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Courageous Conversations

Courageous Conversations

December 16, 2014

It’s likely that at some point in your life, someone has said to you, “we need to talk.” Chances are, your heart dropped.

“We need to talk” is usually not the sign of good news. But it does mean that someone is ready to have a courageous conversation with you. This is going to be a conversation about real issues with real feelings and real judgments.  The person starting the conversation is frustrated, angry, upset, or scared, and wants to address something openly.   

Because they require courage, we often avoid such conversations. But this causes us to get stuck. For example, I was at a meeting recently where one person was clearly upset with his team over a project. But he hadn’t confronted them to have a courageous conversation. As a result, he couldn’t focus and the meeting was a bust.   

Making Matters Worse

We also tend to get engaged in a drama and create our own narratives. We take a fact, build it into a story, make a judgment, and get ourselves riled up. But often, the story is imaginary and the judgment is wrong. Watching this is sometimes like watching someone shadowboxing, fighting an enemy who’s not there.

A great story that illustrates the point is about a man named David.

David is driving along a mountain road when he gets a flat tire. He has no jack in the trunk and no cell phone reception in the mountains. A few cars drive by, but nobody stops to help him. He’s frustrated, but he has no choice, so he starts walking along the road. Finally, he sees some lights from a house up the hill. He walks up the hill toward the house. As he’s walking, he starts thinking, I’m probably going to get there and they won’t open the door. Even if they do, they probably won’t help me anyway. And even if they do have a jack, they’ll probably charge me to use it. They’ll probably rip me off just because I’m from out of town. That’s so unfair! I can’t believe people would actually charge someone to help them!! David gets angrier and angrier every step he walks. He finally gets up the hill and reaches the house. He knocks on the door. A young man opens the door and starts to say “hello.” But by this point, David is so enraged, all he can say is, “You can keep your jack!!” As the young man looks on, baffled, David storms away.

Fundamentals of a Courageous Conversation

There are four fundamentals that lead us to having a courageous conversation.

  1. Facts or data
  2. Your feelings about the facts or data
  3. Your judgment based on your feelings — often ugly  
  4. The need to address what you want

For example, let’s say Marc always comes late to your meetings. This is a fact, a piece of data. It leads to your feelings which, in this case, could be anger or frustration. The judgment, or how you react, is that someone who comes late to the meetings simply doesn’t care about other people’s feelings. In this case, your judgment is that Marc is an inconsiderate jerk. What you want is for Marc to come to your meetings on time, or at least to call to let you know that he will be late.

Therefore, your courageous conversation with Marc needs to address each of the above. You would explain that he is always late, that it frustrates you, that you find him to be inconsiderate, and that you need him to show up on time or let you know ahead of time that he’s running late. You may not get everything you want, but having the courageous conversation addresses the situation.

Since these conversations aren’t easy, and you don’t want to just blurt them out, you may first want to have such a conversation with someone else, which could be a coach or a friend. This person can be particularly helpful if you have built up the drama into a narrative. They can help you separate fact from fiction. For example, if David in our story above had talked to someone before getting to the top of the hill and knocking on the door, they might have pointed out that most of the narrative was, in fact, baseless.      

A Plan for the New Year

As you move into the New Year, ask yourself:

Whom do I need to have a courageous conversation with?

Who is getting me stuck and holding me back from doing what I excel at?

Whom do I have judgments about that need to be expressed?

Make a list, which can include people in business and in your personal life.  

You never know how such courageous conversations are going to turn out, but you need to have them to get unstuck.

Taking you from where you are to where you want to be,