Crucial Conversations: A Crisis Is A Terrible Time To Talk

A crisis is a terrible time to talk, and here is why.

For thousands and thousands of years almost every crisis a human faced was a physical. Think about it.

  • We were hunting a wooly mammoth or running from a tiger.
  • We were using a spear or running from a spear.

We have been trained to very quickly go into crisis mode – fight or flight – when a crisis exist, and for very good reason. These are not situations where we have time for a lot of thought. This “training” takes on some very real physical attributes.

The hairs on the back of our neck actually do stand up. Then our adrenal glands start pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream. Blood in our brain literally moves away from cognitive thought processes and into reactive parts of the brain responsible for fighting or running. Blood also rushes to our muscles and our brain gets even less. Lastly, to help us all survive, this reaction spreads to those around us. Simply seeing someone else in crisis makes us go into crisis mode.

All of this served us very well when almost all our crisis situations were physical and they still do serve us well in a physical confrontation. If someone breaks into your house with a knife, you want all this to happen so you can protect your family.

The problem is, most of our crisis today are not physical, they are crucial conversations and situations, but often our bodies still react in exactly the same way. This is a problem, because the outcomes are going to be disastrous nearly every time. Consider the table below.


Body’s Physical Reaction
To Adrenaline

Effect During A Physical Threat

Effect During A Crucial Conversation

Increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure

Intensity of emotions increased

Decide based on feelings, not thought out. Words are not chosen well. Our enunciations are laced with emotion.

Redistributing blood to the muscles, expanding the air passages of the lungs.

Increased physical strength and endurance

We can argue much longer than is good. We can go off on tangents for far too long.

Increased activity in the reactive part of the brain and away from cognitive thinking

Make quick reactive decisions.
Brain needs to WIN NOW!

Extreme sense of urgency.

We want to win this argument even if it hurts our long term cause or situations

Skin becomes flushed or red, enlarging the pupil in the eye

Warns those around us there is a physical threat. Scares predator away, brings friends to our aid.

Causes others in the conversation to also go into crisis mode. Conversation nearly impossible.

In short, we face our crucial conversations with the intellect and thoughtfulness of a grizzly bear.

OK, so we know this happens, what should we do about it.

  1. Recognize when a conversation is crucial. This may be easier said than done but if you look for just a few things, you can do it.
  1. Is the subject or situation something that is important to me?
  2. Have my words suddenly become stronger? Often people have certain words they normally don’t use but when they start into crisis mode, the words come out. (Hint: if you language is normally laced with expletives, stop using them and then when you do you’ll know you are in a crucial conversation)
  3. You step forward, move forward in your chair or cross you arms in front of you.
  4. You interrupt the person who is speaking.
  5. Any of these things are done by the person you are speaking with.
  1. Listen actively. If you sense the conversation is crucial, you can listen actively.
  1. Closely listen to the person and let the completely finish their thoughts.
  2. Then you say, “Just so I’m sure I understand you correctly: You’re telling me…” and paraphrase what they said back to them. This gives you time to actually think and, if you sincerely want to understand them, they will know you care, and will often calm down.  Responding with sarcasm does NOT count as active listening!
  1. Exit the conversation well. In this move you want to not make a decision or say anything you may regret, but also not just ignore the conversation or situation.
  1. “I’m sensing we both care a lot about this. I think we should take a little time here to think out what we really want to accomplish. Let’s not talk about this anymore not but get back together in an hour and at that time start by considering our long term goals first.” This method does the following:
  1. Takes a break from the immediate crisis.
  2. Recognizes it is important by setting a follow up time.
  3. Changes the emphasis of the conversation from this minute to long term.

Special consideration for couples, business partners or teammates! Often times these skills are used the least with people we care about the most or have the most “on the line” with. Why? Because our emotions are strong with these people and we expect them to listen better to us. This simply isn’t true.

So with those closest to you, agree on a word or phrase anyone can say that will end the current conversation and signal that everyone should retreat to separate rooms or safe places. This will only work if it is respected and strictly obeyed by EVERYONE, EVERY TIME, NO EXCEPTIONS. If you do this though, it is very powerful. After a while the sense of respect you have for each other goes up dramatically and your ability to discuss important things while remaining calm is greatly improved. You both will have a greater sense of security around each other and you will be far more open. But if you break the “rule” and don’t end the conversation when the other person asks you to, you lose their trust, respect, and ability to have crucial conversations. This is a big deal!

All this comes from a fantastic book called Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson. I strongly recommend it to everyone. You can all attend courses. See

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