How to Have Courageous Conversations

William and Carolyn Hines describe courageous conversations as discussions we need to have with people:

• We care about.
• We do not care about.
• We need to care about.

These difficult discussions are challenging for both the initiator of the chat and the receiver of the exchange. No one likes to give bad news and few of us like to hear unpleasant information particularly when it is about us.

These dialogues trigger the hazard and reward systems in our social brain. We intuitively move away from courageous conversations since they may stimulate a threat response in us. We move more naturally toward a potentially positive conversation as it arouses a more optimistic frame of mind.

With that said, it is important to maintain the following conditions to ensure that the courageous conversations lead us to a brighter tomorrow.

Status-Participants need to feel they are the most important person in the room even if the feedback they receive feels uncomfortable. You want to create a win-win scenario. There are no losers in an authentic courageous conversation. Seek to boost rather than diminish.

Certainty-The brain loves to work on a habitual routine. Courageous conversations have the potential to upset this balance since they may challenge our present behavior. It is crucial to convince the other person that the information you are sharing may require tweaking their current reality. Give your conversation partner hope that with practice, their social brain can incorporate new conduct to reinforce the certainty of a new behavior or experience. At the end of the day, the brain operates more efficiently during a state of certainty.

Autonomy-It is important that courageous conversation participants experience a feeling of control. Absent such influence, the social brain will be flooded with cortisol that increases stress levels. Mutual respect and empowerment can create the cocoon of protection that enables parties to feel they own their part of the dialogue.

Relatedness-Even though conflict may be present in a courageous conversation, it is crucial that contributors build trust and a sense that both factions are in this discussion together. Relatedness impacts the perceptions and motivations of our conversational partners. They will know immediately if we are trying to put ourselves in their shoes. Relatedness strengthens social connections as the brain secretes oxytocin which activates our mental networks that help us perceive our colleagues as someone who is like us.

Fairness-Courageous conversations should have the perception that the experience is fair. If not, the undermining of fairness stimulates the threat response in the brain that triggers disgust. If parameters of the discussion are not perceived as fair, participants don’t feel the necessary empathy for each other’s concerns.

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness spells SCARF. Make sure you wear one during your next courageous conversation.

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Carmen Batista

As a manager, I tend to approach these from a coaching/empowering perspective. Think it’s a gross disservice to be silent when some positively framed feedback could help a team member grow professionally. These discussions can be a little awkward, but so rewarding to see new behaviors!
My general approach:
1) Wait until I’m calm to have the conversations – but address with 1 day so that the incident is fresh from both sides. This gives me time to process and identify what exact outcome/behavior I’m looking for.
2) At the start of the discussion, reference the actual things said/specifics of the incident. Ask if the individual is open to receiving feedback on a different way to handle the situation.
3) If yes, acknowledge that the intent of the feedback is provided is to set up the individual for success and help meet the goals of the program. Bonus points if the feedback can be connected to individual’s personal goals.
4) Talk about how the language/incident may have impacted the larger program goals. This may not be your intention, but when you said X, it could easily be perceived as Y. This moves us further away from our goal of C.
5) Provide an example of the desired behavior. “Here’s another way we could approach this tricky topic…”
6) Plan on having the conversation about 2 more times.

In the interim- actively look for changes in behavior and praise those changes, even if they are very small.

Jorge Bonilla

Tener valor en decir lo que pienso es bien importante para mi porque al hacerlo me siento bien conmigo, con mucha sinceridad sin ser grosero ….

Donna Morgan

Excellent article. I’m disappointed that so many leadership articles show only men in the photo. As a presenter, I work to make sure my imagery reflects all audience members. It’s not just this article, but most I see here. I hope editors will be more mindful about representing everyone.