How 10% of Conversations Ruin Results and Relationships

It’s safe to say that 90% of your communication is awesome. In regular, routine, and casual conversation, most of us do great!

We give instructions. We ask for clarification. We paraphrase. We ask people to repeat the messages we misunderstand. We repeat messages so others understand. We’re handling those types of conversations like the experts would recommend!

How do I know? Well, in 1990, VitalSmarts began researching effective communication. We’d go into businesses and organisations and ask people to identify the best communicators in their workplace. Then, we’d observe them to see how they communicate so effectively.

Over 12 years, we clocked more than 10,000 hours of observation watching master communicators at all levels of organisations — executive, middle-level management, first lane supervisory, and below.

We wanted to know (union leaders or not, profit or nonprofit, government or private sector), how do the very best communicators do what they do?

We identified 29 interpersonal skills, named eight primary strategies of communication, and gained many other helpful insights. But we also found that the way we handle crucial conversations makes all the difference in our results and relationships.

The 90/10 Breakdown

See, about 90% of our communication is routine, regular, and casual. And we do really well at it!

Keep doing what you’re doing! That’s why you’re as successful as you are.

But what about the other 10%? These are the conversations that aren’t regular, routine, or casual. These are what we call “crucial” conversations.

And this is where we see people melt-down. Reasonable, rational people do silly things, awful things they later regret in that 10% realm of communication. They give the silent treatment. They throw tantrums. They get violent. They bully and threaten. And later, they’re usually very sorry for it.

So, what happened to our great communication skills? If we’re so good at our regular conversations, why are these 10% conversations so hard?

At VitalSmarts, we decided to study those tough conversations to really understand their implications. We asked, “If tough conversations were handled differently, would it make a difference?” Here’s what we found.

How 10% Conversations Made a 100% Impact

I was asked to work with an executive team that was “struggling.” So, I started by interviewing the team members.

I sat down with the first person and asked, “So, what’s the problem with the team?”

“The CEO is the problem with the team.”

“What’s the problem with the CEO?”

“He’s authoritarian. He’s a micromanager. He won’t listen. He’s abusive.”

“Give me an example. How is he abusive?”

“In last week’s team meeting, he called me an S.O.B. — only he didn’t bother to abbreviate it.”

“That doesn’t seem appropriate.”

“I thought not, but that’s not all…”

Then, he gave me an entire list of crude phrases, threats, and ultimatums this CEO had used publicly. I took notes and thanked him for the interview.

I sat down with the next team member and asked, “What’s the problem with the team?”

“The CEO is the problem with the team.”

Then she gave me the same list of complaints.

By the time I interviewed each team member, they were in unanimous agreement about what (and who) was the problem. Finally, I had the chance to interview the CEO.

I asked, “What’s the problem with the team?”

He said, “You know, I haven’t quite been able to figure that out. I’m not sure what’s wrong, but we’re just not coming together.”

“Interesting… How would you characterise your leadership style?”

“Me? Oh, I’m patient. I like people. I’m a good listener. I give people high degrees of freedom so they can find their own best way to do their job. I guess you’d call me a participative leader.”

“Oh, that’s so interesting.” Then, I flipped through my notes. “Have you ever called anyone an SOB?”

Then I went down the list.

He chuckled, “Whoa. Guilty as charged. But you’ve got to understand something — that only happens on the rare occasion I get really upset and then I quickly apologise.”

Why were their descriptions so different? Were they even describing the same person? The team members were describing their CEO as he acted 10% of the time. The CEO described himself as he acted 90% of the time.

Later, through my observations, I even verified those numbers. Ninety per cent of the time, the CEO was patient and a good listener. But 10% of the time, he was different. And those were the conversations that had the most impact. The 10% conversations literally formed the relationships and became barriers to results.

Would the same principle be true in say… Parenting? Marriage?

The way we handle those 10% conversations is critical to our relationships and results. Think of the relationships at work you wish would get better. Think of the results you wish your team could achieve. With the right tools to navigate the 10% conversations, improved relationships and results are possible.

After all, these aren’t just difficulttough, or fierce conversations — these are crucial conversations. Crucial to results and crucial to relationships.

Latest Blog Posts

Stop Apologising

Have you found yourself in a relationship where you find yourself constantly apologising and feeling like you’re being taken advantage of? Genuinely expressing sorrow and


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Improve communication, habits, productivity and more with weekly insights and tips from our authors and experts.

Join our 10,000+ community.