Courageous Conversation Practices

“A difficult conversation is anything you find it hard to talk about…difficult conversations are a part of life.”
—Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen in “Difficult Conversations”

What difficult conversations do you typically avoid? How do you talk yourself out of speaking up? What makes difficult conversations difficult for you?

During our annual Cascadia Center for Leadership program, we ask the 28 participants how they respond to these questions. Over the 20 years we have been asking, their answers are surprisingly consistent: giving people negative feedback, being overwhelmed with emotion, not wanting to hurt others’ feelings, and damaging a relationship.

As noted in the Dec. 4 post, courageous communication takes practice. Your ability to conduct courageous conversations effectively can be developed. If you want to interact in more conscious and courageous ways, here are some tried and true practices to follow.

1. Prepare Your Internal State

Most people focus on preparing the content—what they want to say before a difficult conversation. Those are the notes, but what about the music? You will be communicating more through your tone and body language than any of your words, so take time to prepare your internal state so you are calm enough to pay attention and listen to what is going on inside you; what is going on for the other person or the group as a whole; and finally, the context in which the interaction is occurring.

For example, if you are about to have a difficult conversation with a colleague, check inside yourself and notice how you are feeling: happy, sad, glad, mad, or scared? What thoughts are running through your head: What if she disagrees with me? What if this makes things worse? And what’s going on with your body: Do I have butterflies in my belly? A tickle in my throat?

You can prepare your internal state by meditating and/or simply noticing the sensations in your body. Both of these activities quiet the brain’s Default Mode Network, the source of story spinning, especially when we are having a conversation that is difficult for us. (“She’s not making eye contact. She hates what I am saying. She never liked me anyway…”)

Meditating beforehand and noticing body sensations both before and during the conversation will also help you pay closer attention to the person or group with whom you are speaking and the context in which the interaction is occurring. For example, are people making neutral if not friendly eye contact with you Or, are they frowning and looking down at the floor? Are people under pressure to meet a deadline right now? Or are they anxious to get home because the weather is turning bad?

2. Clarify Your Intentions or Aim

Ask yourself, “What is it that I want to accomplish in this conversation, REALLY?”

  • Do I want to understand what happened, from both our perspectives?

  • Develop rapport?

  • Find out what they need?

  • Get their cooperation?

  • Maintain or strengthen the relationship?

  • Get the problem solved?

OR, is there at least a part of me that wants to…

  • Show them where they are wrong?

  • Prove I am right?

  • Scare or intimidate them?

  • Make them feel guilty or foolish?

  • Get my way, assert my authority?

If you are clear about your intention before you speak, everything flows from that. Your intention becomes your true north for a courageous conversation. The first six possibilities are more likely to lead to a constructive outcome than the last five.

3. Tell the Truth as You See It

The hard part about this practice is telling the truth without blame or judgment. It’s essential to focus on what you saw or heard (the behavior) and its impact on you or on the situation. For example, “I noticed you interrupted me a few times yesterday. I felt frustrated because I lost my train of thought. I’d like you to let me finish speaking before jumping into the conversation. Are you willing to do that?” Notice the difference between that and, “I am tired of you dominating meetings and interrupting everybody. You act like you think you are the smartest person in the room and have all the answers.”

Which version do you think a colleague would be able to take in and consider without damaging the relationship?

4. Activate Your Listening Skills

The most powerful and underutilized resource to conduct courageous conversations effectively is listening. Listening includes:

  • Restating or paraphrasing what you hear to check if your understanding is accurate;

  • Reflecting emotions or body movements (“You raised your voice when you talked about XXX. Are you excited about that?” Or, “I noticed you have looked at the clock several times. Are you concerned about the time?”)

  • Asking open-ended questions to deepen your understanding of what has been said. Watch out to not use questions to jump to solutions too quickly, e.g., “Can you give me an example of what you are describing so I understand it better?” Instead of “What do you think you should do or we should do?”;

  • Stay silent. Don’t fill in the empty spaces. Allow the process to unfold;

  • Receive what others say to you. Avoid the mistake of thinking that if you receive and understand what someone has said that you agree with it. Understanding and agreeing are two separate things. The former is key to constructive and courageous conversation.

You might be amazed at how many difficult conversations, verging on serious conflict, have turned in a positive direction through people listening to understand, using the skills noted above.

This positive turn happens for two reasons. First, when people experience themselves as being heard and understood, they calm down and feel like they are in relationship with you. Second, when people feel like they are connected to others, they feel safer and have better access to their Central Executive Network. This enables them to manage their emotions and communicate what they think more clearly.

5. Take responsibility

As tempting as it might be to say, “You make me so mad,” the truth is you made yourself mad. Each of us is responsible for our emotions in a courageous conversation and expressing them in an accountable and non-destructive manner. For example, note the difference between “I feel angry right now and need to pause a moment to clarify my thinking. This topic matters a lot and I want to share my perspective in ways that can be heard and understood.” AND, “You make me so mad. You’re not even looking at me when I am talking. You don’t care what I think.”

The first uses “I” messages that talk about what you know: what is going on inside you and what you need. The second employs “You” messages: what you are blaming the other for and the story you have made up about them. “I” messages are more likely to be heard as they also avoid escalation of the difficulty or conflict. “You” messages predictably add fuel to the fire. They can easily evoke emotional hijacking, which makes it harder for the listener to respond in constructive ways.

6. Speak Congruently

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Monitor your internal state during the conversation (this takes practice) so you can make conscious and courageous choices about what to say and still stay in alignment with your intentions.

According to cross cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, the universal causes of misunderstanding and conflict are:

  • Not saying what you mean

  • Not doing what you say

  • Not keeping “noble silence” when you can’t do the first two.

Is there a difficult conversation that you’ve been avoiding that it’s time to have? Particularly before the end of the year? If so, please read my Dec. 4 post and use the practices described here.

Wishing you many courageous conversations in your future.

*Drawing by Philip Bakelaar

1 thought on “Courageous Conversation Practices”

  1. Hi Mary,
    Thanks for this piece. There are lots of good reminders of good practice in delicate conversations. As Christmas approaches, I need to be aware of these when among certain family members!
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
    Love, Ashton

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