When it comes to being human, dialogue is essential. In the workplace, dialogue builds collective understanding, raises awareness, resolves issues, and helps people and groups to align. In this sense, having conversations is one of the most important roles any leader in any organisation has – so why do we find it so difficult?
Having a conversation – an honest conversation – can be scary. We instinctively shrink from conflict, feel uneasy about what the discussion might unearth, and worry that we won't be equipped to handle its consequences. But whatever the issue is, it will have an impact whether you choose to address it or not, so you may as well do it with preparation and positive intent.
Courageous conversations require, fundamentally, a human-centred approach. As our recent white paper on human-centred organisations explains, the framework for human-centred leadership and management is based on three intersecting qualities: expert support, expert challenge, and empathy. We can use this framework to guide us in understanding how best to have courageous conversations.
Empathy is at the very heart of a human-centred approach. Empathy enables us to understand others, feel compassion, value difference, and build trust – all of which are vital to working relationships.
Before we embark on a courageous conversation, whether it be about a performance-related issue, conflict, or incident, we must first understand the other person or at least foster a genuine curiosity about them. What is important to them? How do they best communicate? What habits, skills, experiences, values, and beliefs underpin their behaviour? What does a difficult or courageous conversation look like to them?
This will give you a fine-tuned radar for understanding others as individuals and where they are in the organisation's system, which will enable you to scale, adjust and structure your conversation to their needs.
In this sense, courageous conversations are about acknowledging the other person – about allowing them to be seen and heard. Yet this acknowledgement shouldn't be reserved for such occasions; it should happen all the time. When we regularly recognise, appreciate, and value others, we build up a foundation of trust and understanding, which means that any difficult conversations are far more likely to be successful. So be purposeful about adding value to every conversation you have – not just the big ones.
A large part of human-centred leadership is about a leader or manager's efforts to proactively solve problems and enable their people to succeed. Using their professional expertise, leaders should help others solve problems not by telling them what to do but by inhabiting the problem space with them and empowering them to find their way through it. In the context of a courageous conversation, this looks like a leader who listens more than they talk and who asks careful, simple questions designed to help the other party work through their thoughts. Coaching skills are crucial here, as well as a reasonable judgment about the balance between instructing and empowering.
As this support is rooted in professional expertise, taking the time to develop your dialogue skills is also essential. Be intentional about having these experiences and learning from them, building on your effectiveness and capability. Model these capabilities to your team, transforming the process into one that everyone can learn from.
Part of creating quality conversations is being able to provoke or challenge the other person in a way that carefully and supportively confronts the issue, that stimulates and steers the conversation rather than inflaming it. It's about asking questions that will empower the other person and encourage them to look at the issue from different perspectives, evaluate their own beliefs, and consider new ideas, which will spark new insights and understandings. This requires leaders to know themselves, what personal 'stuff' they might be bringing into the conversation and tune it appropriately. In other words, expert challenge works when leaders challenge their own intention in a conversation. So, even if the other person feels uncomfortable, they know that the conversation is rooted in an empathetic understanding of them as an individual and what they need.
What does this all mean?
Intentionality is the common thread that runs throughout this framework of empathy, challenge, and support. Embarking on an off-the-cuff conversation about an issue is more likely to end in misunderstanding and hurt than anything else. So preparation is key. Ask yourself, what exactly is the issue? What is the problem statement? Determine what questions you might need to ask, what shape you'd like the conversation to take, and what outcomes you need. Prepare yourself for anything else that might come up as a result. Often, we avoid difficult conversations because we're afraid that we won't be able to handle their consequences. Still, with adequate preparation, you'll feel confident and equipped to deal with anything that comes up, as well as be able to steer the conversation back on track when needed.
This preparation also needs to be physical. Where and how will you sit? What will the environment be like? What will you need to do beforehand to prepare yourself – whether that's making a coffee, having a walk, or wearing something that makes you feel confident? Interaction is not only verbal, and all of these elements will help you to create the conditions for a successful conversation.
Remote working makes this more difficult. When speaking remotely, you miss out on the non-verbal cues that tell you how someone is feeling or which way a conversation is heading. You don't always get the feel of the room, which puts you at a disadvantage when gauging whether it's an appropriate time or setting for a particular discussion. In our opinion, working remotely can amplify the difficulty of courageous conversations by at least 50%. And this means that we must be 50% more intentional about making them successful. Constant distractions mean that remote calls require extra discipline and focus, ensuring that your attention is on the other party and not on emails or Teams notifications. Calendars stacked with calls and the absence of buffer time mean that you need to be more intentional about maximising the time you do have. That includes steering conversation, politely indicating how long someone should take to answer a question, and signalling when it's time to move on. And this should be matched by disciplined managing of breaks, ensuring that people have the time and space to move away from their screens when needed.
There are also opportunities to be found in remote working. A conversation between two individuals sitting in their own homes integrates a personal element, whether that be in the form of kids distracting, dogs barking, dinner on the stove, or just a window into the other's taste in art or books. The fact that life cannot always fit around the edges of work provides opportunities for connection, which can elevate the conversation to a level that could never be achieved in the staid environment of a corporate boardroom.
Whether conducted face-to-face or remotely, courageous conversations require work. They require intentionality, preparation, and a human-centred approach that combines a balance of support, challenge and empathy. But the more we succeed in these conversations and build our skills and confidence in having them, the more they can be integrated into our everyday working relationships instead of being big, scary, 'once in a blue moon' events. The ability to have these conversations is vital for any successful organisation or leader, not only because it allows us to broach and work through difficult issues but also because it enables us to raise performance, engage people, show them that they are valued and, ultimately, liberate their human potential.
Sarah Brammeier and John Matthews are senior consultants at Impact UK.