How to Have Courageous Conversations



We’ve all found ourselves in front of the bathroom mirror practicing a conversation we plan to have at work the next day. Whether it’s asking for a raise, disciplining a subordinate, or requesting that your boss stop micromanaging you, the way to have these conversations is not exactly clear. Should I start with a strong lead or work my way into the conversation? Do I include my feelings or are those irrelevant? How do I end this conversation? Luckily, we’re taking the guesswork out of preparing for these conversations by offering some tips for effective communication and a framework for conducting courageous conversations.

GovLoop’s recent in-person NextGen training session, “How to Prepare for Critical Conversations,” offered an interactive environment for participants to practice their conflict management skills, handle difficult conversations, get tips for better office communication, and gain confidence to put those skills into practice. During the session Virginia Hill, Center for Government Leadership Manager at the Partnership for Public Service, offered an inside perspective on how to tackle some difficult office situations.

Effective Communication

In order to create a healthy working environment, teams need effective communication. But that is easier said than done. Hill explained that the best teams have to start with clear goals, effective communication, and strong relationships. However, she emphasized that the communication component of successful teams is particularly important. Hill highlighted that the most effective communication skills can be boiled down to three tools:

  • Listen: exhibit curious listening where you wait until the party is done until you form conclusions, ask questions to ensure you understand, and summarize back what you heard to communicate your understanding.
  • Ask effective questions: ask questions that are open ended, solution focused, can generate observable data, and promote action.
  • Give and receive feedback: Use the SBI + D Model to provide positive and constructive feedback. Focus on describing the Situation, outlining the Behavior, and articulating the Impact that behavior had on you. After a pause you can put forth your Desired Outcome. For example, you are a manager and one of your employees has been chronically late to your weekly staff meeting. As the boss you must identify the situation (the employee’s chronic tardiness), articulate the specific behavior (the employee was ten minutes to the last two Tuesday morning staff meetings), quantify the impact (having to start the meetings over when the employee arrives, pushing your staffs’ schedules back by ten minutes), and explain your desired outcome (the employee shows up on time to staff meetings). The SBI + D Model leaves no room for excuses in the desired outcome section and is designed to produce actionable results.

Courageous Conversations

However, no matter how effective your communications skills are, you are bound to face a crucial conversation at one point or another in your professional career and it is better to know how to deal with these conversations before they happen than going over everything you could have done better after the fact. Hill explained that you first must recognize when you are facing a crucial conversation. These conversations can be identified when you are engaging in conversations that feature opposing views, strong emotions, or high stakes.

Once you identify that you are engaging in a courageous conversation you must choose how to proceed. According to Hill, you can avoid the conversation, handle it poorly, or handle it well. While some of us would prefer to avoid these conversations completely, deep down we know they are often inevitable and necessary to have. As a result, Hill cited VitalSmarts and their best-selling book, Crucial Conversations on how to make the most of these critical conversations.

  • Hold the right conversation: Make sure your motives are sound and you are holding the conversation for the right reason. Come in with an open mind and open body language ready to participate in a healthy debate. And if all else fails and the right conversation can’t be held, change what you are talking about and move on.
  • Focus on what you want: Your goals for the dialogue should include learning, finding the truth, producing results, and strengthening relationships. If you look honestly at your goals and they include being right, saving your skin, punishing or blaming, and avoiding conflict, reevaluate your participation in the conversation.
  • Start with intent, not content: Establish mutual purpose and mutual respect. Layout what your intentions are and what they are not. After you establish that the conversation is taking place in a safe space you can return to content.
  • Start with facts, not feelings: This goes back to the SBI + D Model, state the situation and the observable behavior not what you are feeling. Presenting the facts makes the conversation less controversial and more persuasive and it gives you an opportunity to ask the other party for their facts. After you air the facts out examine your feelings and move towards a conclusion.

After you start and go through the meat of the conversation you may find yourself lost at where to end it. Hill reminded us that when a critical conversation is drawing to a close, you must end it with clarity. This means both parties know that the conversation is over and there is a clear outline of who is doing what and when follow up conversations will take place. Additionally, agree to hold each other accountable, and actually do it. Participating in a courageous conversation is much more worth it if the outcomes are clear and the goals are met.

For more information on how you can live up to your full govie potential, download Hill’s full presentation and check out NextGen and be sure to sign up for this year’s training summit so you don’t miss out on more tools to help you do your job better!

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