I believe a conversation is courageous when the content may be hard to hear, must be heard, and the reaction might be strongly negative or emotional. A courageous conversation is one in which something important needs to be communicated to a team member/colleague because it relates to their effectiveness and success – and not communicating it increases the likelihood that this team member/colleague will get themselves into difficulties that could be prevented. In other words, something must be said AND they may react badly. Nevertheless, a conversation must be had.
Most often, people avoid such conversations for one or more of 4 reasons: (i) because they don’t want to hurt their colleague; (ii) because they want to avoid unpleasantness; (iii) because they simply don’t care enough about their colleague to say what must be said; or (iv) because they think it will be a waste of time. All of these reasons are problematic.
When you do not want to hurt or upset a colleague, your empathy is going to harm your colleague because avoidance of the conversation means that they will not hear something that will help them. When you want to avoid unpleasantness for yourself, you are protecting yourself by being insincere. And if you simply don’t care for your colleague enough to have the conversation (or you think it will be a waste of time), this is actually passive-aggressive behaviour – hanging a team member out to dry, when something could have been done.
I’m a big fan of Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor. She teaches that truly courageous conversations require two things: firstly, that you genuinely care about the best interests and well-being of the other; and secondly, that you challenge them directly in terms that are clear and unequivocal.
Let’s start with the first part. Do you care enough about the best interests and well-being of your team member or colleague (and the team) to have a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable? If you do not care enough to do this, then you have some personal work to do. Your job as a leader is to set an appropriate example with them team, creating psychological safety, an atmosphere of mutual care and concern, and a climate of candour. You MUST care. You will never be a leader if you don’t care. If you don’t care, you run the risk of either sharing feedback in an obnoxiously aggressive manner – or not sharing it at all.
Once you are comfortable that you do genuinely care about the well-being of the team member/colleague and the team, you can prepare using the following questions:
- What do you want your team member/colleague to know and understand? How will you say it?
- What could you say to your team member/colleague before you start that might make them receptive to hearing what you need to say? (It is often useful to set a courageous conversation up with something like “I need to talk to you about something that you may find difficult to hear. I want you to know that I am sharing it with you because I care about you and your success. Could I ask you to hear me out to the end before you respond?)
- How can you be part of the solution? How can you be supportive?
- What strong reactions do you expect from your team member/colleague? How will you deal with these if they happen?
- What are your own possible reactions and feelings? What will you do to keep these in check?
- When will you have this conversation?
- Did you achieve what you set out to do?
- How was your message received?
- What did you do well?
- What might you do differently another time?
- How did you leave things with your colleague?
- Are you happy with that? If not, what will you do?