The amount of conscious decisions that an average human makes in a single day is estimated at 35,000. Starting with the decision to get out of bed, or to hit the snooze button. To drink one cup of coffee or two. To take the subway, the highway, a shared ride, or city streets to work. And potentially hundreds more before you even make it into the office.

It’s no wonder that when we’re pressing people for decisions in reporting, implementation, information disclosure, or even a relatively simple decision of setting a meeting time that there’s some hesitation. We all suffer—in some way or another—from decision fatigue. But there is good news. There are ways to help decrease that hesitation. And it all involves how you set the stage BEFORE a decision needs to be made.

Most advice people have regarding decision making is along the line of, “weigh your options”, “get outside advice from a trusted source”, or “look at the cost-benefit or ROI”. That advice is fine and dandy, but it ignores one key fact: If the stage on which the decision is made isn’t set appropriately, the decision may not be the best, nor the most efficient.

Here are four steps to set the stage for productive conversations and more efficient decisions.

1: Understand Communication History

Before you have a conversation with anyone about anything there is a communication history present. That communication history may have absolutely nothing to do directly with you, but it has everything to do with how someone will decide in any situation that you’re in.

Take for example a visit to a used car lot. You have a need to buy a vehicle. Before you even make the decision to go to the lot you already have communication history with whatever salesperson will approach you first. Your past experiences buying cars. Your past experiences with salespeople. Your past experiences with a brand. Your past experiences at this lot in particular. All of those create a communication history between you and the salesperson you haven’t even met.

The same goes for you in every internal audit conversation—whether it’s with a client, an information source, a leader in your company, or a new employee—they all come to the table with a communication history that will impact you, even if it’s not about you.

To set the stage for more efficient decision-making, you need to be aware of the potential histories before starting any conversation. Do any of those histories need to be addressed? Rewritten? Until you eradicate any of these potentially negative expectations or experiences from the immediate consciousness of the person making the decision, you’re not going to get the fastest, or best, decision possible. This leads to the next step.

2: Remove the Proverbial Elephants

Now that you know what potential landmines await, you can strategically maneuver around those and avoid explosions. But to do so requires calling them out, bringing them to the surface and moving past them together with your communicative partner. This is what is known as removing the elephant from the room.

The “elephant” in this case is a piece of information or perception so obtrusive that it’s taking up a large amount of mental space—much like an elephant would take up a lot of physical space in a conference room.

Until that elephant is removed, you’re not going to be communicating with someone who is thinking on a completely rational, logical level. Part of their decision making will be clouded by, potentially, false, inaccurate, or damaging beliefs.

Personally, I’m a fan of quickly calling the elephants out and working through the issues—even if it’s an agree to disagree.

If it’s an issue that doesn’t immediately impact the situation at hand I’ll use: “Let’s agree to disagree on this issue—I can understand your hesitation, but can we talk about the situation at hand without letting that cloud our judgment?”

If it’s something where you’re not sure what elephant might exist, use: “Before we get started on X, let’s spend a few minutes talking about our expectations.” This is a good strategy because it’s still task-focused but also can bring up some issues you may not have known existed in the first place. When one of these comes up, follow up with some variation of: “Could you tell me more about that?”

Now that you’ve removed the elephants, it’s important to ensure that the environment is set properly.

3: Create the Right Environment

I’ve written about this in more detail in other articles but it is so important to stress here again—the environment in which any conversation takes place has an impact on the outcome of that conversation.

Be intentional in creating the right communicative environment. This involves making all parties involved feeling safe and secure. If we’re worried about the true intent of a meeting, the power dynamics at play, or being as close as possible to the nearest exit, we’re not listening in a way that will enable us to make the best decisions because our brain is already working on another decision. We need to create environments where our brain is able to reach a neutral state—where we can take in necessary information and process it, without worrying or processing anything else.

Consider using video conferencing instead of phone conferencing for just this reason. We tend to establish relationships faster with people when we have visual cues available to us. This way someone not only hears your voice but also sees your facial expressions and gestures. This creates a more complete picture, and helps our minds process in a different way.

4: Use “Safe Words” for Questions

Now that you’ve set the stage for a great conversation that can yield the most efficient decisions, there’s one more step in setting up the conversation—knowing what I call the “safe words” for conversational advancement.

At the onset of any meeting if you feel there is unrest of any type, start off the conversation asking a question that uses one of these words: thought, opinion, perspective,

These questions are a great way to start off any conversation because there are no wrong answers. When someone feels that they cannot say the wrong thing, the pressure is off, making it easier for someone to make the decision to disclose without fear of retribution. Here are some ways to make this happen.

“Thanks for taking the time to meet today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what would make X a successful project.”

“I’m thankful to have some time together to talk about X.  In your opinion, what’s the most important thing we need to accomplish?”

“This is going to be a great collaboration! I’d love your perspective on how we can best work together to X”

Combined, these four steps set the stage for more efficient, effective, and just-plain-better decisions. Now, when it comes to the rest of the decision-making conversation, that can involve some strategic messaging and influencing skills. Which, spoiler alert, will be the topic of my article next month.