If you look at my list of favorite books of 2003, you'll notice that over the past year I've been a student of conversation and relationships. I've been especially interested in how we can make our conversations more rewarding for ourselves, for others, and for our relationships. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler helped me to make a big leap in that direction, and that's why it is my favorite book of 2003.

A few years ago my friend Kay Pentecost, knowing of my deep interest in communication and relationships, recommended Crucial Conversations very highly. I bought the book a few months later, and finally read it in September, 2003. Of the ton of helpful ideas in Crucial Conversations, I found four most helpful: starting with heart, filling the pool of shared meaning, safety, and stories.

Starting with heart means clarifying your purpose in the conversation. Before starting the conversation, ask yourself, What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? What do I really want for the relationship? If a conversation becomes difficult, return to your purpose by asking the questions again, and by asking, How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

Filling the pool of shared meaning. The authors define dialogue as the free flow of meaning between two or more people. We each enter a conversation with a personal "pool of meaning", the combination of our opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic. "People who are skilled at dialogue," the authors say, "do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool."

Safety. What makes safety important? "At the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information." When people feel unsafe in conversation, that flow is blocked. "As people begin to feel unsafe, they start to move down one of two unhealthy paths. They move either to silence (withholding meaning from the pool) or to violence (trying to force meaning in the pool)."

Crucial Conversations offers many ways to test and maintain safety. One key idea is that if we want to maintain safety, we must attend to two "safety conditions." The first is mutual purpose. We can maintain mutual purpose partly by "starting with heart." The second safety condition is mutual respect. "In essence, feelings of disrespect often come when we dwell on how others are different from ourselves. We can counteract these feelings by looking for ways we are similar." The authors say that in many cases, "If you simply realize that your challenge is to make it safer, nine out of ten times you'll intuitively do something that helps."

Stories. Like several other books I read in 2003, Crucial Conversations emphasizes the importance of stories in our communications and relationships. "Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. That is, we add meaning to the action we observed. To the simple behavior we add motive. Why were they doing that? We also add judgment—is that good or bad?"

This sequence is very similar to Virginia Satir's Ingredients of an Interaction, the model of communication that I describe in my article "Untangling Communication." I like the author's use of the word story here, because it gives me a richer, more dynamic way to talk about how we make meaning.

My review has only scratched the surface. I highly recommend Crucial Conversations. And Kay, thank you so much for recommending this book so strongly.