A courageous conversation can change everything

Somehow in both my personal and professional life, I seem to have become known as the person who will initiate the tough conversations when no one else is willing or feels able to do it. My loving siblings never failed to nominate me to begin the painful “It’s time to talk about…” conversations with our aging parents. I’ve lost track of the number of times members of my HR team inspired (or guilted!) me to push back on a corporate policy or decision.

Even so, it seems like the lesson about the power of a courageous conversation is one I had to learn many times for it to really stick. There are any number of tough conversations I’ve initiated, on and off the job, that I’ll never forget. That’s because my knees, or voice, or both, were shaking all the way through them.

They’re called tough conversations for a reason – they never get easy. But some of them, say an honest discussion with an employee about their behavior or performance, do get less uncomfortable with repetition.

Practice helps, of course. But for me, experiencing the positive outcome after a courageous conversation has been far more powerful in shaping a habit of saying yes to the discomfort. As Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind,” and you know it firsthand after you’ve had the right kind of conversation with a person who needs to hear your message.

A courageous conversation is just a conversation with heart; no more, no less.

If you have a heart, you can have a courageous conversation. It’s not a performance; you should expect it to get messy along the way. (That’s doubtless part of what makes it so uncomfortable for most of us.)

Here are some things to remember in order to have a successful conversation with heart. (When it goes well, you’ll both be lucky benefactors. So let’s call your partner in this conversation Lucky.)

  • Think long and hard about the outcome you want or need as a result. Be able to state it clearly and succinctly.
  • Also think about what Lucky wants or needs as a result. Understand the common ground and be ready to go back to it as often as needed to keep the conversation on track.
  • Carefully choose and memorize key words and phrases. You want to identify language that makes your intent clear and avoids making Lucky feel attacked.
  • Practice, out loud. Do it with someone you trust who can role play for Lucky, if possible. They can point out when Lucky might start feeling defensive or how else Lucky might react, so you can plan for as many contingencies as possible.
  • Spend some time thinking about what could happen during the conversation that would make YOU feel defensive.
  • Pay attention, real time, to Lucky’s reactions. At any point Lucky starts acting defensive or otherwise irrational, you’ll know you’ve tripped Lucky’s safety wire. Go back to your common ground to see if you can get Lucky feeling safe again.
  • Follow up one or two days after your courageous conversation. Be prepared to repeat everything. If Lucky did get defensive the first time through, they won’t have heard it all. The same is true for you; your own defensive filter may have gotten in the way of a full mutual understanding.

In the end, though, even if you forget everything else, your willingness to be vulnerable, to engage in the messiness, will be the best guarantee of a successful outcome.

Lorri Anderson
Lorri Anderson

Lorri Anderson is an expert consultant to businesses and a powerful coach to individuals. After a long and rich career as a strategic HR executive, she is driven to give back by changing the Human Experience in today’s workplaces, one business or human at a time.

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