Most of us have either witnessed or found ourselves involved in work-based conversations that suddenly seem to erupt into verbal pyrotechnics and turn into conversational meltdowns.

Other times, there are conversations that are intended to be about important work-related matters, but everyone in attendance nervously knows that the interlocutors involved have a history of antagonism bordering on hostility. You can almost smell the mutual animosity – and perhaps fear – smouldering in the background, and you know that just one spark will be enough to cause the whole thing to ignite.

Whether we are witnesses or co-authors of conversational disasters like these ones, we tend to believe that they’re unstoppable. However, the reality is that the apparently volatile chemistry fuelling them is a good deal more fragile than it superficially appears. It’s true that there are several paths to conversational Armageddon, but it’s equally true there are many more opportunities for dousing the glowing embers and interrupting the downward helter-skelter slide.

Before I go into what can be done to prevent these cataclysms, I’ll mention a caveat. I’m assuming that the participants are essentially psychologically healthy people. What I’m about to suggest will be sabotaged if one or other of the participants is, say, a malignant narcissist or an intelligent sociopath. A therapist may be in order here, not a meeting-saving intervention.

What is to be done? Writing in the Harvard Business Review, business performance expert Joseph Grenny identifies five key interventions for what might be called “verbal fire prevention”.

The first is straightforward: if you’re a co-author of the conversation, be brave enough to take open responsibility for your part in the process before it gets too close to the “overheat” zone. As Grenny puts it:

“If you are taking the conversation in a direction you don’t want, pause and change that. Own up to what you’ve done and apologize for compromising your values. For example, ‘I’m getting loud and aggressive. I’m sorry. I don’t want this to be a competition.’”

I’ll walk you through the other four interventions to prevent conversational meltdowns in Part Two of this series.

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