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Crucial Conversations

Joseph's college roommate, Aaron Weiner, recommended this book. He is Dr Aaron Weiner now, having received his PhD in Psychology. He was instrumental in helping a close friend recover from a mental episode. He will always be a close family friend. Here is our summary and key takeaways from the book which we highly recommend to everyone as a tool for handling emotionally charged conversations.


We have all been there... a conversation that started pleasant enough until someone's emotions were pricked by an innocent (or perhaps not so innocent) comment. The moment emotions start to run high is the moment the conversations become crucial. What we say and do in these situations is far more important than usual.

People don't like being told what to do. People want to be consulted so they have a chance to help determine the solution. The best way to do this is to create an environment of open dialogue. Get all the ideas out on the table. Let everyone be heard.

Open dialogue allows the best ideas to be distilled from all possible perspectives. However, being confronted with ideas different from your own can be challenging. It is easy for emotionally charged discussions to turn into arguments in which we feel attacked.

The best solutions come from people with common purpose sharing different perspectives in an environment of mutual respect.

So lets take this point by point

1) Best Solutions ... CC says that when it comes to important decisions we should work together. We will reach better solutions when we share our thoughts openly.

2) Common Purpose ... CC says we can do this by recognizing our common purpose. For example, parents with very different opinions on how best to raise kids can both agree that they want what is best for their kids.

3) Different Perspectives ... CC says we need to be humble. We can't assume we know what is best. We need to listen to each other and gather data. This way we can make more informed decisions.

4) Mutual Respect ... CC says that we should always show mutual respect for each other. Here are two quotes: We cannot succeed unless we can control emotional reactions to crucial conversations. When we let our emotions take over, we run the risk of saying and doing things that show a lack of mutual respect.


Crucial Conversations reflects the spirit of why we started this blog. Here is an excerpt from our home page:

Communication is a challenge in every marriage. Add extreme cultural differences, language barriers, stereotypical gender differences, and polar opposite personality types and...well...let's just say it hasn't always been smooth sailing. Looking back its probably safe to say that our marriage should have come with a warning label.

We go on to talk about how openness to learning from each other has been the key to "finding the east west equilibrium" (EWE). Having the same values helps us to listen because we know the other person wants the same. By being humble we can allow our deeply held beliefs to soften. Mutual respect helps us to be patient with views/comments that we might otherwise discount or take the wrong way.

We may need to take a break...but we need to eventually finish our crucial conversation because the best solutions require sharing different perspectives. We can gain the strength to share openly, and without feeling attacked by agreeing on shared goals (i.e. common purpose, principals...all the same thing).

That probably sounds nice...but anyone who has been married long enough knows that nicely written...almost cliche... comments about communication can often fall flat in practice. So here is a real world example:

Example for Parents

We (Mom and Dad) disagreed pretty strongly about whether the girls should be allowed to share the same room. This was right after Christmas break and she was worried the girls wouldn't get enough sleep. Mom knows how important it is to have a good sleep schedule, and she was concerned the girls would get off to a bad start at school. Moreover, Aila's room (the one they wanted to share) is right across from ours so Mom was worried their giggling would keep us up as well.

This came up during a Sangha. We were asking the girls what was on their minds and they both opened with a well reasoned (possibly rehearsed) argument for why they should share a room. They pointed out that they had been sharing a room over break and had not had trouble going to bed on time. They also said they felt comforted by the other's presence and as a result slept better.

Dad sided with the girls...mostly because Dad holds the strong belief that everyone should do what they want as long as they are not hurting anyone else. In a moment of silly self-righteousness, Dad exclaimed, "Who am I to tell them otherwise?"

Mom correctly pointed out that as parents we are exactly the people who should be telling them otherwise. Kids need limits...and Dad's admiration for John Adams is not necessarily the best guiding light for parenting decisions.


We were at an impasse, but then decided to try using our summary of Crucial Conversations as a framework for resolving the disagreement.

1) Best Solutions ... We agreed that the best solution would become more apparent if we agreed to share our thoughts more openly.

2) Common Purpose ... We agreed that we ultimately wanted the same thing, namely for our kids to get a good night sleep and not keep us up with their giggling.

3) Different Perspectives ... We agreed that we both had important perspectives. Moreover, we agreed that the kids might have very different preferences. This turned out to be a crucial insight that broke the impasse.

4) Mutual Respect ... We agreed to listen patiently. Even if it did erupt into a 15 minute oratory on the rights of all people to have liberty! (as Dad tends to do from time to time)


Mom shared a story about growing up in the countryside of China. She was poor and sometimes did not get enough to eat. She grew up sharing a bed with her little brother. It was hard for Dad and the kids to really wrap our heads around her experience. Sometimes her baby brother would wet the bed or cry in the night. It was easy for the girls to understand why she would be concerned about them sharing a room after hearing her story.

After feeling understood, it was also much easier for Mom to listen to the girls. Aila correctly pointed out that it's been many years since she wet the bed, and that even if she did they are sleeping on different mattresses. Sumay pointed out that the two of them are also much closer in age (Mom is seven years older than her little brother).

In the end we agreed to let the girls share a room, BUT only if they ALWAYS went to bed on time, didn't keep each other up, kept getting good grades...etc.

The story has a beautiful ending. This morning we asked the girls how they have been enjoying the new arrangement and they erupted into a game they invented called "Mindcraft"...not the video game "Minecraft", but a game about imagining their own dream world. It's a consideration we hadn't thought about, and one possibly inspired by our new interest in meditation.


Favorite Quote: "Surely you’ve been there before: you’re having a normal conversation when suddenly, one ill-chosen word from a certain person in a certain situation makes you lose it – even though they never would have intended to make you angry. Reactions like these are the result of an incorrect interpretation of the situation. When what you think deviates from the actual facts. In order to reach a solution, you must learn how to overcome this hurdle. One easy way to do this is to ask yourself whether you’re misinterpreting someone’s words whenever you start to feel your emotions flare up. And be sure to separate your explanation from your emotional response so you can stay level-headed."



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