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Courageous Conversations


How do you feel knowing you must have a difficult conversation at work?  I tested this at a talent leader conference recently, and here are the words that came to mind: challenging, uncomfortable, avoid, and necessary were offered up in muted tones.  I then asked the audience what words came to mind when they considered having a ‘courageous conversation’.  More positive responses included: brave, leadership, trust, and honesty.  

When I returned to Australia in January, having spent time building a career abroad, I jumped into networking and talent events.  I wanted to meet professionals in my field, exchange ideas and understand the agenda of Australia’s talent leaders.  Over the months, I spotted a theme in the challenges people raised.  And it wasn’t what you think.  Some of the things I heard: our leaders speak about diversity equity and inclusion but don’t walk the talk; our leaders claim one thing, but working here is another story; the people we’re hiring then leave, and the C.E.O. doesn’t want to hear it; people don’t want to be told when to be in the office, so they’re walking.  We have a new C.E.O., it’s their first gig, and talent is the last priority.

Talent leaders were struggling to feel seen and heard by the C-suite.  Despite mastering tough conversations daily, leaders were not having courageous conversations where it counted or where it impacted them.

Research among leaders by Brené Brown in Dare to Lead showed that the No. 1 barrier in the workplace was “avoiding tough conversations, including giving honest, productive feedback”.  Some leaders blamed a lack of courage or skills.  Others referred to a culture of ‘nice and polite’, one that I have personally experienced.  In a Coaching at Work article in 2018, research showed that “almost two-thirds of leaders are unable or unwilling to have the courageous conversations needed to address issues.  Two in ten leaders cannot have the conversation without using an aggressive style.  And only one in ten has conversations with clarity and purpose rather than blaming or shaming the other.  

As a Dare to Lead trained talent leader and executive coach, I help people to build awareness and the skills to lead authentically.  Building the skills for courageous conversations sits squarely within this frame.  These skills are not routinely taught, yet, once we know them and experiment, we build grounded confidence and a culture of trust.  Here are four skill sets I recommend to clients:

1. Start with clarity
The first step is to get the drama out of your head and see the direction you wish to take.  If you’re at a crossroads, apply these questions, called the Cartesian Coordinates, to your situation.  Exhaust all answers, and the path will emerge like magic:

What will happen if I (do...?) What will happen if I don't (do...?)
What won't happen if I (do...?) What won't happen if I don't (do...?)

Clarity in your message is also essential.  As Brené Brown says: ‘Clear is kind.  Unclear is unkind’.  Or in this more poetic version, one of my favourites: ‘Speak kind truths.  Speak the truth kindly.  And don’t speak kind untruths’.

Brown’s research found that “we avoid clarity because we tell ourselves we’re being kind when what we are actually doing is being unkind and unfair.  Feeding people half-truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.  Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind.  Talking about people rather than to them is unkind.

2. Know yourself
Know what it is that you want.  Understand your role in the situation.  Have a very clear sense of your values and your strengths.  You’ll need to draw on both for ballast and to perform at your best when courage is required.  Finally, explore the emotions and physical responses you feel when called to courage.  If you weren’t raised in the language of emotions, extending your vocabulary is easy now with apps like MOOD METER  from research at Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence.   

3. Foster the ‘trust’ element of a trusted advisor

What’s your objective for the relationship?  How do you want the other person to think and feel?  Are you clear on your intention?  It also helps to remember and act on what’s in your control.  For example, your thoughts, feelings, choice of words and how you show up vs the behaviour, thoughts and emotions of others.

4. Build rumble skills
I know this is clunky, but it’s a game-changer, so worth paying attention to.  In Brown’s Dare to Lead, she explains: “A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and geneThis is my responsibilityrous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard”.  But my favourite definition of a rumble is the Merriam-Webster transitive verb: to reveal or discover the true character of’.  Put more simply, a rumble signals to those involved the need to show up with an open heart and mind and engage in a challenging conversation that serves the work and each other -vs- the egos in the room.

Once you experiment and play with these skills, you’ll quickly build confidence and inspire others.  Dialling up your curiosity also shifts your focus from ‘fixing’ to understanding.  Approaching conversations with openness vs the need to be right is something that I wish I’d learned much earlier in my professional life.

The paradox is that many executives and leaders are well-versed in the hard stuff and have courageous conversations with employees, vendors, candidates, or senior stakeholders every day.  From listening to the leaders I spent time with this year, I believe it’s time to build new skills and apply the tools from research and the science of positive psychology to evolve our capabilities. 

As organisations seek increased performance, engagement, retention and a positive culture of trust, courageous conversations are more critical than ever. So experiment with one or more of these ideas, and let me know how they work for you.

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author. This article provides general information, does not constitute advice and should not be relied upon as such. Professional advice should be sought prior to any action being taken in reliance on any of the information.