Help for having Crucial Conversations

Zack Wavrusa

Assistant County & District Attorney in Rusk County

Have you ever been drawn into a CLE presentation by a fascinating subject and a well-credentialed presenter, only to find yourself struggling to pay attention well before the mid-way point? Welcome to Crucial Conversations. The book’s authors promise you the tools you will need for talking when the stakes are high, but their book is a largely hit-and-miss affair. The book contains plenty of good lessons for those who are looking to improve their communication with coworkers, law enforcement, and court staff; however, readers should prepare themselves to wade through a lot of filler to get to the book’s scattered kernels of helpful information.  

What is a ‘crucial conversation?’ And who cares?
This is the very first question the authors ask and, in answering the question, they do a pretty good job selling you on the idea of dedicating several hours of your life to reading the 200 pages or so that follow.1 From the start, crucial conversations are defined as conversations where 1) opinions vary, 2) stakes are high, and 3) emotions run strong. (Sounds like a lot of the conversations you’ve had with defense attorneys, doesn’t it?) Unfortunately, the aim of the book isn’t to increase your skill in adversarial communications. The authors’ primary goal is to help with communicating with those people whose goals and interest are aligned with yours. On more than one occasion, the reader is encouraged to avoid advocating his individual opinion.

Getting it right, not getting what you want
Crucial Conversations isn’t too concerned with you getting what you want. The book wants you (and the members of your team) to have all the information needed to make the best decision. In fact, it is clear that the central tenant of the authors’ program is that the higher the group IQ, the better the results.  
    With each chapter, the authors lay out techniques for fostering an environment where everyone involved in the crucial conversation feels safe providing honest and complete information to raise the group IQ. To this end, readers are given a number of different techniques for expressing their own opinions in a way that doesn’t intimidate other parties into silence or push them into an argument.  
    Throughout the book, the authors use a series of hypothetical situations and testimonials to illustrate the various failures in communication that they have set out to help you overcome. If you are like me, you will see many of your own failings in the book’s various examples. Each individual chapter builds off the chapters that precede it as the authors lay out their program for becoming a better communicator.  
    While I have no doubt that practicing what the book preaches will be easier said than done, I expect to engage in more open, productive discussions with my coworkers, law enforcement, and courthouse staff in the future. One of the most helpful tips Crucial Conversations contains is incredibly simple yet painfully difficult to practice in a profession built on advocacy. The book’s authors repeatedly emphasize the need to set aside the desire to be “right” all the time. When we are working in a team-oriented environment, the authors say that aggressive personalities or strong advocacy of one’s position stifles communication and limits the free flow of information between people. Instead, the authors encourage team members to remember why they are having a conversation: For example, “Let’s devise a trial strategy.” Then we’re to use reflective language that encourages team members to share their own opinions. I’m hopeful that a conscious effort on my part to spend less time convincing my co-counsel why my trial strategy or theme is right and to spend more time listening to his thoughts and ideas will result in a more effective trial presentation.    

Readability and the art of the up-sale
For the most part, Crucial Conversations avoids using too many “10-dollar words.” It’s written to appeal to as broad a group of people as possible. For that reason, the vocabulary used by the authors never gets too far beyond a middle-school reading level.2 
    In this regard, the book suffers when its language becomes esoteric.3 Crucial Conversations is but one book in a whole business/communication training program. In developing the program, the authors create phrases like “encourage testing” and “Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, and Prime,” and they use these phrases a lot. On more than one occasion, I found myself having to go back and look up what exactly the authors meant when they would use one of these phrases. Most chapters in the book end with what should be a helpful summary of the lessons in that chapter, but even the summaries are not free from these specialized phrases and, without meticulous notes, you may have a difficult time making use of the summaries.  
    The frequent use of these phrases, coupled with consistent mentions of the publisher’s website and other books, made Crucial Conversations feel as much like an advertisement for the larger program as a book.

Crucial Conversations has some good lessons for those who are seeking to improve their communications with the many people and many agencies that are stakeholders in the mission of a county or district attorney’s office. It is by no means flawless, though, and it likely won’t appeal to someone who doesn’t have a genuine desire to improve his skills in this area.


1  It took me about eight hours to read the book from cover to cover. In general, I consider myself a pretty fast reader but in this case, my reading was slowed by having to take excessive notes and the never-ending wave of destruction that is my 10-month-old son. 

2  I have no scientific basis for this assertion. The reading level is a blind guess on my part. 

3  #10DollarWord