What NOT To Say At Gunpoint: Crucial Conversations and My Kenyan Vacation

Sometimes we struggle to have tough conversations, especially in high stakes situations when what we say matters more than any other time.

Have you ever said the wrong thing in a tough situation? I know I have.

In August 1999, I took my family to Nairobi, Kenya. I’d recently visited and fallen in love with the country and I wanted my family to experience its beauty as well. So, off we went to spend our holiday in Kenya.

During that time, however, there was some unrest. Our trip coincided with the one-year anniversary of the US Embassy bombing in Kenya in 1998 that took over 200 lives. Think of being in New York City on September 11, 2002, as its equivalent.

Naturally, people were nervous and uncomfortable.

After a week in a foreign country, my family had grown tired of the unfamiliar food so we found a mall with a hamburger restaurant. As they served our food, they also brought my three-year-old son a balloon. When we finished eating, I realised I was short on local currency so we walked through the mall until we found a bank.

The bank was located in a dark corridor designed strictly for security — floor-to-ceiling bulletproof glass with patrons on one side and employees on the other. There were no decorations, just the linoleum floors, line formations, and small slots in the glass to pass documents and currency to the teller.

As we finally reached the front of the line, an armoured truck arrived. Two men with machine guns stepped out to escort a person with bags in and out of the bank. Now, besides the latent tension in the room, everyone became keenly aware of the armed men.

My son and I stepped forward to the teller, and I let go of his hand to get cash from my pocket. As I moved my hand, he lost his grip on the balloon.

This is when things got really interesting.

The balloon lazily floated towards the ceiling and as soon as it made impact… KA-BOOM!

Everyone on our side of the glass dropped to the floor. Everyone on the other side of the glass dropped too. The only people left standing were me, my son, and the guys with the guns… who now had them pointed at me.

This wasn’t a situation I was used to!

The only thing I could think to say was, “It was him!” as I pointed at my little boy.

I didn’t intend to blame my three-year-old, but that was the best I could do on short notice!

Nearly any other words would have been better. Yet, in the heat of this high-stakes situation, the right words were nowhere to be found.

How often do we fail to say or do the right thing when the risks are high?

Tough conversations are inevitable — that’s not the issue. The issue is how we act during those moments of disproportionate influence — when our words and actions will disproportionately affect the moments that follow.

These are the moments for which HR exists. We help leaders build a team that accomplishes the organisation’s mission. HR doesn’t exist to select, recruit, develop, retain — those are just means by which effectively accomplish the mission.

Some of the most extreme risks are moments when people have to talk about something because the circumstances are tough. And research shows that when there’s more at risk, people don’t behave as effectively as they could.

That’s why Crucial Conversation skills matter. We can’t always predict when a risky situation will arise, but we can be prepared to handle those situations in a skillful, productive manner that benefits everyone involved.

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