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 

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Interpreting Life

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

One can argue that a defining characteristic of the postmodern era is uncertainty, captured in the popular expression: “The only constant is change.⁠1” This uncertainty is compounded by a lack of consensus on basic values and the rapid pace of changes in technology and social conventions.

Postmodern uncertainty is also in sharp contrast with the stability of traditional society where tradition informs every important decision in one’s life—what gender roles we follow, who our friends are, who we marry, what profession we take up, and who and how we worship. Life has meaning in a traditional society because when we accept this guidance, we are rewarded with status and honor. 

Postmodern culture questions tradition and focuses on the individual who is responsible for every imaginable decision with little or no guidance. If we succeed as postmodern individuals, we are fully employed, have a medical plan, and can buy stuff, but we have no guarantee of status and honor because the culture’s standards keep morphing. Thus, anxiety has become a defining characteristic of the postmodern era.

The Indeterminacy Problem

Postmodern anxiety and uncertainty point to a more general problem of indeterminacy that is more typically masked when we act on consensus.

If you think that postmodern anxiety is a myth or an exaggeration, how do you respond to sleep deprivation? At one point, I got anxious and depressed. What was wrong with me? As I thought things through, I realized that my depression typically occurred on Saturdays. Then I realized that I was not depressed, I was tired from a long week. A good Saturday afternoon nap each week did away with my “depression.” I had interpreted my own physical condition incorrectly. Clearly, our attitude about the little setbacks in life can make all the difference in the living of it.

Indeterminacy arise in statistics because we know that correlation does not indicate causality. In theory, many causes can explain a particular correlation so a theory is required to suggest the cause of an observed correlation. Otherwise, the relationship can be entirely a random association.⁠2 If sunspots are associated with weather on earth, what explains this relationship?⁠3 The Rorschach (inkblot) test provides an interesting application of this indeterminacy problem (Smith 2001, 205-206). When a psychiatrist shows a patient a random inkblot and the patients sees patterns in the inkblot, the patterns arise from preconceptions of patient being imposed on the inkblot. Does the patient see angels or demons? Naked women or monsters? These preconceptions (or random associations) provide insight into the interior life of the patient that are hard to track any other way.

Telling a Faithful Story

The anxiety and uncertainty of postmodern society presents the Christian leader with a kind of cultural inkblot test. How can leadership successfully navigate through this perilous test?

One answer can be taken from my earlier comments on the book, Crucial Conversations, where I noted four stages in a dialogue: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting (PGMS 2012, 110). 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. Crafting a vision for the church is an important starting point.

An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful. Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119).⁠4 More productive is to tune into the church’s history and to compare it with other faithful churches or stories from the Bible.

Example of Barnabas

The story of Barnabas comes to mind when I see many churches in action. In his book, Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement, Paul Moots (2014, 2-3) writes:

“The ministry of encouragement is the art of leading and supporting others in the discovery of their own spiritual gifts and call to discipleship…We can become a Barnabas…encouragement allows the congregation to shape its ministry around its strengths rather than to base its work on some model derived from another congregation’s story, another pastor’s experience.”

Notice the role of story in this description. Each of us and each congregation has its own story of its Christian walk that deserves to be honored and built on. Herein lies our spiritual gifts and our strengths in ministry.

Encouragement is at the heart of the multiplication of gifts and church growth (Moots 2014, 6). It stands in contrast to the usual concept of discipling that implicitly (or explicitly) defines discipling almost exclusively in a teacher-student role and seeks more to replicate than to strengthen. At the heart of encouragement is respect, much like Barnabas clearly respected Paul. Imagine what might have happened had Barnabas attempted to fashion Paul into a mini-me version of himself?

In Hebrew, Barnabas literally means “son of the prophet,” but Doctor Luke gives it a metaphorical translation: “son of encouragement.” Interestingly, it is a nickname given to Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Would that we all be remembered in such a way.


Greene, William H. 1997. Econometric Analysis. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Moots, Paul. 2014. Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Encouragement. Herndon: Alban Institute.

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

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.


1 Ironically, this expression is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) who actually said: πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει (everything changes and nothing stands still).

2 Statisticians frequently talk about the problem of inferring causality from correlations, but they seldom write about it because it undermines a lot of popular, but spurious statistical procedures. Greene (1997, 816) provide a review of the problem in discussing a statistical procedure called Granger casualty, a kind of statistical work around.

3 Superstition can be defined as a random association being confused with a particular causality. If seeing a black cat is a bad omen, exactly how does that relationship work?

4 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.

Interpreting Life

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Value Of Life

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Listening and Talking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
but the lips of a fool consume him.” (Eccl 10:12)

Listening and Talking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first year of college at Indiana University I lived and worked in the Graduate Residence Center (GRC) where everyone had a roommate, telephones were in the hall, and two of the three buildings housed men. Because GRC had both men’s and women’s buildings, it was considered co-educational.

My education in dealing with the opposite sex was less exciting than one might believe from recent movies. The movie that everyone talked about in 1972 was Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) where a high school graduate is seduced by an older woman and falls in love with her daughter.[1] The only older women that I met were professors and, although I became acquainted with many young women, they were more interested in dating older guys who were experienced in social settings and could afford to date.

Money was always a problem in college. Although my dad paid my college tuition and room and board, every other expense—books, travel, and entertainment—came out of my account. By Christmas of my freshman year my bank account was pretty much empty of savings from my summer work in high school and I started the New Year working in the cafeteria where I normally was assigned to the dish machine, but occasionally worked the food line. I enjoyed working the line because I soon became acquainted with just about everyone in GRC, including the co-eds. Still, dating co-eds required money and most of my money went to books and traveling home over vacations—even pizza money for Sunday evening dinner was hard to come by and required strict budgeting. My budget simply did not include money for dating.

Dating was not really on my mind in my freshman year, not only because I could not afford it, but because I missed a close friend back at home in Maryland. For me, she was like the freshwater pike that got away and grew longer and more ornery with each telling of the tale, vaccinating me from the advances from other women. Vaccinated or not, it was easier telling myself that my standards were too high than to admit that it was painful seeing older guys date my female friends.

Dating friends in high school, conversation might be about common things, like a class or activity that we shared, but it often quickly wandered into more serious matters, like plans for the future and how many children that you wanted to have. Future plans were a perfect date topic because in the 1970s dating was treated like a job interview for marriage and guys naturally paid for dinner and activities to demonstrate their willingness (and hopefully future ability) to provide for a family, should they marry. Marriage was on everyone’s mind which made dating, like an important job interview, an activity that made almost everyone nervous, because everyone obsessed about being the perfect date.

Unable to date, hanging out with female friends in college was unscripted, awkward, and without an obvious social context—what do you even talk about? I knew almost everyone in GRC from working in the cafeteria, but “I see that you really like green beans” is a pickup line not suggesting a lengthy conversation. Real conversation required common ground that was frequently lacking and verbal skills that I simply did not possess and that were not in the curriculum. In searching for common ground, I soon discovered a friend from high school lived in GRC and made friends with another girl who grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. In developing verbal skills, I soon discovered “the question”.

Questions were cool because you could ask a question and listen potentially for hours to the answer, speaking only occasionally to say something like “yeah” or “tell me more”, because most people love to talk. I loved questions and became a good listener, but there is one problem with questions—they only really worked well in one-on-one conversation. Once two becomes three, conversation takes on a competitive element and it is not cool to dominate the conversation for too long. When conversation morphed into a group dialogue, as I discovered in my freshman year, I was lost both because of my limited social skills and because I did not perceive a social context suggesting that being the “life of the party” was important. More important was that I learn to earn a living and reach a point where I might support a family.


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