The usual guides to difficult conversations (like this one from HBR) all provide useful tips. What they don’t do is help you figure out what matters most in preparing for them.

What I mean: The usual guides to difficult conversations are all about subject matter, style, knowing your goals, and planning. Most of the guides I’ve run across are intended to help managers communicate better with the people who report to them.

Which isn’t a bad thing, but they’re missing three of the four points of the management compass: your peers, your service recipients (not “internal customers”), and, most important of all, those who sit above you in the corporate hierarchy.

Because they’re focused solely on those you have power over while ignoring those who have power over you, these field guides to management miss two of the most critical differentiators between utter failure and all of the other possible outcomes.

The first is to know your interlocutor.

If you’ll be talking with someone who sweats the details, be prepared to dive in deep. If you’ll be talking with someone who doesn’t sweat the details but does appreciate their importance, focus more on the big picture while preparing to expose just enough of the details to reassure your audience that you have the details covered.

In either case, whatever the difficult subject is you need to cover, plan the conversation so you transition from problem to solution as quickly as you can without creating the impression you’re trying to avoid discussing the problem. You want to make sure the other party understands the problem well enough that your proposed solution is a logical response.

And if you’ll be dealing with someone who sees only the big picture, having neither interest in the details nor an appreciation of their importance? Figure out a big-picture view of the problem and your solution, and stick to them just as well as you can.

Unless, that is, you’re in a negotiation, at which point the details are what justify your estimate of the cost.

Which brings us to another dimension of knowing the person you’ll be talking with: their temperament. You can’t plan a difficult conversation without having a pretty good bead on the other person’s disposition.

If you’re talking with a big-picture executive who is nonetheless patient, you can get away with one of my favorite threats: “You can either trust me on this, or I can explain it to you.”

If, on the other, more common hand, you’re dealing with someone who prefers the view from 100,000 feet and is known for volatility besides, prepare yourself for a blow-up, and know exactly how you’ll handle it when it happens.

How you’ll handle it is first and foremost to be unsurprised. When the person you’re talking with loses his or her cool, if you’re caught off guard nothing good will come of it. If, instead, you’re expecting it you’ll know that now is the time to stay calm and to project calm. In a confrontation between volatile and calm, calm wins every time unless projectile weapons are involved, and if they are, calm is still your best choice.

How you’ll also handle it is to not interrupt. Instead, take notes ostentatiously, making the point with your non-verbals that you’re taking your counterpart’s shouting points at face value; also that you’re entirely unaffected by such an emotive display.

And, if and when your volcanic colleague runs out of steam, summarize. “Here’s what I understand your concerns to be,” you might begin before bulleting them out. “At some point, in order to resolve the situation, we are going to have to dive into the details. Would you like me to schedule another meeting so we can do this?”

This isn’t, I want to emphasize, the only way to deal with a hothead. While a bit riskier you might also choose to hold up your hand (a useful alternative to interrupting) and, when you have the floor, to suggest that when the other person is ready for a more businesslike conversation he/she should contact you and you’ll be happy to pick up where you left off.

The point here isn’t what the right preparation is. It’s to emphasize the importance of being prepared.

Which brings up one more aspect of preparing for a difficult interaction — to have an exit strategy. The more you expect the conversation to turn into a confrontation and the confrontation to become explosive, the more important it is to have a pre-planned way to cut the interaction short.

This doesn’t have to be anything more than having a “hard stop” because of another meeting you have to attend.

And you thought meetings have no business value.

“There are reasons we have rules.”

In the long list of statements I’ve heard that set my teeth so on edge that I need an orthodontist, this one ranks near the top, because yes, there are reasons for rules. If we’d just pay more attention to the reason and less to arbitrary enforcement we’d all be far better off.

It appears Elon Musk and I agree, this being the 6th of his recently published 6 productivity rules. The other five, which revolve around meetings and how to reduce their negative impacts, are worth your time as well.

No matter how much you agree with the two of us, though, you don’t set the rules in your company. And I’d bet that even in Tesla and SpaceX, some meetings aren’t just necessary. They’re important.

Take, for example, getting approval to proceed with something or other. While there are organizations and situations where an email chain might be sufficient, there are plenty more where you don’t have the authority, you need to get it, and you won’t get it without a meeting or three.

Here are my rules when you need approval to proceed:

Rule #1: Be confident you’re right. In negotiations, “deal momentum” is a fatal mistake. Fall in love with the deal and you’re likely to get a bad one. Whatever you need approval to do, falling in love with the idea is just as likely to be fatal. You’re at risk of confirmation bias — of proposing a mistake, and, worse, getting caught at it, because you only sought out evidence and logic that supports the idea — ammunition, that is, not information.

Make sure you’ve dug deep enough that whatever unpleasant surprises might hit you while you are proceeding, that fatal ones aren’t likely to be among them.

Rule #2: Know who the approvers are. You need to do more than just look at the company’s org chart for this. You need to understand who is likely to be significantly affected by your idea, and how; you also need to understand which of them could torpedo your quest for approval, either because they have the authority to say no, or because they have strong relationships with those who have the authority to say no.

There’s political power that’s described by the org chart, and then there’s all that other political power that isn’t on a diagram but is no less real and important.

Step 3: Map and use your degrees of separation. From Step 2 you know who you need to persuade. Next you need to figure out who you know whom you need to persuade to introduce you to whom you need to persuade, or, failing that, to introduce you to whom you need to persuade to introduce you to the person they know who can introduce you.

Get those introductions and use them to schedule meetings. One on one meetings, because introducing an idea in a group meeting and asking for approval in the same meeting is futile. Nobody with any political sense is even going to ask the questions that matter to them in a group setting, let alone put their stamp of approval on it before they’ve had a chance to explore the risks and ramifications.

In a one-on-one setting they can at least explore the subject in more depth.

Keep these meetings going until you have at least a majority of the approvers you need in your camp. To the extent possible make these face-to-face, white-board-driven meetings, so you can watch how each other think and react.

Oh, and by the way — these aren’t actually one-on-one meetings. More likely they should be be two on two: You and your “subject matter expert” facing your target and her subject matter expert. A key piece of the persuasion puzzle is convincing your target you’ve explored the subject in depth. To do this you need someone in the room who can respond to questions in depth.

Your role is to direct traffic, and to make sure “depth” doesn’t turn into “rabbit hole.”

Step 4: Have “the meeting.” Now that everyone who matters agrees … or, if not everyone, enough of those who matter … it’s safe to get them together so they can hear each other agree.

It’s also safe to use PowerPoint, and to include some participants via web conferencing if that’s geographically necessary.

Seem like a lot of meetings? Seem like the bigger the organization the more meetings you’ll need?

Sorry, Elon. In most businesses the only alternative is for good ideas to die without ever getting a fair hearing.