“If we could always set the ‘stage’ for a crucial conversation, these difficult discussions would be a lot more successful,” says Helene Vermaak, Director at corporate culture experts The Human Edge…

“Unfortunately that is not how the real world works, and more often than not a crucial conversation cannot be planned.”

These conversations tend to occur in less than ideal conditions – an open-plan office, a family gathering, and a restaurant – anywhere but in a private controlled environment.

We tend to avoid having crucial conversations due to less than perfect circumstances, thereby allowing ourselves to rationalise our silence.  “If we are brave enough to approach the individual and the conversation goes wrong, we are also more likely to blame the conditions rather than the discussion process,” says Vermaak.

The core principles of crucial conversations – creating safety, mastering our stories and encouraging others to share their meaning, apply regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in.  “These skills are easier to apply in an ideal environment, as we are able to be fully present, focused and attuned to our own and the other individual’s response.

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Having said that, if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can solve most conditional challenges,” says Vermaak.

Vermaak provides four tips to consider when facing challenging conditions:

Capitalise on the privacy of crowds

Instead of seeing this as a negative, remember that most of us tend to feel safe amidst people, especially if they are more interested in their own conversations than ours.

Therefore a crowded coffee shop may just prove to be an ideal setting, as it can still provide intimacy, intensity and candour.  We tend to prefer private conversations though, as they help the other person feel safe and it shows good intent.  However, a crowded place can do the same.

Walk and talk

If faced with an open plan office environment, apply the walking crucial conversation setting.  Walking while talking has its advantages, walking side-by-side takes some of the pressure off, as eye contact is not required.  Walking introduces natural pauses in the conversation, allowing both participants to gather their thoughts and refocus.  Walking also ensures that no single person will hear your entire conversation, only a snippet here or there.

Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter

By simply acknowledging the less than ideal setting it can help to neutralise it. Sometimes waiting for the perfect place and time, is just not feasible. Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter and committing to the core crucial conversation principle of good intent, can provide a buffer to poor conditions.

Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals

Crucial conversations via email or telephone are challenging, as we are not able to see the visual cues of how the other person is reacting.  This lack of visual feedback often results in us stumbling and being caught off-guard, resulting in the conversation shutting down or blowing-up.

When visual cues are not possible, you need to compensate with words and silence to be able to see how your message is being received.  For example: “I wish we were face-to-face, so that I could see how our discussion is impacting you. As we aren’t can you tell me how you are feeling about what I have said?” Remember that silent pauses are acceptable, as these give participants the opportunity to consider and respond.

Vermaak concludes, “Sometimes it is not possible to plan a crucial conversation, but I find that by remembering the rationale of ‘Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person react like this?’ always helps to keep me on track.”