Awkward conversations: a crucial piece in the leadership puzzle

As a leader, excellent communication skills are integral. However, to create thriving cultures it’s important that everyone in your team has these important skills. Managing and allowing those awkward, uncomfortable exchanges let’s call them courageous conversations to take place is what cultivates a positive, trusting and safe culture in the workplace.

So, what is a courageous conversation? A courageous conversation is generally an uncomfortable one. You might call out the elephant in the room, and in doing so open up an opportunity to engage authentically with one another, and lead with empathy. In most cases, this can lead to great changes and improvements. Courageous conversations are crucial for building team relationships, trust and a positive culture, or what you might call “the DNA” of your firm.

How do you make your people feel brave enough to be vulnerable and speak their mind?

The most crucial step in encouraging courageous conversations is listening. And you need to listen to understand instead of listening to answer. 

Also think about respect. When you meet genuine feedback, expressions of discontent or constructive criticism with respect, you take a big step towards creating a culture of respect which will be carried through the veins of your workplace. You will also find that, over time, conversations become open and people feel safe to speak up without ridicule or judgment.

We’ve all been in situations where we have felt the strain of something not right, which then hinders our productivity and motivation. For example, a poor system, a toxic colleague, or an unrealistic workload. Take a minute to think back to a recent situation and your response: 

  •   Did you speak up?
  •   Or was it easier to keep on keeping on?
  •   Or did you feel as though you didn’t have a choice because you knew your concerns would fall on deaf ears?

Now take a minute to think about what would it have meant to you to have truly been heard and understood?

Finally, for courageous conversations to be true and meaningful, they must be two-way conversations. Even if the conversations are about something the other person doesn’t want to hear, deliver it in a clear and compassionate to remove distrust and misunderstanding – encouraging two-way communication.

How to have courageous conversations

As an executive coach, I spend my days having courageous conversations. I know from experience that these are the most valuable conversations of all. And I do appreciate they can feel uncomfortable! But, as Brené Brown says, “courage over comfort”. 

Here’s a framework I’ve created to help you to have more effective courageous conversations. It’s called the PEACE communication method. 

1. Prepared

To be prepared you need to be clear with your intent and what outcome you want (or don’t want) from the pending interaction.

Keep your ego and emotions in check so that if you don’t “win” you avoid becoming agitated. Secondly, breathe deeply to centre and calm yourself. Managing your physiology is essential. Finally, ensure you are focused on the conversation. Remove your phone, computer and any other distractions from the space in which the conversation will take place.

2. Empathetic

Begin by assuming the intent of the person you are speaking with is honourable. Start the courageous conversation by listening to their words, reading their non-verbal cues and being empathetic of what other things may be going on in their world. This helps make them feel valued.

Remember that it may not be the issue they are raising that is the problem. There may be an external factor exacerbating their behaviour in the situation. Listening to them will help you to understand that while you may not view their issue as a concern, there is a valid reason why they feel this way.

3. Authentic

It’s perfectly okay to acknowledge that it is awkward to be having the conversation, but add that you are happy to proceed because you care about the person and their career/your relationship. Being humble and accepting responsibility for your part in the situation is important.

In situations which might feel like confrontation, address the person’s behaviour rather than them as a person. Using phrases such as “I noticed yesterday when you said…” rather than “You are…” will make courageous conversations more collaborative and less combative.

Your non-verbal cues are also very telling of your authenticity, so ensure congruence between what you are saying, how you are saying it and how you look saying it.

4. Curious

Being curious means listening and trying to understand what is being said rather than convincing the person of your point of view. Ask yourself, “what is this person’s need right now and how can I help them?” This can often be difficult in a profession where you are trained to persuade, however it is essential in building trust to encourage the other person to be open with you. 

Throughout the conversation, check that you are understanding what they are trying to communicate by paraphrasing what you have heard. This will also show you have heard them loud and clear.

5. Expectations

When closing a courageous conversation, talk about the options at hand to move forward. Consider future needs and, if compromise is required, co-create a reasonable solution with the other person.

Such conversations may result in several options being presented. If you can’t provide an answer in the moment, assure the other person that you’ll get back to them (and follow through on that promise).

When a courageous conversation has finished, it’s important to close the discussion by thanking the other person for having the courage to share their views and feelings. Showing gratitude and respect will ensure your team members feel safe and valued. And the result such radical candour will allow courageous conversations to continue to happen. 

Every conversation we have in the workplace contributes to workplace culture – whether that’s positively or negatively. When you speak, it’s important to select your words with empathy and positive intent, and to take responsibility for at least part of the outcome of each interaction. Courageous conversations are a skill which can be learned and built upon. 

What is the courageous conversation you have been putting off? Summon the courage to have it today. 

Author bio

Linda Murray is the founder, Speaker and Executive Coach at Athena Coaching and Athena Leadership Academy, the professional development hub for high performing and high potential leaders. Linda develops leaders and creates thriving cultures. 

For more strategies like PEACE, download the e-book on courageous conversations here.

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