Reducing Difficult Conversations: Living a Meaningless Life

When we first started developing Crucial Conversations, our goal was to change the world by helping people change their behaviour. But as we started thinking about how to change the world by changing behaviour, one of the questions that came up was, “What behaviour, if changed, would make the biggest difference?”

This became our thesis question.

We knew if we could help others pay attention to those brief, ephemeral points in time and help them slightly modify how they showed up, we could change their lives, organisations, and the world as a whole.

In our research, we quickly began to notice there were moments of profound emotional complexity between individuals, but remember, our main objective was to change the world — not just help people feel more comfortable in the moments they’re uncomfortable.

So, we asked, “What is it about these moments?”

First, we learned that these are moments where something really important to us is on the table.

Second, these are moments where we expect others to disagree.

These two points combined with that emotional complexity create the scenario when a crucial conversation will occur.

I want to share some of the backstory with you because this has been not just an academic or experimental process for Ron, Kerry, David, Al and myself. It’s been very much an action-learning process. We’ve had many, many crucial conversations along the way.

A number of years back, Kerry Patterson and I were working on the chapter of a book. We’d agreed on a process where I’d take the first write, he’d do rewrites and send it back, and then we’d discuss it on the phone.

At 7:00 one Saturday night, we got on the phone for one of these conversations. Here’s how the conversation went:

JG: Kerry, did you get the chapter?

KP: Yes

JG: Well, what did you think?

Kerry: You ruined it.

JG: I didn’t ruin it. I fixed it.

KP: You didn’t fix it. It’s all disjointed now. It goes from A to E to F.

JG: It’s not disjointed. It’s meaningful now.

That conversation only took eight seconds! It happened so quickly.

The irony is, the chapter we were working on was called ‘Master My Stories’, in a book called Crucial Conversations.

We were action-learning our way through this, realising these moments mattered a lot.

The big idea that started to emerge from our work is this: You can measure the health of a relationship, a team, or an entire organisation by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems.

This began to emerge from our research, and we began looking at ourselves from that same perspective.

What about our relationships? What about our marriages? Our organisation?

What’s the average lag time between identifying a problem, feeling the emotion, and getting it on the table in a healthy way?

To put it graphically, it looks like this.

We’re all walking along through life and we find a ‘Super Awesome Goal’ we decide to go after, and we start marching happily towards it.

Inevitably, on that march we encounter these moments where crucial conversations must occur.


Because there’s something with high stakes on the table.

The instant you have a ‘Super Awesome Goal’ there will be moments when the stakes are high, people disagree, and it becomes an emotional, visceral process.

We’ve learned that the best way to minimise the number of crucial conversations you have in life is to lead a meaningless life.

As soon as you go after something important, crucial conversations will occur.

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