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The Short Story Behind Crucial Conversations

Dear Joseph,

What had the biggest impact on you writing Crucial Conversations?


Dear Backstory,

Thanks for asking! Your question gave me a chance to walk down memory lane. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Looking back, I can see experiences that likely attuned me to the crucial role of high-stakes communication.

I was pretty socially anxious growing up. I had a desperate desire to be liked. I was terrified of confrontation. When I was 17 years old, I was a partner in a small computer store. This was in 1977 when no one owned a computer. The store was often pretty quiet. One day an actual customer walked in and bought a magazine. After paying for the magazine, he lingered, looking at various products. I sat on a stool watching him because there wasn’t much else to look at. The store was one giant room, no aisles, nooks or crannies. So when he walked over to an electronic parts rack and stuffed a couple of integrated circuits into his magazine, there was no way not to notice. For a while I told myself it was just a convenient way of holding the items. Surely, he will pay for them before leaving, I reasoned against my worrying mind. As he began sidling slowly toward the door, I lost hope. I began to hyperventilate. What should I say? Would I let him steal from me without a word? I just wanted it all to go away. In desperation I walked quickly toward the door, locked it, then pretended I had business in the back room.

Thus began my career in dealing with workplace conflict.

Four years later I found myself in the middle of a software development project for a large multinational company that was going through major restructuring. The company needed to reduce operating costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. They asked me to create a database they would use to track capital investments designed to accomplish this ambitious goal. I did what I thought was a top-notch job. I interviewed all potential users. I developed great reporting options. I developed good input/output screens. I ensured all the data fields anyone could later want were included.

And no one used it.

So, I went back around to everyone to get ideas for revisions. And I revised everything they asked me to do. And still, no one used it. I was mystified. It was during my third round of interviews that a seasoned employee kindly confided, “It doesn’t matter how good your software is. No one is going to enter their projects because no one wants to be held accountable.”

It was an “aha” moment for me. I realized that everyone knew what was going on, but no one was willing to talk about it. So, they burned up tens of thousands of dollars in my efforts. And they squandered even more in a worthless restructuring effort because no one was willing to confront failure.

This experience came to mind when I first discovered there was a field called organizational development. I began to realize that organizations are human systems, and that human behavior was the determinant of success or failure in all of them. Seems so obvious when I say it, but prior to that I thought great systems, products, or strategies were the ticket to success. People were interchangeable parts.

As Kerry, Al, Ron and I began working in long-term change projects in companies around the world, we developed a consulting model that focused on finding vital behaviors. Our thesis was that there are some behaviors that matter more than others. We reasoned that if you could find behaviors that disproportionately affect performance, you’d have the key to creating profound, positive, and lasting change. Time after time, project after project, we found that the issues that undermined performance the most were not the problems companies had, it was their inability to confront, discuss, and resolve those problems.

Enter Crucial Conversations. Just as I did in my little computer store, we found it is a common human tendency to hide in the back room rather than address some of the most important issues of our lives.

Thanks for the memories!

Joseph Grenny

“If I haven’t challenged you, I haven’t helped you.” Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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