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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Transitions: Bridges linking the Past to the Future

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

William Bridge.  2003.  Managing Transitions:  Making the Most of Change.  Cambridge:  Da Capo Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Early in my government career I noticed that new political appointees did not immediately affect the course of my work.  Rather, their views typically took a year or more to filter down through the bureaucracy into my job description.  During this period, objective research could be published without reference to the positions they expressed on Capitol Hill. After that, the freedom of response disappeared.

William Bridges ( would describe my observation on research in government service as a type of transition.  Bridges describes a transition as a 3-stage, psychological process in an organizational setting.  These stages are:

  1. Letting go of the old ways and the old identity people had;
  2. Going through an in-between time when the old is gone, but the new isn’t fully operational; and
  3. Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning (3-5)

He calls the first stage an “ending”, the second “the neutral zone”, and the last a “new beginning” (5).  While Bridges focuses on organizational behavior, like my story about government research, the idea of a transition nicely describes individual experiences, like a hospital visit, going to college, and a host of other stressful experiences in life.

Bridge’s first stage—an ending—is unexpected.  We expect the first stage to be a discussion of how leadership lays out new objectives.  Bridge’s observes:  Before can begin something new, you have to end what used to be (23).   Endings involve losses which need to be recognized, assessed, and celebrated before we can move on (25-27).  All losses need to be grieved and grieving takes time (28).

At one point, I remember a manager informing me that a very successful project that I had been doing for about 7 years was over and I needed to start something new—it would have been easier to have been run over by a truck.  The sense of loss was real; the pain was immediate; the project had defined my identity for so long that I could not imagine not doing it.

Bridges suggests both making a list of losses and compensating the losers so that they have less incentive to sabotage the proposed change (30-31).  In one office where I worked, for example, displaced managers were given dream assignments in Europe as compensation for trading a staff for a desk.

Bridge’s second stage—the neutral zone—is both a stressful period and a time of innovation.  Supervisors become impatient; staff develops anxiety attacks; signals are mixed and confusing; new lines of communication open up (40-42).  At one point, my career was dead in the water as we entered a period of reorganization; after I volunteered to help out the reorganization team, things turned around.  Later, I was offered a better position in other unit and ended up with a promotion.

Bridges observed that it was during the 40 years in the desert that the Nation of Israel was born—it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took him 40 years to get Egypt out of the people (43).

The neutral zone is not a highly productive period, but it is a created time.  It is a time to build infrastructure—new roles, new policies and procedures, new teams (45-46).  After being admitted to college, you have to take an awful lot of classes before you complete your degree and graduate.  College classes are a great symbol of the neutral zone.

Bridge’s third stage—the new beginning—is also a new identity.  This is when the new organizational charts go up on the wall (57).  Bridges talks about the marathon effect where thousands of runners are involved.  Front runners take off like rabbits; middle runners run more slowly behind; and the weekend runners bring up the rear so far behind that they cannot even hear the starting gun (65).  The point is that not everyone in an organization transitions at the same speed.

Bridges offers 4 rules for transitioning:

  1. Offer a consistent message;
  2. Celebrate milestones marking small successes;
  3. Develop symbols of the new identity; and
  4. Take time to celebrate arriving at the new destination (69-72).

Following Skakespeare, Bridges describes organizational life in 7 stages:

  1. Dreaming the dream;
  2. Launching the venture;
  3. Getting organized;
  4. Making it;
  5. Institutionalizing;
  6. Ossifying; and
  7. Dying (77-82).

The hope, of course, is that leadership can anticipate these stages and reinvent the organization repeatedly to avoid the later stages.

Bridge’s idea of a transition has been enormously helpful throughout my career both as an economist and a pastor.  Understanding where an organization is during a transition guides how to navigate in one’s career and how not to be sidelined.  The same can be side for individuals caught up in the important transitions of life—growing up, going to school, marriage, growing older, and so on.  Managing Transitions is a book to read and apply—over and over.

Transitions: Bridges linking the Past to the Future

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