How to have courageous conversations

This month we deal with the difficult topic of addressing conflict through conversation. For example, do you:

Q. Have an issue in a relationship (at work or home) that is troubling you?
Q. Have too much work to do but don’t know how to tell your boss?
Q. Need to partner with someone on a project, but you fundamentally disagree about how to run it?

If so, you need to have a courageous conversation – a conversation where you express your true feelings and speak about the issues in order to resolve them. This article provides some thoughts and tips to help you.

Common causes of conflict

According to a new CIPD* report, Tracing Workplace Conflict, one in three UK employees has reported either an isolated dispute or incident of conflict in the last year.

The single most common cause was “clashes in personality or working styles”, and for 40% of employees surveyed, the conflict led to either an increase in stress or a dip in motivation.

*Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – the main HR body in the UK

“It’s time to turn TO each other, not ON each other.”
Jesse Jackson


Seven tips

As a leader and as an individual there are some important things to remember about dealing with conflict; I have included below what I feel are the key ones. Have I missed any? Do let me know what you think.

1. Deal with your fears
Having a courageous conversation calls for courage (as the expression suggests!) as most of us don’t like conflict; we are wired to want to get along with people.
Note that rarely does it pay to avoid or delay dealing with an issue; how many times in your career or at home have you stalled dealing with an issue, only to find it makes it worse? Addressing a problem early also means you are more likely to resolve it informally without having to resort to company processes or mediation.
For help with this, re-read my recent article about stepping out of your comfort zone.

2. Deal with your ego
Focus on the topic and manage your mind-set so you are in the mode of “I’m OK, you’re OK”, i.e. I respect myself and I respect you, equally. For further information on this, please email me and I’ll send you a short Word document that gives more detail.

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
Dorothy Nevill

It’s also crucial to listen – and if necessary play back what you think you have heard (see point 6 below).

3. Know why you want to have a conversation
Be clear about what you want to achieve in your own mind before you begin. Then work forward from here to plan how best to start and manage yourself in the conversation.

4. Be prepared for the discomfort
In my article on vulnerability Dr Brene Brown emphasises the importance of “leaning in” to the discomfort as opposed to moving away from it.

Firstly, get agreement from the other person to sit down and talk. Acknowledge the difficulty of the conversation with your partner and tell them what is difficult for you.
When you are sitting down together, begin by telling your side of the story, including:

Why you want to have the conversation
What the issue is that you want to discuss
How this issue is affecting you

Remember for effectiveness – face to face is best. Professor of linguistics, Deborah Tannen at Georgetown University, says: “most of the conflicts I’ve encountered during my research came about because of one-way communication: an email, a voice message. If someone’s in front of you, you can gauge their reaction, see if you’re on the wrong track.” This advice applies both to avoiding conflict in the first place, but also to then trying to resolve it.

5. Be real about your expectations
As much as you prepare (and it is important to prepare), you cannot control the outcome nor the other person. Don’t over-prepare or script what you plan to say, or you will not come across as authentic.

Also, don’t expect an immediate resolution – sometimes it takes time and reflection.

6. Set the emotional tone
Preparation in advance helps you manage your emotions and remain calm. Write out what you want to say and practice it with a friend or trusted colleague.

You might find it helpful to read my article on Handling Conflict which explains the Thomas Kilmann model of conflict – this will help you determine how best to start and the emotional tone required to get the result you seek.

During the conversation, listen, and if necessary, paraphrase. (See Stephen Covey’s Five Listening Levels for an excellent model – Email me for an overview.).  Don’t interrupt unless the conversation is becoming unconstructive.

If you get upset, take a break.

7. Agree next steps
Shape these with the other person. Thank them for the conversation, respectfully. Agree how you will follow up, and how the relationship will be going forward. Be clear on the consequences if these actions are not delivered.


Here’s an interesting thought and dimension, if you excuse the psychoanalysis for a moment! Transference is commonly defined as:

‘The redirection of feelings and desires, especially those unconsciously retained from childhood towards a new object’.

In other words, does the person you are having the conversation with remind you of anyone?

It is common for people to transfer feelings about their parents to their partner, children or boss / colleague. It’s not automatically bad or unhealthy, unless it’s having a negative impact on you.

For example, if you had a critical father and now have a critical boss, do you go back to feeling like a child? I come across this fairly frequently in my coaching work, particularly in boss and subordinate relationships.  The best way to deal with this is to realise that you are now an adult, your boss is also an adult, and then act in that mode.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to understand ourselves.”
Karl Jung

How to start

Here are a few ideas about how to start a courageous conversation:

  • “I’d like to talk about ___________ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.”
  • “I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
  • “I think we have different perceptions about _______ . I’d like to hear your thinking on this.”
  • “I know this may not be what you meant, but I feel _________.”
  • “I’d like to talk about ___________ . I think we may have different ideas on how to ___________.”

“At the root of every tantrum and power struggle are unmet needs.”
Marshall Rosenberg

Case study

Jackie was overloaded at work. Initially, she felt embarrassed to admit she couldn’t cope with all the projects on her desk.

At the weekly management meeting with her boss, Jackie clearly listed what she was working on, and pointed out the clashing deadlines. She said: “Of the 15 things I have to do this week, I can only realistically achieve 12. Which three would you like me to postpone?”

Without any hesitation, her boss chose three. Jackie instantly felt relieved, as though a weight was off her shoulders. Instead of losing her manager’s respect as she’d feared, she realised her boss trusted her judgement about what she could achieve

It worked because it was an objective and constructive, adult-to-adult conversation.

Things to remember

We will never avoid conflict, and nor should we seek to. Healthy debate and disagreement are all part of ensuring creativity and optimal outcomes. How we deal with it is the key to ensuring we create an environment that is enjoyable, empowering and ultimately successful.

  • Courageous conversations take you out of your comfort zone. They do get easier with practice, so don’t avoid them.
  • Emotions are what make the conversation challenging – usually, it’s fear, whether of the outcome, rejection, conflict, or not being liked.
  • Remember, the vast majority of people have a positive intention, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
  • You are only half the conversation.
  • Avoid playing the blame game – get to the route of the problem without accusing anyone. Focus on the future.
  • Silence is OK. Allow others to speak and think. Don’t be tempted to fill the space created by silence.
  • Be mindful of your body language and tone of voice. You may not notice it, but it will be obvious to the other person.
  • Be clear and don’t waffle. Be direct and tactful. ‘Honesty is the best policy’.
  • Work together to plan next steps.

“Don’t be afraid of opposition. Remember, a kite rises against not with the wind.”
Marshall Rosenberg

Next month, we look at managing disruptive change.

If you found this information useful, please click the social media buttons below, to share a link to this article with your network, and let me know if you’d like more details about this topic.