‘Crucial Conversations’: Lessons for Crisis Communicators

May 1, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • The book ‘Crucial Conversations’ is a great guide to managing high-stakes conversations but it also provides useful guidance for crises.
  • Many of the same techniques the authors advise for critical conversations can be used by crisis communicators to shape messages – externally and internally. 
  • Crucially, self-awareness and introspection are key as many of the lessons require us to consider and adapt our behavior rather than simply apply a process.


The book, ‘Crucial Conversations’ by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler outlines some key concepts to help conduct high-stakes conversations when there are varied options and emotions are high. 

I first read it not long after it was published in 2012 but read it at ‘face value’ then: in the context of how to manage one-on-one conversations and recommended it to several people with that purpose in mind. However, in the intervening years, I’ve come to realize that it is extremely pertinent to organizations as they manage a crisis, situations filled with discussions that fit the authors’ definition of crucial conversations.

True crises like a major product recall, oil spill, or a foul-mouthed CEO caught on tape will impact the long-term reputation of your organization and are definitely high-stakes. There’s uncertainty about the facts, who’s at fault, what to do next, and maybe even who’s in charge so there is no end to the variance in opinions. And emotions are definitely high. 

When I realized how crises reflect the definition of a crucial conversation, I re-read the book to see how the authors’ guidance could help teams manage a crisis.

It’s best to start by clarifying what they mean by a crucial conversation: it’s an opportunity to have a free-flow of ideas to create a pool of dialogue and shared learning. 

However, these conversations should help move everyone towards a shared, mutual goal. That’s vital in a crisis because a lack of core values and shared purpose makes it difficult to establish the kind of unity of effort and speed you need to succeed



Ensuring that everyone is working towards a shared goal, and not pursuing their own agenda, is critical if you want to survive a crisis.

The next big takeaway concerns safety: people need to feel safe to speak their minds while also feeling safe to hear perspectives they might not agree with. This culture of safety encourages honesty but in an environment of mutual respect. ‘Crucial Conversations’ explains how to avoid situations where conversations are derailed because of silence – for example, participants withdrawing – or violence. In this case, it’s not physical violence the authors mean but situations where one party tries to control or attack the others.  If either silence or violence is present, then people won’t share their ideas which means that you lose vital input and people won’t speak truth to power.

(By the way, a great line from the book is “When people become furious, become curious”. I love this encouragement to look beyond anger or silence to try to understand why people don’t feel safe.)

Establishing this culture of safety takes time and won’t happen overnight: it’s an organizational thing but building that culture starts at the top. So also consider your style as a leader. Barrelling into the room and barking out orders will immediately create a hostile environment and a subdued team. That’s when people won’t feel they’re able to share their ideas which might leave the solution you’re looking for unsaid. However, if you can be open to new ideas, listen to relevant input, and work with the team, then you will help encourage open, safe dialogue. You need to be able to listen to your risk whispers and keep your ego in check.

Tied into managing your ego is a need to avoid ultimatums. Things are never as simple as ‘my way or the highway’ the authors call this a fool’s choice. Crises are complex, fast-moving situations without this kind of binary option. You need to be decisive but that usually means finding a mix of options and opinions or developing a creative third way.

A vital component of a crucial conversation is to lead with facts. There is a time for you to tell your story as the conversation develops but always lead with the facts. This can be hard in a crisis where facts are few and subject to change but, without the facts, we are left with a series of anecdotes and hunches. However, if we lead with the facts, then layer on our opinion or conclusion, it helps people understand our story and builds support.

Coupled with this is the point I mentioned before about curiosity: everyone has to remain curious and open to hearing other people’s facts. No one has a complete picture of an event in a crisis so listening to the facts that others share might help you refine your own point of view, even if you don’t completely. agree with their conclusion.

This should go without saying for communicators but remember to watch your words. Clumsy or inartful communication will at best muddy your story: at worst, this will derail your message completely. Remember how a throw-away comment by BP’s Tony Hayward that he ‘wished he was sailing’ instead of dealing with the Deepwater Horizon crisis was insensitive and hurtful to those affected and took over the narrative for several days. So, even though emotions and stress levels are high in a crisis, more than ever we need to be conscious about the words that we use, our body language, and the tone we set.

Finally, but most importantly: just listen. It’s so much of what we do in a crisis communications context but it’s easy to forget when the pressure is on. Remember the saying that we have two ears and one mouth and should use these proportionally.

As with so many of the things we find make or break our success in a crisis, these skills require introspection and self-evaluation. 

Leaders within organizations need to be crystal clear about the source of their authority, their role, and have and a real understanding of how they and others are going to react to the situation. All of this needs to be done rapidly – which is why we always stress the need for speed – but it also needs to be done with care and sensitivity. 

‘Crucial Conversations’ provides us with an excellent set of tools to help us manage any high-stakes conversation but it’s also a great source to help us understand how to be effective in a crisis. I highly recommend that you add this to your reading list.


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Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.