How to Have Brave Conversations

by | Aug 27, 2020

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If ever there was a time for brave conversations, it is now. With all that’s happening in this country and the world, we can’t afford to shirk our responsibility for having brave conversations. At the same time, brave conversations take courage. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Moreover, nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. We don’t always know what we need to say. 

But brave conversations are a necessary part of being a leader. They’re what keeps our teams functioning properly because having these conversations can help us to understand team members better and give them the space and courage to share their own insights.

No one taught us how to have brave conversations in school. Luckily, however, the basics of brave conversations are all learnable skills.

What is a brave conversation? We’ve identified five ingredients:

Deep listening.

So often, we pretend to be listening when what we’re really doing is formulating what we want to say in response. Deep listening requires our full attention. We need to be fully present to the speaker. 

When we are deeply listening, our body is attentive. We listen not only with our ears, but also with our eyes, and with our subtle senses. We’re able to notice body language and vocal inflections because we’re not formulating our response while someone else is talking. In fact, we may take a moment after the speaker is finished to summarize or reflect back what they’ve said. And then we take a moment to decide how we want to respond before we start speaking. 

Generative questions.

Generative questions are questions you ask from a place of true curiosity. They will help you to find new ideas for creating change, opening up a handful of possibilities. In contrast, leading questions shut down possibilities. 

An example of a leading question is, “Don’t you think you should have…” Generative questions require humility on the part of the person asking them. However, you have to be open to the possibility that your idea may not be the best idea. Some examples of generative questions include: “What needs our immediate attention right now?” “What question, if answered now, would help move this project forward?”, “What’s emerging for you?” and “What would it take to change this situation for the positive?” Generative questions are a big part of Appreciative Inquiry.

Clear, thoughtful feedback.

There is both an art and a science to giving clear, thoughtful feedback. The science is simple: use a feedback frame to help guide the conversation, and be sure to deliver the feedback in a timely manner. That means within hours or days, not weeks, of the event that requires feedback. And be sure to deliver positive feedback as well as negative feedback.

The art of thoughtful feedback is more subtle. It’s mostly about deep listening on the part of the receiver. Furthermore, you’ll want to pay attention to the receiver’s body language to ensure they’re hearing it and taking it in.  

Emotional Intelligence.

Leaders who have difficult conversations must have a high emotional intelligence (EQ) to do the tough conversations right. Specifically, the self management aspect of EQ. The biggest thing that trips up brave conversations is when people get triggered. When you learn how to effectively manage your emotions, you’re much less likely to get triggered–or to fall into the trap of triggering others. You’ll also be better equipped to handle any emotional reactions from the person you’re talking with which is essential. 

Make no assumptions.

So many misunderstandings occur because someone makes an assumption that simply isn’t true. The result is usually hurt feelings or work that isn’t up to par. When you can approach a difficult situation with humility and curiosity, you can avoid making assumptions altogether. The other reason misunderstandings happen is because the person making the request didn’t clearly and explicitly explain what they wanted. If the person on the receiving end of the request didn’t clearly understand the request, they’ll be less likely to succeed. 

These five ingredients of having brave conversations don’t happen naturally; it takes time and training and an awareness of the process to ensure they happen every time.

Johanna Lyman (she/her or they/them) is the Principal Consultant and Practice Leader for Culture and Inclusion. She is a dynamic, energetic Leadership and Culture coach and consultant with nearly 30 years of experience in leadership development and culture change.

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