How courageous are you in your conversations? Are you a straight shooter, who tells it like it is? Or do you default to telling people what they want to hear? This is a difficult question to answer. We’d all like to think of ourselves as direct, transparent and truthful, but frequently an honest assessment of our actions will show that, more likely, we communicate to avoid conflict rather than tell the truth.
Having courageous conversations is one of the kindest things you can do for your friends, family and colleagues. Most of us can tell when someone isn’t being entirely honest with us—no matter how well-meaning their intentions are. It’s pretty easy to be honest when everything is going well and we’re delivering good news or praise. It’s much more difficult to have a courageous conversation when we have to be the bearer of bad news or ask for a situation to change.
There are five communication skills that we can all learn that make having courageous conversations much easier. First, be clear. Do not hint at what you’re trying to say or beat around the bush. Express facts as concisely and accurately as you can. This is not the time to allow judgmental phrases such as “you always” or “you never” to creep into your vocabulary. State the facts directly, and if you are asking for a change in behavior, ask it precisely. For example, if you have to reprimand a staff member for inappropriate behavior, state, “Last week, you did ___________. This is inappropriate behavior and cannot happen again.”
Second, be curious. Don’t assume that you know the other person’s motivations. Ask them. My husband and I use this all the time. Sometimes, one of us will be under stress and we might snap or be rude to the other. If I get short-tempered or curt, my husband doesn’t just assume I’m angry. He’s curious. He’ll say to me, “Your tone of voice is strained and you sound upset. Are you angry with me, or is it something else altogether?” This allows me the opportunity to explain without feeling defensive. If he had just said, “I don’t know why you’re mad at me,” I would have yelled back, “I’m not mad at you,” and the argument could have gone on for days. Be curious and lead with questions.
Third, don’t argue. Courageous conversations generally have a specific goal. You may be asking for more money from your boss, disciplining a staff member, asking your spouse or children to treat you differently, or breaking up you’re your significant other. We would find the whole conversation easier if the person we’re talking to would see the wisdom in our perspective and automatically agree with us. I remember when I talked to my first husband about wanting a divorce. I hoped that he would whole-heartedly agree that things had been miserable and offer to move out the next day. It wasn’t that easy. When the other person doesn’t see our point of view, we forget our goal and fall into the trap of trying to convince them that we’re right. We so want the other person to agree with us that we forget the goal and start to argue over the validity of the goal. We do not need to justify why we’re having the conversation. Say what you need to say, let them have whatever reaction they have, and don’t argue.
Fourth, stand firm and play dumb. Yes, I said play dumb. It takes two to argue. If you begin a courageous conversation and the other person wants to argue, don’t take the bait. Just repeat what it is you want and agree with what they say. I learned this technique when my daughter was a toddler from a fabulous book entitled “Parenting with Love and Logic.” If the toddler wants to run across the street, you tell them “no.” They will then argue with you. You can either argue back (and run the risk of becoming an emotional toddler on the spot), or you can stand firm and play dumb.
Toddler, pointing across the busy street: “I want the ball.”
You: “No, the street is too dangerous. We’ll play with our own ball in the back yard.”
Toddler: “No, I want that ball!”
You: “Let’s go to the back yard”
Toddler (now shrieking): “NOOO!! That ball!!”
You: “Let’s go to the back yard.”
Toddler (dissolving into a full tantrum): “NOOO! That ball! That ball! AAAAAGGHH!”
You: “When you’re done, we’ll go to the back yard.”
This is a parenting example with a toddler, but I’ve used it with teenagers, adult staff members, older colleagues, and just about any time I’m in a conversation prone to an argument. Stand firm and repeat what you want over and over.
Finally, practice. Very few people are born with the skill of being good with courageous conversations. We have to practice them with friends and loved ones when there isn’t a conflict, so that we know how to do it when there is.
Mastering courageous conversations might be the best skill we can learn in order to live authentically and be able to follow our audacious purpose.