstrating our commitment to finding a Mutual Purpose – the other person will feel more confident that dialogue could be a productive avenue.

Step out of the content of the struggle and make it safe – “It seems like we are both trying to force our view on each other. I commit to stay in this discussion until we have a solution that satisfies both of us.”

  • Recognize the Purpose behind the Strategy

Ask people why they want what they are pushing for.

Separate what they are demanding from the purpose it serves.

When we find ourselves at an impasse, it is because we are asking for one thing and the other person is asking for something else.

We think we will never find a way out because we equate what we are asking for with what we actually want.

In truth, what we are asking for is the strategy we are suggesting to get what we want.

We confuse wants or purpose with strategies.

Before you can agree on a Mutual Purpose, you must first know what people’s real purposes are.

When you do separate strategies from purpose, new options become possible.

By releasing your grip on your strategy and focusing on your real purpose, you are now open to the idea that you might actually find alternatives that can serve both of your interests.

  • Invent a Mutual Purpose

If after clarifying everyone’s purposes you are still at odds, see if you can invent a higher or longer-term purpose that is more motivating than the ones that keep you in conflict.

Sometimes when you recognize the purposes behind another person’s strategies, you discover that you actually have compatible goals.

From there you simply come up with common strategies.

Other times you find out that your genuine wants and goals cannot be served except at the expense of the other person’s.

In this case, you cannot discover a Mutual Purpose.

This means you will have to invent one.

To invent one, move to more encompassing goals.

Find an objective that is more meaningful or more rewarding than the ones that divide the various sides.

By focusing on higher and longer-term goals, you often find ways to transcend short-term compromises, build Mutual Purpose, and return to dialogue.

  • Brainstorm New Strategies

With a clear Mutual Purpose, you can join forces in searching for a solution that serves everyone.

Once safety is build by shared purpose, you should now return to the content of the conversation.

Step back into dialogue and brainstorm strategies that meet everyone’s needs.

If you have committed to finding something everyone can support and surfaced what you really want, you will no longer be spending your energy on unproductive conflict.

Instead, you will be actively coming up with options that can serve everyone.

Suspend judgment and think outside the box for new alternatives.


Each skill helps rebuild either Mutual Respect or Mutual Purpose.


Click here to watch two videos on mutual respect


It’s not how you play the game, it’s how the game plays you.

- - - Author unknown


Emotions do not just happen.

2 rather bold (and sometimes unpopular) claims.

  1. Emotions do not just settle upon you like a fog.

They are not foisted upon you by others.

No matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel saying it – others do not make you mad.

You make you mad.

You make you scared, annoyed, or insulted.

You and only you create your emotions.

  1. Once you have your upset emotions, you have only 2 options.

You can act on them or be acted on by them.

That is, when it comes to strong emotions, you either find a way to master them or fall hostage to them.


There IS an intermediate step between what others do and how we feel.

Actions themselves cannot and do not cause emotional reactions.

That is why, even faced with the exact same circumstances, 10 people may have 10 different emotional responses.

Just AFTER we observe what others do and just BEFORE we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a STORY.

We add meaning to the action we observed.

We make a guess at the motive driving the behavior.

We call this our Path to Action because it explains how emotions, thoughts, and experiences lead to our actions.

Since WE and ONLY WE are telling the story, we can take back control of our own emotions by telling a different story.

We now have a point of leverage or control.

If we can find a way to control the stories we tell, by rethinking or retelling them, we can master our emotions and, therefore, master our crucial conversations.


Nothing in this world is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

- - - William Shakespeare


Stories provide our rationale for what is going on.

They are our interpretation of the facts.

They help explain what we see and hear.

They are theories we use to explain WHY, HOW, and WHAT.

Our bodies respond to these stories with strong feelings or emotions.


Even if you do not realize it, you are telling yourself stories.

Storytelling typically happens blindingly fast.

So fast, we do not even know we are doing it.

Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories..

If we take control of our stories, they will not control us.

We can tell different stories and break the loop.

If you want improved results from your crucial conversations, change the stories you tell yourself – even while you are in the middle of the fray.


Skills for Mastering our Stories

The best at dialogue find a way to first slow down and then take charge of their Path to Action.

Retrace your Path

By retracing your path one element at a time, you put yourself in a position to think about, question, and change any one or more of the elements.

  1. Notice your behavior

“Am I in some form of silence or violence?”

  1. Get in touch with your feelings

“What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?”

  1. Analyze your stories

“What story is creating these emotions?”

Challenge the illusion that what you are feeling is the only RIGHT emotion under the circumstances.

Hard but most important step.

Do not confuse stories with facts.

  1. Get back to the facts

“What evidence do I have to support this story?”

Separate fact from story by focusing on behavior.

Spot the story by watching for “hot” words.


Watch for 3 clever stories

When we feel a need to justify our ineffective behavior or disconnect ourselves from our bad results, we tend to tell our stories in 3 very predictable ways.

Learn what the 3 are and how to counteract them, and you can take control of your emotional life.

Fail to do so and you will be a victim to the emotions you are predisposed to have wash over you at crucial times.

  1. Victim stories

“It’s not my fault”

Make us out to be innocent sufferers.

The theme is – the other person is bad, wrong, or dumb – and we are good, right, or brilliant.

Other people do bad or stupid things, and we suffer as a result.

  1. Villain stories

“It’s all your fault.”

We turn normal, decent human beings into villains.

We impute bad motive, and then we tell everyone about the evils of the other party as if somehow we are doing the world a huge favor.

  1. Helpless stories

“There is nothing else I can do”

We make ourselves out to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful.

We convince ourselves that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predicament, which justifies the action we are about to take.


Why we tell clever stories

Clever stories match reality – sometimes they are accurate.

Clever stories get us off the hook – more often than not our conclusions transform from reasonable explanations to clever stories when they conveniently excuse us from any responsibilities – when in reality we have been partially responsible.

Clever stories keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts – we sell out when we consciously act against our own sense of what is right. After we have sold out we only have 2 choices: own up to our sellout or try to justify it.

If we do not admit to our errors, we inevitably look for ways to justify them – that is when we begin to tell clever stories.


Tell the Rest of the Story

The dialogue-smart recognize that they are telling clever stories, stop, and then do what it takes to tell a USEFUL story.

A useful story, by definition, creates emotions hat lead to healthy action – such as dialogue.

What transforms a clever story into a useful one? The rest of the story!

Clever stories are incomplete – they omit crucial information about us, about others, and about our options.

The best way to fill in missing details is by turning victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able.


  • Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?
  • Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?
  • What do I really want?
  • What would I do right now if I really wanted these results?


Outspoken by whom?

 - - - Dorothy Parker (when told that she was very outspoken)

In order to speak honestly when honesty could easily offend others. We have to find a way to maintain safety.

It can be done if you know how to carefully blend 3 ingredients:

  1. Confidence – people who are skilled at dialogue have the confidence to say what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it. They are confident that their opinions deserve to be placed in the pool of meaning. They are also confident that they can speak openly without brutalizing others or causing undue offense.
  2. Humility – confidence does not equate to arrogance or pig-headedness. Skilled people are confident that they have something to say, but also realize that others have valuable input. They are humble enough to realize that they do not have a monopoly on the truth nor do they always have to win their way. Their opinions provide a starting point but not the final word. They may currently believe something but realize that with new information they may change their minds. This means they are willing to both express their opinions and encourage others to do the same.
  3. Skill – finally, people who willingly share delicate information are good at doing it. That is why they are confident in the first place. They do not make a fool’s choice, because they have found a path that allows for both candor and safety. They speak the unspeakable, and people are grateful for their honesty.


Once you have worked n yourself to create the right conditions for dialogue, you can then draw upon 5 distinct skills (STATE) that can help you talk about even the most sensitive topics. The first 3 skills describe WHAT to do, the last 2 tell HOW to do it.


Share your facts – Start with the leaast controversial, most persuasive elements from your Path to Action.

Facts are the least controversial. Facts provide a safe beginning. By their very nature, facts are not controversial. Facts are the most persuasive. Much better than subjective conclusions. To persuade do not start with stories, start with observations. Facts are the lest insulting. Begin your path with facts. Let others see your experience from your point of view - starting with your facts.


Tell your story – Explain what you are beginning to conclude.

Sharing your story can be tricky. Even if you have started with your facts, the other person can still become defensive when you move from facts to stories. After all, you are sharing potentially unflattering conclusions and judgments. It takes confidence. Do not pile it on. Look for safety problems. Use contrasting. Be careful NOT to apologize for your views. The goal of contrasting is not to water down your message, but to be sure that people do not hear more than you intend. Be confident enough to share what you really want to express.


Ask for others’ paths – Encourage others to share both their facts and their stories.

The key to sharing sensitive ideas is a blend of confidence and humility. We express our confidence by sharing our facts and stories clearly. We demonstrate our humility by then asking others to share their views – and meaning it. To find out others’ views on the matter, encourage them to express their facts, stories, and feelings. Then carefully listen to what they have to say. Equally important, be willing to abandon or reshape your story as more information pours into the pool of shared meaning.  


Talk tentatively – State your story as a story - do not disguise it as a fact.

Describe both facts and stories in a tentative, or non-dogmatic way. Talking tentatively simply means that we tell our story as a story rather than disguising it as hard fact. When sharing a story, strike a blend between confidence and humility. Share in a way that expresses appropriate confidence in your conclusions while demonstrating that, if called for, you want your conclusions challenged. “In my opinion,” or “I’m beginning to wonder if.” The reason we should speak tentatively is because we, indeed, are not certain that our opinions represent absolute truth or our understanding of the facts is complete and perfect. You should never pretend to be less confident than you are. But likewise, you should not pretend to be more confident than your limited capacity allows. Our observations could be faulty. Tentative, not wimpy.   


Encourage testing – Make it safe for others to express differing or even opposing views.

When you ask others to share their paths, how you phrase your invitation makes a big difference. Not only should you invite others to talk, but you have to do so in a way that makes it clear that no matter how controversial their ideas might be, you want to hear them. Others need to feel safe sharing their observations and stories – particularly if they differ from yours. Otherwise they do not speak up and you cannot test the accuracy and relevance of your views. Invite opposing views. Mean it. Play devil’s advocate. Do it until your motive becomes obvious.


One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears – by listening to them.

- - - Dean Rusk


Explore Others’ Paths

Since we have added a model of what is going on inside another person’s head (the Path to Action), we now have a whole new tool for helping others feel safe.

If we can find a way to let others know that it is okay to share their Path to Action – their facts and even their nasty stories and ugly feelings – then they will be more likely to open up.


Start with Heart

Be sincere

Be curious

Stay curious

Be patient


Encourage others to retrace their path

Once you have decided to maintain a curious approach, it is time to help the other person retrace his or her Path to Action.

Unfortunately, most of us fail to do so.

That is because when others start playing silence or violence games, we are joining the conversation at the END of their Path to Action.

They have seen and heard things, told themselves a story or two, generated a feeling (possibly a mix of fear and anger or disappointment), and now they are starting to act out their story.

That is where we come in.

Now, even though we may be hearing their first words, we are coming in somewhere near the end of their path.


Every sentence has a history.

Break the cycle: when we help others retrace their path to its origins, not only do we help curb our reaction, but we also return to the place where the feelings can be resolved – at the source, that is, the facts and the story behind the emotion.


Inquiry skills

When? These external reactions are our cues to do whatever it takes to help others retrace their Paths to Action.

How? We must be genuine in the face of hostility, fear, or even abuse.

What? It requires listening.



4 power listening tools that can help make it safe for other people to speak frankly.

Ask – to get things rolling

Start by simply expressing interest in the other person's views.

The easiest and most straightforward way to encourage others to share their Path to Action is simply to invite them to express themselves.

Often all it takes to break an impasse is to seek to understand others’ views.

When we show genuine interest, people feel less compelled to use silence or violence.

Mirror – to confirm feelings

Increase safety by respectfully acknowledging the emotions people appear to be feeling.

If asking others to share their path does not open things up, mirroring can help build more safety.

In mirroring, we take the portion of the other person’s Path to Action we have access to and make it safe for him or her to discuss it.

All we have so far are actions and some hints about the other person’s emotions, so we start there.

We play the role of mirror by describing how they look or act.

Mirroring is most useful when another person’s tone of voice or gestures (hint about the emotions behind them) is inconsistent with his or her words.

Paraphrase – to acknowledge the story

As others begin to share part of their story, restate what you have heard to show not just that you understand, but also that it is safe for them to share what they are thinking.

Asking and mirroring may help you get part of the other person’s story out into the open.

When you get a clue about WHY the person is feeling as he or she does, you can build additional safety by paraphrasing what you have heard.

Be careful not to simply parrot back what was said.

Put the message in your own words – usually in an abbreviated form.

While paraphrasing, like mirroring, remain calm and collected.

Make it safe, do not act horrified and suggest that the conversation is about to turn ugly.

Stay focused on figuring out how a reasonable, rational, ad decent person could have created this Path to Action.

Do not push too hard

Prime – when you are getting nowhere

If others continue to hold back, prime. Take your best guess at what they may be thinking and feeling.

There are times when you may conclude that others would like to open up, but still do not feel safe.

Or maybe they are still in violence, have not come down from the adrenaline, and are not explaining why they are angry.

When this is the case, you might want to try priming.

Prime when you believe that the other person still has something to share and might do so with a little more effort on your part.

When it comes to power-listening, or priming, sometimes you have to offer your best guess at what the other person is thinking or feeling before you can expect him or her to do the same.

You have to pour some meaning into the pool (prime the pump) before the other person will respond in kind.

Priming is an act of good faith, taking risks, becoming vulnerable, and building safety in hopes that others will share their meaning.


But what if they are wrong?

Sometimes it feels dangerous to sincerely explore the views of someone whose path is wildly different from your own.

He or she could be completely wrong, and we are acting calm and collected.

This makes us nervous.

To keep ourselves from feeling nervous while exploring others’ paths – no matter how different or wrong they seem – remember we are trying to understand their point of view, not necessarily agree with it or support it.

Understanding does not equate with agreement.

Sensitivity does equate to acquiescence.

By taking steps to understand another person’s Path to Action, we are promising that we will accept their point of view.

There will be plenty of time later for us to share our path as well.

For now, we are merely trying to get at what others think in order to understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling and doing what they are doing.


Remember your ABCs

Do not turn differences into debates that lead to unhealthy relationships and bad results.

Agree  - when you agree

As you watch families and work groups take part in heated debates, it is common to notice a rather intriguing phenomenon.

Although the various parties you are observing are violently arguing, in truth, they are in violent agreement.

They actually agree on every important point, but they are still fighting.

They have found a way to turn subtle differences into a raging debate.

Build – when others leave out key pieces

When you watch people who are skilled in dialogue, it becomes clear that they are not playing this everyday game of Trivial Pursuit – looking for trivial differences and then proclaiming them aloud.

In fact, they are looking for points of agreement.

As a result, they will often start with the words, “I agree.”

Then they talk about the part they agree with.

At least, that is where they start.

Now when the other person has merely left out an element of the argument, skilled people will agree and then build, as in “Absolutely. In addition, I noticed that…”

Compare – when you differ

Finally, if you do disagree, compare your path with the other person’s.

Rather than suggesting that he or she is wrong, suggest that you differ.

He or she may, in fact, be wrong, but you do not know for sure until you hear both sides of the story.

“I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.”

Then share your path using the STATE skills (share your facts, tell your story, ask for others’ path, talk tentatively, encourage testing).


To do nothing is in every man’s power.

 - - - Samuel Johnson


2 final skills

Having more meaning in the pool, even jointly owning it, does not guarantee that we will all agree on what we are going to do with the meaning. When teams or families meet and generate a host of ideas, they often fail to convert the ideas into action for 2 reasons:

 - They have unclear expectations about how decisions will be made.

 - They do a poor job of acting on the decision they do make.


Dialogue is not decision making

The 2 riskiest times in crucial conversations tend to be at the beginning and at the end.

The beginning is risky because you have to find a way to create safety or else things go awry.

The end is dicey because if you are not careful about how you clarify the conclusion and decisions flowing from your Pool of Shared Meaning, you can run into violated expectations later on.

This can happen in 2 ways.

  1. How are decisions going to be made? People may not understand how decisions are going to be made.
  2. Are we ever going to decide? When no decision gets made, either ideas slip away and dissipate, or people cannot figure out what to do with them. Or maybe everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the decision.


Decide how to decide

Both of these problems are solved if, before making a decision, the people involved decide how to decide.

Do not allow people to assume that dialogue is decision making.

Dialogue is a process for getting all relevant meaning into a shared pool.

That process, of course, involves everyone.

However, simply because everyone is allowed to share their meaning – actually encouraged to share their meaning – does not mean they are then guaranteed to take part in making all the decisions.

To avoid violated expectations, separate dialogue from decision making.

Make it clear how decisions will be made – who will be involved and why.


When the line of authority is clear.

When you are in a position of authority, you decide which method of decision-making you will use.

When the line of authority is not clear.

When there is no clear line of authority, deciding how to decide can be quite difficult.

All of the participants need to get their meaning into the pool – including their opinions about who should make the final choice.

That is part of the meaning you need to discuss.

If you do not talk openly about who decides and why, and your opinions vary widely, you are likely to end up in a heated battle that can only be resolved in court.


The 4 methods of decision-making

These represent increasing degrees of involvement.

Increased involvement, of course, brings the benefit of increased commitment along with the curse of decreased decision-making efficiency.

Savvy people choose from among these 4 methods of decision-making the one that best suits their particular circumstances.


Decisions are made without involving others.

Happens in one of two ways.

Either outside forces place demands on us (demands that leave us no wiggle room), or we turn decisions over to others and then follow their lead.

We do not care enough to be involved – let someone else do the work.

In the case of external forces, customers set prices, agencies mandate safety standards, and other governing bodies simply hand us demands.

In the case of turning decisions over to others, we decide either that this is such a low-stakes issue that we do not care enough to take part or that we completely trust the ability of the delegate to make the right decision.

More involvement adds nothing.

In strong teams and great relationships, many decisions are made by turning the final choice over to someone we trust to make a good decision.

We do not want to take the time ourselves and gladly turn the decision over to others.


Input is gathered from the group and then a subset decides.

Consulting is a process whereby decision makers invite others to influence them before they make their choice.

You can consult with experts, a representative population, or even everyone who wants to offer an opinion.

Consulting can be an efficient way of gaining ideas and support without bogging down the decision-making process.

At least not too much.

Wise leaders, parent, and even couples frequently make decision in this way.

They gather ideas, evaluate options, make a choice, and then inform the broader population.


An agreed-upon percentage swings the decision.

Voting is best suited to situations where efficiency is the highest value – and you are selecting form a number of good options.

Members of the team realize they may not get their first choice, but frankly they do not want to waste time talking the issue to death.

They may discuss options for a while and then call for a vote.

When facing several decent options, voting is a great time saver but should never be used when team members do not agree to support whatever decision is made.

In these cases, consensus is required.


Everyone comes to an agreement and then supports the final decision.

This method can be both a great blessing and a frustrating curse.

Consensus means you talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision.

This method can produce tremendous unity and high-quality decisions.

If misapplied, it can also be a horrible waste of time.

It should only be used with (1) high-stakes and complex issues, or (2) issues where everyone absolutely must support the final choice.


How to choose

4 important questions

  1. Who cares?
  2. Who knows?
  3. Who must agree?
  4. How many people is it worth involving?


Make assignments – put decisions into action

To avoid common traps, make sure you consider the following 4 elements:

  1. Who?

Everybody’s business is nobody’s business.

We when it comes to assignments actually means not me.

We can lead them to believe that others are taking on the responsibility.

If you do not make an actual assignment to an actual person, there is a good chance that nothing will ever come of all the work you have gone through to make a decision.

Assign a name to every responsibility.

  1. Does what?

Be sure to spell out the exact deliverables you have in mind.

The fuzzier the expectations, the higher the likelihood of disappointment.

To help clarify deliverables, use contrasting.

If you have seen people misunderstand an assignment in the past, explain the common mistake as an example of what you do not want.

If possible, point to physical examples.

Rather than talk in the abstract, bring a prototype or sample.

  1. By when?

It is shocking how often people leave this element out of an assignment.

Instead of giving a deadline, people simply point to the setting sun of “someday.”

With vague or unspoken deadlines, other urgencies come up, and the assignment finds its way to the bottom of the pile, where it is soon forgotten.

Assignments without deadlines are far better at producing guilt than stimulating action.

Goals without deadlines are not goals.

They are merely directions.

  1. How will you follow up?

Always agree on how often and by what method you will follow up on the assignment.

It could be a simple email confirming the completion of a project.

It might be a full report in a team or family meeting.

More often than not, it comes down to progress checks along the way.

If you want people to feel accountable, you must give them an opportunity to account.

Build an expectation for follow-up into every assignment.


Document your work

One dull pencil is worth six sharp minds.

Do not leave your hard work to memory.

If you have gone to the effort to complete a crucial conversation, do not fritter away all the meaning you created by trusting your memories.

Write down the details of conclusions, decisions, and assignments.

Remember to record who does what by when.

Revisit your notes at key times (usually the next meeting) and review assignments.

As you review what was supposed to be completed, hold people accountable.

When someone fails to deliver on a promise, it is time for dialogue.

Discuss the issue by using the STATE skills.

By holding people accountable, not only do you increase their motivation and ability to deliver on promises, but you create a culture of integrity.



Good words are worth much and cost little.

- - - George Herbert


I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they do not even invite me.

- - - Dave Barry


2 levers:

  1. Learn to look


That is, people who improve their dialogue skills continually ask themselves whether they are in or out of dialogue.

“Are we playing games or are we in dialogue?”

  1. Make it safe

Dialogue consists of the free flow of meaning and the number one flow stopper is a lack of safety.




Crucial Question

1. Start with Heart

Focus on what you really want







Refuse the Fool’s Choice

What am I acting like I really want?

What do I really want?

  • for me?
  • For others?
  • For the relationship?

How would I behave if I really did want this?


What do I NOT want?

How should I go about getting what I really want and avoiding what I do not want?

2. Learn to look

Look for when the conversation becomes crucial.

Look for safety problems.

Look for your own Style under Stress.

Am I going to silence or violence?

Are others?


3. Make it safe

Apologize when appropriate.

Contrast to fix misunderstanding.

CRIB to get to Mutual Purpose.

Why is safety at risk?

  • Have I established Mutual Purpose?
  • Am I maintaining Mutual Respect?

What will I do to rebuild safety?

4. Master my Stories

Retrace my Path to Action.

Separate fact from story.

Watch for 3 clever stories.

Tell the rest of the story.

What is my story?






What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem?

Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?

What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?

5. STATE my Path

Share your facts.

Tell your story.

Ask for others’ paths.

Talk tentatively.

Encourage testing.

Am I really open to others’ views?

Am I talking about the real issue?

Am I confidently expressing my own views?

6. Explore others’ paths









Am I actively exploring others’ views?




Am I avoiding unnecessary disagreement?

7. Move to Action

Decide how you will decide.

Document decisions and follow up.

How will we make decisions?

Who will do what by when?

How will we follow up?



The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.

 - - - William James



What we've learned in the past 10 years - the authors of crucial conversations

Contact Me

Sarah Nilsson, J.D., Ph.D., MAS


602 561 8665


You can also fill out my 

online form.




Get Social with Me

View Sarah J. Nilsson's profile on LinkedIn



Legal Disclaimer

The information on this website is for EDUCATIONAL purposes only and DOES NOT constitute legal advice. 

While the author of this website is an attorney, she is not YOUR attorney, nor are you her client, until you enter into a written agreement with Nilsson Law, PLLC to provide legal services.

In no event shall Sarah Nilsson be liable for any special, indirect, or consequential damages relating to this material, for any use of this website, or for any other hyperlinked website.



Steward of 

Little Free Library



I endorse the following products

KENNON (sun shields)

Print | Sitemap
© Sarah Nilsson