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INTRODUCTION

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

—GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

When people first hear the term "Crucial Conversation," many conjure up images of presidents, emperors, and prime ministers seated around a massive table while they debate the future. Although it's true that such discussions have a wide-sweeping impact, they're not the only kind we have in mind. Crucial Conversations happen to everyone. They're the daily conversations that reshape your life.

Now, what makes one of your conversations crucial as opposed to plain vanilla? First, opinions vary. For example, you're talking with your boss about a possible promotion. She thinks you're not ready; you think you are. Second, stakes are high. You're in a meeting with four coworkers, and you're trying to pick a new marketing strategy. You've got to do something different, or your company is in trouble. Third, emotions run strong. You're in the middle of a casual discussion with your spouse, and he or she brings up an "ugly incident" that took place at yesterday's neighborhood party. Apparently not only did you flirt with someone at the party, but according to your spouse, "You were practically making out." You don't remember flirting. You simply remember being polite and friendly. Your spouse walks off in a huff.

And speaking of the party, at one point during the evening you found yourself making small talk with the somewhat crotchety and colorful neighbor from an adjoining apartment. One minute he's telling you all about his shrinking kidneys; the next he's complaining about the smell of your previous night's dinner wafting through his vent. "I'm allergic to ginger, you know," he grouses. From that moment on, you end up in a heated debate over whether your right to stir-fry trumps the fact that smelling the spice makes his ears sweat. Not your most diplomatic moment. It escalates to shouting, and the neighbor finishes by threatening you with a culinary assault lawsuit while you storm off. Emotions were running really strong.

WHAT MAKES THESE CONVERSATIONS CRUCIAL?

What makes each of these conversations crucial—and not simply frustrating, frightening, or annoying—is that the outcome could have a huge impact on either relationships or results that affect you greatly.

In each of the above cases, some element of your daily routine could be forever altered for better or worse. Clearly a promotion could make a big difference. Your company's success affects you and everyone you work with. Your relationship with your spouse influences every aspect of your life. Even something as trivial as a debate over cooking smells can damage your quality of life.

These examples, of course, are merely the tip of an enormous and ugly iceberg of topics that can lead us into conversational disaster. Others include:

  • Ending a relationship

  • Talking ...

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