Denver Bar Association
November 2011
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High-Stakes Communication on the High Seas

by Steven Nichols


he day before "discovering" the Western Hemisphere, Christopher Columbus did something rather modern. He called a meeting.

The trip to dry land had been longer than either Columbus or his crew had expected, and he was facing the real possibility of mutiny. He promised the crew that if they hadn’t discovered land within two days, they would turn back. The next day a scout on the Pinta saw a light in the Bahamas.

Earlier that year (you know the one), he had another high-stakes meeting. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand finally granted him the funds he needed to cross the ocean blue.

Failure in the meeting with the monarchy meant poverty and dishonor. Failure in the meeting with his crew meant death.

More than five centuries later, our meetings most commonly address the mundane, but on occasion, all of us find ourselves in a high-stakes meeting. We need a big expense approved. Our employees are threatening mutiny (the figurative kind), or a client is getting ready to jump ship.

A failure of communication with your crew during these intense conversations can have drastic consequences (dishonor, but not death). Here are three tips for thriving in intense heat and forging stronger relationships.


What are We Talking About?

Conversations have a way of drifting unexpectedly into the deep end. A simple conversation about the office party can turn into a fierce debate over bonuses.

When this happens, stop. Ask yourself, "What are we talking about here?" Recognize that the conversation is no longer trivial and deserves unequivocal focus and perfect communication. Point this out to the other party, too.


Am I prepared for a High-stakes Conversation?

In order to have effective communication in a high-stakes conversation you need three elements:

The right environment. Show the other person in the conversation that you’re taking their concerns seriously by holding the conversation in a conference room or a private area. Remove distractions and focus on effectively communicating.

The right time. Cramming too much conversation into too little time leads, at best, to a tenuous resolution or commitment, and, at worst, to spite and frustration. If a hard stop is looming, suggest a time to restart the conversation.

The right background. Good communication is based in facts, not stories.


Communication Starts with Common Ground

Columbus had something in common with his crew. He didn’t want to starve to death in the middle of the ocean. Without that common ground, he wouldn’t have survived past the Canary Islands.

He also had something in common with the Spanish monarchy. He was broke and needed money badly. Spain had just finished a war with Granada that had depleted the treasury. Both he and the monarchy needed a big win.

Two parties need common ground to arrive at a mutually acceptable conclusion. Starting from "We both want the same thing; we just disagree about the details," leads much more directly toward a decision that both parties can support.

Meetings for most of us are a daily event, an entrenched part of the business landscape. Recognizing what is at stake and addressing it appropriately can make the difference between a successful ocean crossing or foundering at sea. D


Steven Nichols works with Mission Critical Systems, a Denver training company. Please contact him with questions at (303) 383-1627, ext. 1104.

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