Crucial Conversations Target Productive Dialog

Crucial_Conversations_review_20200307By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.  2012.  Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My economic studies taught me that decision processes focused on the scientific method—objective, dispassionate, well-thought out.  Boy, did that ever mislead me!  This misconcept left I unprepared for white-knuckle office negotiations and I despaired that I represented my own ideas poorly in discussions.  When McGraw-Hill published Crucial Conversations, I immediately ordered a copy.


What is a crucial conversation?  The authors define a crucial conversation as:  a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong (3).  They observe that three responses to these white-knock conversations can occur:  we can avoid them, handle them badly, or handle them well (4).  Their claim is that high-performance professionals earn their pay by telling supervisors discretely what they do not care to hear (10). The more typical response is silence (12).  The author further claim that open conversation allows organizations to respond more quicky to crises, have fewer on-the-job injuries, save money, reduce decision costs, and reduce workplace bullying (12-13).   Wow!


The authors organize Crucial Conversations into eleven chapters where the details matter less important than to stay in dialog.  A dialog is a two-way conversation where both parties contribute to the discussion (pool of information) and no one feels threatened.  Honesty and openness are keys to ongoing dialog.  Clearly, keeping the lines of communication open is important in avoiding becoming side-tracked. A key starting point is to know what you really want and stay on theme.  This is not easy because when tempers flare, people often personalize the discussion (punishing) and bring up unrelated grievances (whining). Not all wrongs can be righted (38-40).  Adrenaline poses its own problem.  Stay on theme.

Handy Tips

The authors provide a large number of handy tips for managing particular problems in crucial conversations. One tip worth the ticket of admission is the author’s breakdown of a dialog into four stages:  presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting.  They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in.

The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action. An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful.  Three kinds of bad (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (116-119).  Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around.  The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.   Avoiding these counter-productive stories lays the groundwork for telling stories that solve organizational problems.


Crucial Conversations is a helpful book.  I have recommended this book to family members and close friends undergoing stressful workplace transitions.  This book challenges us to commit key debating strategies to memory.  White knuckle conversations often cannot always be anticipated and often take place without warning.  Consequently, read the book carefully, underline key points, and review these points before walking into stressful meetings.

Crucial Conversations Target Productive Dialog

Also see:

Savage Teaches Listening; Hears Unheard Stories 

Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In order to understand the role of authorities in our decision making, let’s return for a moment to my decision as a college student to follow my father into the economics profession. As mentioned previously, when I decided to study economics, I had no idea what an economist could expect to earn and whether studying economics posed a profitable investment decision. This implies that my decision was not entirely rational in the sense that I exhaustively studied the alternative to studying economics and chose the field yielding the highest prospective salary. What I knew was that my father had studied economics and was able to earn a living.

Notice the high level of uncertainty that I confronted in making this life-changing decision of a career. Those of you who have read my memoir, Called Along the Way, probably recall that I made this decision under duress—I had labored anxiously for months without direction and on the morning that I made this decision I had a bad hangover. These are not ideal conditions for making major life decisions and bring to mind the circumstances facing the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Still, I took it on faith that if I followed my father into the economics profession, I would earn a similar income and be able to support a family. In a formal sense, I did not (and perhaps could not) make a rational decision based on current expected earnings in the economics profession.

Rationality of Decisions Based on Authority

Two important points can be made about my decision to study economics.

The first point is that most decisions are made within a context of high levels of uncertainty. Uncertainty motivates the gathering of additional information. Because information is costly and time-consuming, the search process is often constrained by the limits of our budget (both money and time). When no limit is imposed, analysis paralysis can arise if we have trouble making decisions.

The second point is that the use of authorities in the decision process provides an obvious short-cut to searching for more information. While some may not languish over decisions but simply adopt the advice of others to avoid the anxiety of decision making, this was not a motivator for me. I knew that if I studied economics, my father could advise on what to do and what not to do along the way, reducing my decision risk. In a sense, I became an informal apprentice to my father. Being an apprentice therefore not only cut my search costs in making the initial decision, but also the prospective costs in making future career decisions.

If I chose another field to study, I could have gotten the same benefits by seeking out mentors to guide through difficult decisions along the way. In fact, when I moved in my career to finance, I did exactly that. Although I changed positions repeatedly in my government career, I always sought mentors to guide me in my career.

Christ as Mentor

In a very real sense, placing our faith in God is analogous to taking Christ as our mentor. When we come to faith, our information set is minimal, but we know that God is good and is trustworthy. By trusting God and taking Christ as our guide, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that come with inexperience as decision makers in this life.

But there is one other important point to make. As Christians, we know that the future is in Christ. Knowing the end of the story reduces the uncertainty that we face in this life. Thus, we not only benefit from the guidance of our mentor, he reduces our uncertainty. It is like we already have tomorrow’s newspaper and know today which stock will go up tomorrow.

The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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The World of Perception

One of the oldest photographs of me as a baby shows me in a high chair. I am smiling with my hands in the air and oatmeal on my face wearing a diaper and a top covered with a bib. The date on the photograph is February 1954 which means that I was about two months old.

Does little Stephen remember this early meal? Hardly. Did little Stephen climb into this chair or prepare his own food? Hardly. We know, however, from the picture that little Stephen is well fed and cared for because he is plump and happy. We suspect that little Stephen has a mom that loves and cares for him, but she is nowhere in the picture.

How does little Stephen perceive his world?

As parents (or siblings) we know that little Stephen needs constant watching because everything in arm’s reach goes straight into the mouth. Science tells us that babies are actually born blind, but babies can still feel, smell, and hear, although the mouth has priority. For the baby, trying something out generally means putting it in the mouth. No amount of reasoning by mom will change that behavior.

So how do little Stephen’s perceptions change with time?

If stuff goes into the mouth that does not belong there, little Stephen cries and cries, but that does immediately mean that it won’t go into the mouth a second time. If little Stephen does not like smashed peas, for example, he will still try them a few times before learning to refuse them on sight.

In the same manner, dad and other relatives may initially hold little Stephen, but pretty soon he will recognize that they are not mom and may get anxious and cry unless mom is in sight and comforting him.

How sophisticated is little Stephen’s decision making?

Through tasting, little Stephen learns that he likes some food and does not like other food—and other random, mouth sized objects. Good food gets a positive response from little Stephen; bad food gets a negative response. This tasting elicits a behavioral response, with either positive or negative.

Through sight, little Stephen compares his food and visitors with his prior experiences and either accepts or rejects them. Although these comparisons come much later than tasting per se, they form the basis of early rational decision making.

Who provides little Stephen’s template for thinking about God?

In little Stephen’s world, mom is the early model of God’s immanence because she brings him into the world and cares for him. Dad’s role as progenitor and provider is less obvious and serves as an early model of God’s transcendence.

How does little Stephen relate to his parents?

Little Stephen has a definite preference for mom because she cares for him and is always present. This preference only changes once trust is established both with mom and with dad.

Isn’t telling that we, as postmodern people, have grown fat and irritable? In our anxious world, the fascination with food reflects a mass regression to a child-like state, where we trust only things that go into the mouth—not because we are hungry, but because we are anxious—and where we cry for the one who cares for us, even if we do not even know his name.

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