A crucial conversation occurs when three circumstances collide: high stakes, differing opinions and high emotions.  All of this can often lead to stonewalling, silence, eruptions or verbal violence…but can it also lead to positive results?  People getting what they want?  Absolutely.

Two books offer advice for navigating emotional waters.  Edwin Friedman’s A failure of nerve and Kenny Patterson’s Crucial conversations offer different yet complimentary view points of what a leader can do in these situations.

The video on self differentiated leaders (click here) states that the most important thing in leadership is the emotional process of regulating one’s own anxiety.

Knowing where one ends and another begins.  Refusing to let others put their anxiety on you or infect you with their fear or negativity.  If the leader is healthy, he or she can form healthy relationships with others, recognizing that they themselves are separate and different from others… like healthy cells in the body.  

Friedman’s theory of differentiated leadership is that we function like cells – we can connect with others without taking on their emotional baggage or their anxiety.  They stay separate, yet connected, even when things go wrong or there is push-back.  Another way to look at this is to view a person as having healthy personal boundaries.

People who are not well differentiated are like unhealthy cells.  They latch on to other “cells” because they have no sense of self by themselves.  They create emotional triangles of drama instead of dealing face to face with issues or people.  It is like an infectious disease that infects the whole work place.  They spread their own emotional anxiety to others.  

Differentiated leaders resist the triangle and use healthy boundaries.  Their presence alone can diffuse group anxiety.  Although a chronically anxious environment will inevitably turn on a differentiated leader because they sense a change and it threatens them, the differentiated leader stays the course in a calm manner.  This will make all the difference.  

Crucial conversations touches on situations where there is a lot at stake, emotions run high and opinions vary.  Patterson along with Grenny, McMillan and Switzler offer several steps to follow to have a successful and ultimately productive dialogue.

  • Start with the heart – What do you really want?  You need to be settled in your own mind and heart before beginning the conversation.  Stay focused on the goal.
  • Learn to look for signs that the conversation has become crucial.  Are emotions running high? Are there varying opinions?
  • Make it safe if it isn’t or if it is at risk for becoming unsafe.  If it is not safe, people revert to silence or violence.  The chance for communication will be lost.
  • Master your own stories because they affect your emotions and your attitudes towards others.  What you tell yourself about others (and about yourself) matters!  What are you believing and what do you really want?  (see more on this below)
  • STATE your path in a direct yet respectful way.  Own your feelings.  Don’t beat around the bush.
  • Explore other paths and get as much input as possible from others.
  • Move to action. Talk is cheap but not easy.  So that the effort isn’t wasted, move it from talk to action.

I think that I have learned to manage my anxiety  pretty well – I had to years ago.  But I have not mastered the art of having crucial conversations, so I chose to focus on that book.  I found it to be a helpful concept and many of the steps were things that I had seen before but not alongside all the other steps or in quite that way.

I think that  the one step I want to work on most is mastering my own story.  I have always paid more attention to others than to myself (codependent super star) so I found the three questions to be helpful:  1. Am I pretending not to notice my role?  What am I bringing here or perpetuating or creating? Am I sticking to something I need to let go of? 2.  Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this?  I should not jump to conclusions! Give them the benefit of the doubt – there must be something at play here that I do not see. Dig deeper and treat them with respect and dignity by assuming the best.  3. What is the right thing to do now to move towards what I really want?  I need to know myself and my needs in order to know what I want.  Focus on the real issue and the deeper need.  

All of this takes some honest soul searching but I think it also ties in with being a differentiated leader, one who knows themselves, is able to be separate and have healthy boundaries but also to connect in healthy ways.  I’ll be working on it…for quite awhile I’m sure.  



Friedman, E. H., Treadwell, M. M., & Beal, E. W. (2017). A failure of nerve: leadership in the age of the quick fix. New York: Church Publishing.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2012). Crucial conversations: tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.