I felt seething fury last week. I had avoided giving a colleague some difficult feedback about the impact working with him was having on me, and eventually he confronted me about the inevitable leakage of my irritation. I was not pleased with myself for avoiding giving timely feedback, nor was I best pleased with him for the public confrontation. While we ironed out our differences, the situation got me reflecting on how to have ‘courageous conversations’.
A courageous conversation is one that you don’t want to have! It is not about getting something off your chest, so much as about taking action to name and resolve a relationship difficulty. These might be conversations with peers, with people above us in the organisational hierarchy, or with people who report to us.
We avoid or confront out of fear, which is the major short-circuit to learning and change. Fear propels us into an automatic fight or flight response. It can bring to mind ideas or thoughts of losing, compromising, rejection, humiliation, being wrong... Alternatively, we may withdraw, retreat, be indifferent and seemingly accommodate.
Finding the courage to communicate is less than straightforward. We face a straight choice – between protecting ourselves and the status quo, or making progress together in learning more about ourselves and the situation we are in. In their book on difficult conversations, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen note that underlying every difficult conversation are actually three deeper conversations.
identify three types where we can move from a position of protection to one of progress. They believe that there are three levels of difficulty – people might argue about what happened; or about how they feel; or about who they take themselves to be.
The “What happened” conversation usually involves disagreement over what happened, what should happen and who should take the blame… The “Feelings” conversation is a deeper level of response about people's emotions - and their validity. The “Identity” conversation is an internal conversation that each of us has about what the situation tells us about who we are -whether we are seen as competent or incompetent, a good or a bad person, worthy of love or unlovable? The key to having a courageous conversation is to recognise the presence of each of these deeper conversations, avoid the common pitfalls and have a conversation focused on learning something about the other.
In each of these types of conversations, it is worth remembering that the challenge we face in working towards a good outcome is to shift from a “battle of messages” where both parties take a stand, deliver their message and try to prove they are right; to moving towards a “learning conversation” where instead of wanting to persuade and get our way, we strive to understand what has happened from the other person’s point of view, explain our own point of view, share and understand feelings, and work together to figure out a way to manage the problem going forward.
Step 1 : Prepare by thinking through the 3 conversations
- Where does your story come from (information, past experiences, rules, beliefs etc)? Theirs?
- What impact has the situation had on you? What might their intentions have been?
- What have you each contributed to the problem?
- Understand emotions – anger, sadness, disappointment, hurt, etc
- What are you feeling and why? Understand what is at stake for you? What do you need to accept to be better grounded?
Step 2 : Check your purpose & decide whether you want to raise the issue
- Purpose: What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation? Shift your stance to support learning, sharing and problem-solving.
- Deciding: Is this the best way to address the issue and achieve your purpose? Is the issue really to do with you rather than the other person? Can you affect the problem by changing your contributions? If you don’t raise it, what can you do to help yourself let go?
Step 3 : Start from the “Third Story”
- Describe the problem as the difference between your stories. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion
- Share your purposes
- Invite the other person to join you as a partner in sorting out the situation together.
Step 4 : Explore Their Story and Yours
- Listen to understand their perspective on what happened. Ask questions. Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations. Paraphrase to see if you have understood their perspective. Unravel how the two of you got to this place.
- Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings.
- Reframe, reframe, reframe to keep on track. From truth to perceptions, blame to contributions, accusations to feelings and so on...
Step 5 : Problem-solving
- Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests
- Look to standards for what should happen – win-win
- Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward.