For the last few years, I have been using a wonderful book titled Difficult
Conversations. The authors have a great web site and provide some very
useful guidance for preparing for a difficult conversation. Recently, at the
request of a client, I was asked to look over the book,
Crucial Conversations.
The authors define crucial conversations as:

  1. stakes are high,
  2. opinions vary, and
  3. emotions run strong

This definition fits many of the conversations that many of us experience
periodically, especially those of us who are involved in making changes in
our organizations. I found the book to be very insightful. The use of everyday
settings where these conversations can flair up is something we have all
experienced in our personal and professional lives. We are not always

There is also a survey you can take in the book that leads you to appropriate
chapters based on your responses. My survey basically directed me to read
the entire book. I enjoyed it all. In the book, a model is shared that describes
how “silence and violence” can disrupt the flow of dialogue into the “pool of
shared meaning.” Several chapters are dedicated to defining what the
authors mean by “silence and violence” and techniques for creating “safety”
such that dialogue can contribute to the pool of shared meaning.

The authors maintain we derive from the events we experience a “story,” that
becomes our story and our truth. In their model, this journey is described as
See/Hear, story, Feel, Act. The other person is also experiencing the journey
from their vantage point.  This discussion reminded me of
Dr. Chris Argyris’s
Ladder of Inference. Figure 1 describes the model introduced in the book on
p. 184 (adapted):
Copyright 2010 PKP, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Volume 2, Issue 2
Profound Knowledge Products, Inc. Newsletter
Crucial Conversations: Tools for
Talking When Stakes are High
Book Review
Cliff Norman, API
Figure 1:
Dialogue Model from Crucial Conversations
Click on image to enlarge
Considering the Ladder of Inference and the excellent description of the
journey by the authors as storytelling, I modified the model to describe two
people making the journey up the Ladder of Inference.  Many of us have
experienced the challenge and frustration of achieving shared meaning
when the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions are running
strong.  Figure 2 describes this challenge with only two people (ladders of
inference) attempting to contribute to the pool of shared meaning. The
more people involved, the more challenging our task becomes.

How can we manage this journey to shared meaning with more people?
Argyris has provided us with Four Learning Norms which have proven
useful in such situations. Using the learning norms we can ensure that
we understand the storytelling journey that each person is using to
contribute to the pool of shared meaning.
Mary Parker Follett, a great
management thinker from the 1930s, suggested that it is best when
entering an argument or disagreement between two or more people, that
we start with the premise that everyone is right; right from their vantage
point in the system. Each person has a story based on their own
experience/data and how they individually process and filter this
information given their personality type. The ladders represent this
journey. The learning norms are designed to take people back to the base
data/experience and then discuss the journey up the ladder, to
understand the story of each person in the issue. I have included the four
learning norms in Figure 2 which has been adapted from the authors’
original model in Figure 1:
Figure 2
Modified Model from Crucial Conversations with Ladder of Inference
Dr. Michael Maccoby has taught me that many popular books that espouse
techniques for getting people to work together better, often omit the theory
of personality types. Books of this type often present ideas and tools that
may be suited for one personality type (usually the type of the authors) that
may not work at all for another personality type, but in fact may make
matters worse. Including the theory of personality types, would make this
book far more powerful but longer. The following link will take you to an
excellent article that discusses personality intelligence by Dr. Maccoby:
by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
If you do read Crucial Conversations, the read will be much more interesting
with some background on the personality types. Enjoy!
Click on image to enlarge

  1. On Organizational Learning, 2nd Edition, Chris Argyris, Blackwell
    Publishers, 1999
  2. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap – How Managers Can
    Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not,
    Chris Argyis, Oxford University Press, 2000.
  3. Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker
    Follett (London: Pitman, 1973)
  4. Narcissistic Leaders – Who Succeeds and Who Fails, Michael
    Maccoby, PhD, Random House, 2003.
  5. Difficult Conversations – How to Discuss What Matters Most,
    Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Harvard Negotiation
    Project,  Penguin Books, 2000