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How to have courageous conversations

Research from MetLife tells us that 77% of employees who have supportive managers say they feel mentally healthy versus only 47% of workers who don’t receive that support.  But research by Circle In shows that managers are increasingly overwhelmed by the type of conversations they are being involved in.

Traditionally unspoken topics such as mental health, domestic violence, divorce, pregnancy complications are increasingly entering the workplace vernacular, and there’s a sharp rise in contentious topics such as vaccination mandates, climate change, reproductive rights or marriage equality.

As this evolution of what constitutes a ‘normal’ workplace conversation continues to progress, our leaders and teams need revised tools and techniques to ensure they can have courageous conversations about topics that are new or taboo. These new or taboo topics are on top of the traditional feedback and bad news conversations that required us to have a courageous conversation in the past – but they haven’t gone away, and they still prove difficult to most of us. Part of the reason we avoid difficult conversations is our entrenched desire for harmony.

From a survival perspective, our brains are programmed to preserve relationships, which is why we can feel resistance to tackling certain topics in case we say anything that might threaten our relationship with others.  But an age of tagging, tweeting and texting combined with sudden and prolonged social distancing has changed how we have these conversations, and how we choose to engage: what we’re prepared to risk or how deeply we need to connect to make it feel real again.  It means we are sharing more confronting issues, and we are prepared to argue for what we believe in – all of which goes against the grain of that prehistoric desire for harmony. Courage is derived from the Latin word Cor which means heart.  It takes great courage to have one of these conversations, and it’s why so many of us avoid doing so.  Here are three considerations to help you have a courageous conversation.

Take heart

A courageous conversation improves your personal health and happiness, as well as enhancing corporate performance and team culture.

  • Health: they allow you to express and release frustration and stop tension building up. 
  • Happiness: a Chinese/US study demonstrated that when employees expressed their frustration in a regular and structured way, it increased their happiness in the workplace.
  • Performance: challenging the status quo takes courage – yet that is what sits behind almost all innovation, identifies mistakes, and prevents errors or accidents.
  • Safety: it takes courage to tell someone they are doing something wrong, but that very courage is what saves lives at work.
  • Culture: diverse teams flourish when differences are celebrated rather than repressed, so when challenging topics can be discussed without the need for courage, that’s evidence of both inclusion and psychological safety.  

Acknowledge what you’re scared of – because if you weren’t experiencing some fear, you wouldn’t be perceiving this as a conversation that needs courage. There’s a range of things that might be making you fearful. Their reaction and having to deal with it is a common fear. If it’s a formal conversation, many people fear making a mistake or doing it wrong. Another common fear is losing an argument, looking stupid or being proved wrong. Once you label these fears, you take a big step into your courage – you are literally feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

Use your heart

Share your fears. By speaking them out loud when you open your conversation, you’re sharing your own vulnerability and at the same time, laying down some rules for engagement – the things you explicitly want to avoid as a result of this conversation.

Practice your empathy – you don’t need the answers to start the conversation, but you do need empathy.  If you enter the conversation with empathy for what might be happening to them, what their reality might be, and what perspective they might have, you’ll find yourself in a different head space – and a far more collaborative one.

It’s a material shift from using your head to using your heart, and for many leaders especially, it’s a challenge to be ok with being vulnerable or not having a solution for someone’s problem.  For many leaders, this is an area of significant strain.

Listen to the hearts of others

Acknowledge that much has changed since the pandemic, and this means that taboo topics, once-predictable reactions and long-held beliefs are all likely to not be where they were two years ago.  And this means we have to start over in our understanding of what people want and where they are coming from.  Before you need to have a courageous conversation, try having a curious one. Ask questions about what people want, feel and believe now compared to what they did before Covid. This way you’ll all feel your way around potential reactions in a neutral space, before it matters. 

There are many topics that some people are happy to discuss at work today but would not have done in the past. And there are plenty of topics that some people will react poorly to. Rather than make a guess based on out-of-date assumptions, why not investigate now?

Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’, is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level.

Keen to learn how to communicate with impact or develop more emotional intelligence in the workplace? We run a full schedule of short courses aimed at the skills needed for the future workplace. Click here to see what is on offer.


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