Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Why Your Crucial Conversations Aren’t Working

Dear Crucial Skills,

What can you do if you’ve had successful Crucial Conversations with the same person several times but the behavior persists? We discuss the issues, the conversation goes well, but they never change. How should I handle the next Crucial Conversation, which may be around the corner?


Dear Merry,

You’re suffering from what I like to call Crucial Conversations “Groundhog Day.” If this is an unfamiliar reference, I encourage you to watch the 1993 classic movie starring Bill Murray.

The main character, Phil, lives out the same day hundreds of times until he handles the day in the right way. Having to repeat your Crucial Conversations can be torturous, and yet the lesson is the same. If you’re having the same conversation repeatedly, the problem is not them—it’s you. You’re having the wrong conversation.

The moment you open your mouth to hold a Crucial Conversation, you’ve already decided what to talk about. And one of the biggest mistakes we make is assuming that, because we’re talking, we must be solving the problem. It’s not that simple. If you’re not addressing the RIGHT issue, you’ll end up holding the same conversation over and over again.

Here’s the skill you need: CPR.

It’s stands for Content, Pattern, Relationship. There are three levels to consider when holding a Crucial Conversation. The first relates to content—C. Content refers to the immediate pain or single instance of the problem. But one mistake we often make is to talk about content long after content is the problem. It’s like pulling off the head of a weed and thinking we have gotten to the root of the matter.

If the problem has progressed beyond content, the “weed” will just keep coming back until we address the root issues. These deeper issues often involve a pattern, the P of CPR. The problem isn’t what recently happened, but rather that what recently happened is just one instance of a pattern. It’s been happening for a while.

Finally, there are relationship issues—the R. These are often the most difficult kind of Crucial Conversation to hold and the ones we typically avoid. You know you must address a relationship issue when things like trust and respect have been negatively affected. The vast majority of issues that people write me about are not content issues, but content issues that have been swept under the rug or ignored for so long that they have metastasized into hairy, scary relationship issues.

Before you open your mouth in the next conversation with this person, stop and honestly consider: what is the topic I need to address? Only then can you answer the question: How can I bring it up in a way that preserves or strengthens the relationship?

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

5 thoughts on “Why Your Crucial Conversations Aren’t Working”

  1. Mitra Biglari

    Thanks for your wonderful articles!
    Question, could the word ‘hairy’ in this sentence be offending to someone who is naturally hairy?

    “The vast majority of issues that people write me about are not content issues, but content issues that have been swept under the rug or ignored for so long that they have metastasized into hairy, scary relationship issues.”

    1. James Brown

      I never think the phrase “hairy situation” or “hairy problem” refers to a person who is hairy. I think it’s more like a cat’s hairball or a drain plugged up with hair.

  2. Sarah

    I should think that, with chronic offenders, the crucial conversation needs to include a specific action plan that will enforce accountability and prevent backsliding into bad habits. For example, if you have a worker who repeatedly fails to follow up on issues, you may have to ask that person to cc: you on emails or have more frequent check-in meetings. Of course, you want to present it as, “I’m not trying to micromanage you; I want to help you get over this hump and establish a more productive work routine.”

  3. James Brown

    I think the answer to this also depends on the situation. I agree with the CPR answer that Justin gives. But what if the correct conversation is happening and the recipient chooses not to change? There’s nothing in the question that indicates it’s a work relationship or that the person holding the conversation has any authority. If it’s a friend or family member sometimes we have to accept that we have had a good conversation and that still nothing will change.

    Also, these newsletter answers used to have some examples – “bringing up a Pattern problem might sound more like this…”. Even though the responses can’t give exactly what to say in each instance, I felt that the dialogue helped me understand the differences in, for instance, how a C, P, or R conversation would start.

  4. Paula M Kramer

    I’ve learned that we each have 3 groups of people in our lives. People who get what we do, people who will never get what we do, and people who could go either way. My mother and siblings are in the people who will never get what I do group. They would never respond well to any crucial conversation. They stereotyped me negatively so they could stereotype themselves positively. They’re not about to change how they see themselves.

    Crucial conversations will always fail with people who have no interest in ever getting what we do.

    I ended my relationships with my mother and siblings and have lived a much less stressful life since. They treated me like a trespasser in the lives, so they don’t miss me, either. My father loved me, but died decades ago.

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