Crucial Conversations QA

How to be Genuine During a Crucial Conversation

Dear Crucial Skills,

I try to use crucial skills in my workplace but have struggled to sound genuine and have even turned people off with my approach. I’m no actor and I sometimes have to take a moment to recall some techniques. However, I’m worried that I might still be coming off as too calculated because of some of the formulas I generally follow.

For example, during a content or pattern conversation I use a contrasting statement, then describe what I noticed versus what was expected, and finally end with a question as to why that was the case or what info I am missing. Judging by the other person’s silence, I get the feeling they feel put off by what probably seems like an insensitive show, but I don’t know how to make it any more natural. I’m being as candid as possible while trying to avoid all of my own messy emotional reactions. Have you encountered similar resistance to your techniques before?

Yours Truly,
Awkward Actor

Dear Awkward,

Thanks for your question. New skills often feel awkward at first, and the last thing you need is awkwardness when you’re trying to be your very best. I do have a few tips that might help.

Sense and respond. First, walk away from the formula. Instead of using the skills as a series of sequential steps, use the process as a map. Listen to the other person, ask yourself where you are on the map, and then respond. This sense-and-respond process will feel more natural for you and for the other person because it puts a greater emphasis on listening. It makes you more responsive to what others say, and it makes your responses more brief.

Here’s an example. Suppose you begin with Describe the Gap. State the facts about what you expected and what you observed, and then pause to listen. As you are listening, ask yourself where you are on the map: “Do they understand and agree with what I expected?” “Do they agree with what I observed?” “Are they telling themselves a different story about the gap?” and “Are they feeling unsafe?” Depending on what you hear, you will respond with another skill.

For example, if they don’t agree with the expectation, you will review the facts. If they are telling themselves a different story about the gap, you will use CPR. If they appear to be feeling unsafe, you will use a contrasting statement or another skill to restore safety.

Get your heart right. We used to try to teach fairly sophisticated acting skills, such as how to look concerned, how to appear nonthreatening, and the like. In fact, one of my side jobs in graduate school was with a legal firm, teaching witnesses how to appear less shifty-eyed under cross-examination. But that’s a whole different life.

What we learned is that if we get our heart right, all the subtle nonverbal cues we send out become consistent with our message, and we become natural. However, if we don’t get our heart right, then few of us are good enough actors to appear to be anything but awkward, unnatural, and insincere. So we no longer try to turn ourselves into actors. Instead, we change our hearts. I’ll remind you of a couple of mental skills for getting your heart right.

First, use the Start With Heart skills. Ask yourself what you really want long term—for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. Let that long-term goal be your North Star. It should guide your conversation and keep you on track.

Second, use the Master My Story skills. Remember, when we feel frustrated or angry, it’s because we’ve drawn an ugly conclusion about the other person. We are telling ourselves an ugly story. Change your emotions by interrogating your story. Here are three questions I use to interrogate ugly stories: a) “Do I really have all the facts I need to be certain my story is accurate?” b) “Is there any other more positive story that would fit this same set of facts?” and c) “Why might a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?” Asking myself these questions changes my emotions by opening my mind to new and different stories.

Don’t worry too much. Once you have your heart right, don’t worry too much about the rest. People focus on your heart, not your head; they focus on your motivations and intentions, not your facts, logic, and argument. Others may see that you are frustrated or angry with them, but they will also see you are trying to control your anger, and that you respect and care about them. And that’s a good message to send.

Stop sooner and more often to listen. At VitalSmarts, we’ve spent a lot of time studying opinion leaders—people who are especially respected by their peers. However, there is another line of research—people who study “low self-monitors.”

Here are two hallmarks of being a low self-monitor: a) If you think of a conversation as taking turns, low self-monitors don’t give you your turn. They monopolize conversations. b) Once you do get a chance to speak, low self-monitors don’t sense and respond. They don’t change course based on what you’ve said. For example, if you say, “I’ve already heard that joke,” prepare yourself, because you are about to hear it again.

What we’ve learned is that we are all likely to make these two errors when we’re in a crucial conversation. We want to be at our best, but we act like a low self-monitor. Can you see why? We tend to focus on ourselves and on what we’re trying to say, and we stop focusing on the other person. The trick to avoiding this trap is to stop and get the other person to respond sooner and more often.

Practice and make the skills your own. My final tip is to find your own words and phrases. Integrate the skills into your everyday conversational style. Set aside some places and times when you will look for chances to use a skill here and a tool there—not the whole process but pieces of the process. Practice the pieces and make them your own. You’ll find the process becomes a part of yourself.

Best Wishes,


Crucial Conversations QA

Working With Youngsters

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

I recently joined a new company that I love. The technology and services I will be working with are cutting-edge and I’m excited to be part of this thriving organization. The only downside, if you can even call it that, is that the majority of my colleagues, and even my supervisor, are significantly younger than me. While I’ve known this from the beginning of the hiring process and it’s something I willingly stepped into, I’m simply wondering if you can share tips for navigating an environment where I’m now the “old guy” and the pace and attitude of my colleagues is somewhat different than I’m used to.


Old Guy

A Dear Old Guy,

Hmmm…pace and attitude. That’s worth giving some thought to. I was about to offer some nifty Crucial Conversations advice about “negotiating stories” and “setting expectations”—and I’ll offer that in a moment. But as I re-read your question, the words “pace and attitude” jumped out at me. So my first advice is to do a gut check and set some boundaries for yourself.

Here’s why.

I worked with an executive team once that was riddled with resentment and mistrust. As we unraveled the pain I discovered that a couple of the executives joined the team after their company had been acquired by the current firm. These guys were brilliant, but had run a “lifestyle” business; one in which they worked a bit, earned a lot of money, developed great products, but had lots of time to windsurf in the early evenings and weekends. They also happened to be a smidge older than their new colleagues.
The acquiring firm was chock full of young guns with boundless energy who were used to the pace of a startup tech company. These folks slept in their offices and ate pizza for breakfast. It wasn’t long before the lifestyle guys resented the young guns and vice versa. One side saw the other as soulless, while the other saw the former as lazy.

As we sifted through the crucial conversations and unraveled the stories they had concocted about each other, the lifestyle guys did a gut check. They asked, “What do I really want?” They realized they did not want to spend the next three years living on energy drinks and Cliff Bars. As they clarified their boundaries and presented them to the rest of the team, they realized they were at an impasse. They were unable to develop a creative solution that wasn’t an unacceptable compromise. So, the two walked away; somewhat amicably.

This sobering experience urges me to encourage you to do the gut check now rather than later. Be sure you know if your different “pace and attitude” could run afoul of work norms (hours, pace, quality, ethics) in the new firm. Determine what your boundaries are, what you really want, where you are willing to compromise, and where you aren’t. Then you’re ready for the crucial conversations. These conversations will help you 1. Set expectations and 2. Negotiate stories.

First, be sure to talk openly with your new colleagues about “pace and attitude” expectations. For example, what kinds of hours constitute “full engagement?” How will you assess one another’s contribution? How do people connect with each other socially? Etc. You’ll do a better job generating a set of questions than I can by simply noticing what’s strange to you in the new place and exploring whether these are norms or just coincidences.

Second, negotiate stories. This means that you must surface any ways you will diverge from norms clearly up front and let people know why you are behaving the way you are. That will help them draw proper conclusions. For example, my “lifestyle” friends could have saved a lot of heartache for themselves and others had they held a crucial conversation shortly after joining. They could have said, “I really respect the pace and attitude you all have about working long hours. At this stage of my life I am not willing to do that. And yet, I think I can make a contribution if you can accommodate my 40-hour weeks. Please understand, this is a life choice, not laziness. And then let’s talk in three months to see if it feels fair and workable to all.”

My guess is, if this had been done well, others would not have seen them as slackers, but as choosers. It may still not have been a “fit”—but they would have discovered that, without so much conflict.

I wish you the best in the new venture.



Sucess Story

From the Desk of Joseph Grenny: Gratitude and Thanks

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

One of the most humbling—and to me, sacred—experiences I’ve had over the past thirty years has been hearing stories like those of Laura and Jim below. I say “sacred” because I realize more fully now that when we founded VitalSmarts, our mission meant entering some of the most intimate areas of people’s lives. Our goal was to discover key skills and insights that would assist people in solving the important human problems they faced.

Since then, we’ve heard stories from many of the millions who have given us the privilege of entering those places with them. Through our work, we’ve been part of conversations between parents and struggling teens, couples on the brink of divorce, managers struggling with problem employees, and leaders agonizing over how to lead change.

To those of you who have offered us this honor, thank you. And to those who are just entering this wonderful community of learning and growth, welcome!

Warmest wishes,


Laura’s Story: Putting Family First

When Laura met with her father in April of 2012, she had no idea what a lucrative meeting it would be! They had a great relationship and she had no complaints about her childhood. But when they met that day he unburdened his heart about several incidents in her childhood that weighed on him.

As a teenager, Laura found a well-paying job and her dad directed her to buy a car using the money she earned. However, both of her sisters used the family car and did not purchase cars of their own until much later. As Laura prepared to enter college, she decided to attend a local community college while her sisters both attended universities with significantly higher tuition and fees. Laura was the first of her sisters to get married and she paid for her own wedding. However, when both of her sisters were married, her parents made financial contributions to both of their weddings.

Laura’s father handed her a check for $3,000 as a way to compensate her for these three areas where he felt she was not treated equally. Laura was taken aback by both the check and the issues that so greatly concerned her father. But the next thing he said blew her away—he told her he would give her cash every year until he felt she was fully compensated! She was very grateful, as finances had been a struggle recently.

A year passed, and it was now spring of 2013. April came and went without a check, then May, then June. Laura started feeling angry. She recognized that she wasn’t mastering her emotions and began telling herself stories about why her father had not kept his word. And, instead of facing the conversation, she merely dropped hints. But after completing training in Crucial Accountability, Laura decided she would not slip into awkward silence and instead used her new skills. After all, the compensation plan was her dad’s idea and she wanted to speak to her father in a way that would resolve the issue without causing a new one.

Laura mustered the courage to talk to her dad. She felt it was important to deal with her violated expectations without damaging their close relationship. She was living with a failed promise and needed to find resolution and understanding. Through the course of her accountability discussion, she explained her expectations and then allowed him the opportunity to explain his actions.

How Laura used her skills:

Describe the Gap: Laura identified what she expected to happen versus what actually happened.

Choose What and If: She unbundled the situation using CPR and addressed this as a content and relationship issue. Laura wanted her father to follow through on his promise, and she valued the relationship and herself enough to not want to experience this frustration again the next year.

Master My Story: She stopped telling herself negative stories about her dad and listened to what he had to say.

Make it Motivating/Easy: Laura reminded her father of his previous promise and held him accountable to it by addressing it with him.

Move to Action: They agreed on a plan for when she would receive the money and she followed up with a thank you call once she received it.

Because of the skills she learned in Crucial Accountability, Laura not only received the compensation she was promised, but she preserved her relationship with her father—something of infinite value.

Jim’s Story: Winning the Weight Loss Game

In November of 2011, Jim attended a training conference in Scottsdale, AZ. As it happened, David Maxfield, coauthor of Change Anything, was also there. Jim attended David’s presentation and felt it was one of the most valuable experiences of his life.

He received a copy of Change Anything and remembers eagerly reading it on his long flight home. He decided he needed to know more and signed up for a local Change Anything Training. He was so impressed by the change model he learned, he decided he would like to share this newfound knowledge with others. Even though he was not in a training role by profession, he received special permission from his manager to become a trainer and bring the course back to his team.

In the course of Jim’s learning, he decided to test the Change Anything principles in his own life. He began a personal weight loss journey that drastically improved his health, energy levels, and outlook on life.

At the author’s recommendations, Jim took a hard look at his default future. He recalled an experience in 1999 when his father underwent triple bypass surgery after struggling with several health issues; one of these issues was weight management. Jim had to sign the paperwork regarding who would be the decision maker if his father did not regain consciousness after surgery. Jim reflected on his own children—two teenage girls. Did he want them to face such an experience?

So Jim put Change Anything to the test. He found that his crucial moments were getting to the gym after work, his lunch selections, and what he snacked on before dinner. He recognized that getting motivated to go to the gym after work left room for him to make excuses not to go. For lunch, he often went with friends to a location that had a Chinese buffet, an Indian buffet, and a Five Guys Burger and Fries. He visited each restaurant at least once a week. He also noticed that he drank soda with his lunch and ate more food as a result. When he got home from work, he snacked on chips or cookies before dinner.
Jim focused on the following vital behaviors to counterattack these crucial moments. If he was going to fit a workout into each day, he would have to do it first thing in the morning. For lunch, he’d visit his company’s recently revitalized salad bar—keeping his head down and walking straight to the salad bar without glancing at the other tempting options. He also chose water instead of soda to accompany his meals. Before dinner, he made sure that fresh fruit and almonds were available to snack on.

Jim reviewed the Six Sources of Influence and found ways to plan for each.

Personal Motivation: Jim wanted to be around for his wife and daughters. He also wanted to stop taking cholesterol medication. In order to stay motivated, he kept pictures on his phone depicting his starting weight. He also created a personal statement, reminding him of how he felt when his father went in for surgery. He didn’t want his daughters to have to face a similar situation with him.

Personal Ability: Jim began using an online tracking tool called to assist him in tracking his calories as well as to better understand how many calories he was actually consuming. He finally realized what his mindless eating was doing to his health after seeing that one meal from his favorite burger joint totaled 1500 calories.
For exercise, he found videos he could do that were very structured, like INSANITY and P90X. He was much more motivated to complete his daily exercise because he didn’t have to go to a gym and try to create his own workout regimen. He was able to use the spacious workout facility at work before he reported to work for the day, ensuring he actually got his workout in.

Social Motivation & Ability: Jim’s wife was very encouraging and they planned a cruise for the following summer. He knew he wanted to be in better shape before donning a swimsuit in public. He also used the message boards on the where he read other’s contributions; he saw what others struggled with, and what methods they used to overcome those challenges.

Structural Motivation: As a reward for reaching his goals, Jim allowed himself a favorite dessert at the end of the week if he stayed on track. As he lost weight, he recognized the need for new clothing and bought nice shirts to reward his hard-earned efforts.

Structural Ability: Jim also used to track his weight loss. He entered his starting weight into the tool and made sure to weigh himself often in order to keep on top of any fluctuations he noticed.

Results: By using the Six Sources of Influence, Jim lost over forty pounds in eight months. More importantly, he no longer has to take cholesterol medication! All of his health numbers have improved, he has more energy, and his friends and family have commented on how much healthier and happier he looks.

Jimblackfront_after_150 Jimblackside_after_150