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Let’s Talk: 4 Ways to Have Courageous Conversations in the Workplace

I had an amazing boss named Beth at my first job right out of college. I admired many things about her leadership style, but I most admired her ability to have conversations to address concerns, issues, or to give feedback. While she was not your best friend and did not act like it, her ability to build a positive work relationship with you allowed for those conversations to happen in constructive ways. I never left a conversation with her feeling any negative feelings even when discussing tough topics. You always left the conversation thinking of ways to grow and become better.

As I moved on in my career, the importance of having conversations around concerns or issues stuck with me. I have been in my field for 8+ years now and more often than not, people do not want to discuss concerns or issues with one another. You see and hear people discussing things with everyone except the person they should be talking to. Why are people nervous to have courageous conversations? I think we all know life isn’t perfect, so having an issue, conflict, or concern is going to happen. My ability to have courageous conversations has surely been put to the test especially when I became department leader a few years ago. I’ve had to figure out how to have courageous conversations with bosses of mine, colleagues in my department, and other staff members I have to work with on a regular basis. The four strategies below are what have helped me have courageous conversations.

Strategy #1: Build a positive work relationship with everyone.

A lot of change happened within my building and office a few years ago. There were a lot of new people and different people in new positions and some of these people were in close proximity to me. Recognizing that I hold a leadership position and have to work with these people, I made it a priority to build a positive work relationship with them. Building a positive work relationship with colleagues has nothing to do with being friends with one another or even personally liking one another, it means that you maintain a positive attitude in your interactions and display the same positivity in your behavior by being courteous and kind. This can be as simple as saying “Hi, How are you doing today?” when passing a colleague in the hallway. This could be engaging in simple conversation about common interests. In my office, we have lunch together. Building a positive work relationship with others creates a rapport with other people and a certain level of trust. This opens the door for courageous conversations to happen because it helps people understand you are genuine and it also lessens the chance of people feeling there is ill intent or malice. Think about it. Do you better accept criticism from someone you do not even speak to or from someone you have some sort of positive relationship with?

Strategy #2: When? Where? What?

When to have the conversation? Where to have the conversation? What are you going to say? These are all key questions when having a courageous conversation. The “when” matters because you want to have the conversation when both parties are in a rational mental and emotional state to have the conversation. The “where” matters because some conversations do not need an audience. I have specifically asked colleagues to have conversations in places where others are not around because an audience is sometimes not needed. The “what” is the most important part. What is the conversation going to be about and what are you going to say? You must make sure you are clear, confident, and direct during the conversation. If you are not, people may not take what you are saying seriously or the message may not be conveyed. I once had a colleague who had some strong feelings about how I did my job. They talked about me behind my back and tried to silence me in meetings. I was furious, so I reached out and said we needed to talk. I asked to meet before work in a private place to discuss the issue and we didn’t have a problem again after that conversation. Say what you mean and mean what you are saying. If you are concerned about your message getting across, discuss it with another trustworthy person first.

Strategy #3: Don’t take it or make it personal.

Some situations may be personal, but there are many others that are not personal attacks. Taking or making something personal means that things are delivered or received in a way that is about someone’s personal character. For example, if someone gives you feedback about how to improve your performance and you interpret that as “I’m the worst person at my job ever,” then you are taking it personal. Sometimes, it is not about “you” personally. Do not internalize issues or concerns that are brought up because it isn’t always about “you.” If you are the person having the courageous conversation with someone, do not make it personally about them if it is not personal and on the other hand, if you are the person the conversation is being initiated with, do not make it personally about you. Try to leave personal feelings and emotions out of the conversation if it is not needed. The issue and concerns at hand get lost in translation when personal feelings are brought into it.

Strategy #4: Pick your battles.

There are times when it is best to let some concerns or issues go without a conversation. If you are thinking of having a conversation, but can’t identify a real purpose for the conversation then maybe it’s not worth bringing up. Or if having the conversation is not going to produce a different result or advance towards a goal, then maybe it is not a conversation worth having. If you are ever unsure if something should be discussed or not, then consult a trustworthy person.

Is there someone you need to have a courageous conversation with? If so, how will you use these strategies to have the conversation?

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