Communication Managing Self

Ten winning steps to having a courageous conversation

Written by Jasbindar Singh

Do you have a difficult conversation “waiting in the wings” to be had with a colleague, direct report, manager,  spouse, friend and or family member?  Are you finding that merely thinking about this is activating a whole host of feelings, thoughts and reactions?

Common reactions include,  “ I don’t want to rock the boat”, “What if it comes out all wrong?”, and or  “What if it affects our relationship for the worse?”

What reactions come up for you?

Deep down you know all is not well because you are thinking about the particular issue over and over again.

“Maybe I could say this”, or “Last time that happened, I should have said ….”

And while you may be expending a lot of time and energy running through the various scenarios in your head, that is as far as you go!

The mental pre-occupation is in itself a good indicator that some action is called for.   As a wise person has said, “Whatever you resist, persists.”

If we don’t have the conversations we need to, we can be sure that the relationship over time, will diminish as we withdraw, give up, remain falsely polite or things blow up unexpectedly at the most inopportune moment.  And then it is a major.

It is only through having a courageous conversation that we learn about the elasticity, bounce and depth of the relationship.

So you may be wondering, where do I begin?

In the words of Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations “While no one conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of your career or life, any single conversation can.”  

You have more chances of a successful conversation if you put in some thought and consideration beforehand. Planning is a key part of this preparation.

A courageous conversation begins way before you actually have that conversation. 

Here are 10 steps that will help you with this process.  

1) Honest self-assessment

Do some self-reflection and notice your thoughts and feelings about the issue.  What is your body telling you?  Our bodies tend to be a good barometer for what we may not be conscious of just yet or dare not articulate.  For example, is there some tension, anxiety, anger or fear?

Acknowledging this can help you be more authentic as you stay connected, moment by moment, when you do have the conversation.  Journaling or talking to a trusted advisor beforehand can give you insights as well as an avenue to vent without editing or repercussions.

2) Purpose and Outcome 

What is the purpose for having this conversation? Is it about venting, telling the other how wrong they have been or is about understanding each other better, perhaps clearing the air in order to relate and work with each other more effectively?

If it is the former than this is not the right time to have the conversation.  Perhaps you need to find another forum to get into the right mind-set first. Go back to step one.

Knowing what success looks like helps set a positive intent.  What would a good outcome look, sound, feel like? What would you like to walk away thinking and feeling?

3) Know your triggers

Identify, acknowledge and own your own triggers to conflict.   What hooks you in? Given our different backgrounds and conditioning along with our personality types, we all react to conflict in different ways.

Perhaps you grew up in a family where “conflict was avoided at all costs” and if you tried to address it, you were labeled a troublemaker.

Or perhaps as was another client’s experience, you were brought up in a family where debate and discussion was commonplace and even encouraged especially at the dinner table.  For you, dealing with differences is a positive experience. And you don’t take it too personally either! As my client said, “ it is just another conversation with a bit more heat!”

Knowing your triggers and alertness to others can be hugely useful.  My client had to learn that his healthy heat was somebody else’s bonfire!

4) Your bag of unspoken assumptions, biases, beliefs, attitude, judgments and foregone conclusions

As part of your self-reflection, notice what assumptions and judgments you hold about the person or situation.  All of these lead to a closed mind with little room for listening to anything new or different.  With this approach, the chances of having a successful conversation gets slimmer.

There is no room for anything new to emerge from the conversation. Worse, the other party will immediately have their backs up as they pick up your implicit or explicit judgments.  Our feelings and judgments have a way of bursting through our pores even if we are mouthing different words.

5) Take responsibility

What has been your contribution to the situation?  Much as we may feel compelled to put the blame elsewhere, you can be sure that whatever situation you are facing currently would also have your contribution.

In my own example recently with a family member, I had to own that I had not set the boundaries I would have normally because – “Well – they were family!”

The learning was that it is better for us all if we speak our truth and to acknowledge our needs and non-negotiables.   If we don’t these things come to bite us all just a bit later!

If it feels difficult now, it will be a whole lot worse later with a greater cost.

6) Impact is not the same as intent 

What we experience as a grave injustice or insult maybe something that the other person did not even register!   In “Difficult Conversations” the authors highlight that we can only know our own intent and how we felt impacted but not the other party’s.

Projecting and subscribing a cause may come naturally but this may not be accurate at all.  This is where it pays to ask and or understand the other party and where they are coming from and how they view things.

7) Listen actively and deeply

Stay present when having the conversation rather than preparing the rebuttal!

Paraphrasing, summarizing along with non-verbals such as nodding, looking them in the eye (although be aware of some cultural differences here) gives the message that you are genuine in your intent and obviously care enough about the relationship to be having this conversation.

It shows empathy, which is sorely needed but goes out the window in conflict scenarios.

8) Acknowledge your feelings and theirs

 When having a conversation with the other party we can be acutely aware of our feelings and emotions but neglectful of these in the other person.

Psychologist David McClelland’s motivational need theory outlines that people have fundamental needs including the need for achievement (competence in the work setting), affiliation (social relationships) and power (status and need to influence).

A threat response gets activated when we feel our identity being challenged.  As neuroscience also reinforces the brain is very wired to such threats and will default to a primitive “fight /flight” response if there is a perceived threat – even when it is not warranted.

Being aware of this can help understand the other person – what need matters to them most and what and where they may be feeling threatened. And the same applies to you!

9) Adopt a stance of inquiry, curiosity and learning

Go into the conversation with a mind-set and approach of curiosity and inquiry. Your stance can be along the lines of  “help me understand what happened when…..” and also be prepared to share your experience as well.

Manage your state and take a break if you need to.  Watch your tone of voice that it is not domineering, critical or dismissive.  Also watch your physical stance e.g. that you are not towering over the other person or seated behind your desk.

Be hard on issue but soft on people can be a good mantra to remember.  Explore the issue but don’t “demolish the other.”  It is a very satisfying feeling to get through the other side having dealt with the issue and having maintained the relationship.

10) Be a champion and possibility holder for change and good outcome

 If you are genuine in your intent, the other party although worked up initially will understand this and you will be en route to success already.  You can also keep re-stating your positive intent and outcome that you would like to achieve for you both e.g. “ I would really like us to be able to work together more effectively and to create better understanding and communication with each other.”

Finally, acknowledge yourself and thank the other for having this conversation.

If you are still left wondering “Why bother having a courageous conversation?”, remember Susan Scott’s wisdom, “The conversation is the relationship”!

Let me know how you go…

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Jasbindar Singh

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