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How to have a Courageous Conversation

Let’s face it, few people like or embrace conflict situations. Given the choice, most people avoid facing up to conflict, whether that’s in the workplace, in our personal lives or when somebody has jumped the queue in the supermarket. It takes courage (and skill) to get the issue out into the open and move it to a positive resolution.

One of the main things that I find people leaders struggle with is managing the performance of their staff, especially when performance problems start to occur. When things get sticky in the workplace one of three things occur;

a) early intervention in the problem to stop it becoming bigger

b) avoid the issue & hope it will go away….

and, when it doesn’t

c) exit the person out, either out of the company, or … move them to another team where .. it becomes somebody else’s problem

Cost to the business

The costs to the business of options b) & c) are huge and often not recognised; loss of a person who you might have been able to turn around, a personal grievance for a questionable exit, fractured teams, good staff leaving, higher absence, productivity dip and impact on your business and employer brand (reputation).

How do you know when you need a CC?

If the problem is at the front of your mind & won’t go away, if it’s keeping you awake at night, if you have other staff & work colleagues raising the issue, if your customers are starting to complain… then you need to have a Courageous Conversation.

What’s holding you back?

When you don’t want to have the conversation you need to ask yourself why. Is it because?

  • You’ve never had to do this before, it’s a skills issue – get help (call us, we’ve coached heaps of people in this)
  • You’ve done it before and it wasn’t a good experience – again get help
  • you’re worried, even scared, of their reaction
  • you’re worried about the consequences of the conversation
  • when you imagine the conversation, you feel uncomfortable

In a nutshell you probably haven’t had the conversation because you’re afraid of the outcome. We all do that. So here’s some tips to get you started.

  • Get in early before the problem gets too big and more difficult to manage
  • Be clear about what the issue is, how it is causing problems and for whom
  • Gather more information, such behavioural examples from a range of trusted sources. Be confident the issue isn’t more about personal agendas or a personality conflict; i.e. two people who just don’t get on (I have a code I work to “you don’t have to like who you work with, but you do have to work with them. Bottom line. ”)
  • Think about the person and how they are likely to react, what language do they respond positively and negatively to?
  • If you’re anxious about the conversation, get some coaching either from a trusted, confidential, internal person who’s skilled at this stuff, or from an external coach.
  • Practise, practise. Run it through it a couple of times; this will help to uncover objections or reactions you might encounter and be more prepared.
  • Think about the key skills needed: active listening; open and non-confrontational questioning; positive body language; language, words and timing set the tone and can cause unnecessary conflict before you’ve even got started.

It’s important to re-affirm organisational expectations and standards about “what good looks like”. However this may need to take a back seat if the root of the problems are personal issues that need a different approach and compassionate level of support.

Susan and Peter Glaser in their book ‘Be Quiet Be Heard’ suggest a model for having your CC:

Raising Delicate Issues


Step 1
 Opener – Psychological agreement to have the conversation

Use I-Feeling language – when people feel pushed, it creates a counter resistance

Edit accusative language – avoid loaded language and red flag terms


Step 2

Pinpoint details – Tell the person exactly what they said, when they said it or

exactly what they did and when they did it


Step 3

Acknowledge Your Part – Search for and communication how you’ve contributed to the problem


Step 4

Agree on a solution – Develop a solution that you both create and both implement


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