Most of my blogs are indexed to the reasons why I provide training for Courageous Conversations but I’ve seldom written directly about Courageous Conversations. This blog is different.
“Tough Conversations”, “Challenging Conversations“, “Crucial Conversations“, “Difficult Conversations” – there are a multitude of labels that suggest why communication can be fraught with tension. I have chosen the label Courageous Conversations because the name focuses on the attainability of a positive emotion and virtue – courage. And it is courage that’s required to engage successfully in a Courageous Conversation. Indeed, courage is seen as one of the Dimensions of Leader Character by the Ivey Institute.
Speaking Up about misconduct. Asking for a raise. Ending a relationship. Giving a critical performance review. Telling someone you love them. Saying no to someone in need. Confronting disrespectful or harmful behaviour. Disagreeing with the majority of the group. Apologising.
At work, at home, across the garden fence, tough conversations are attempted or avoided every day. Our natural anxiety results not just from having to face the other person but from having to face ourselves. A conversation has the potential to disrupt our sense of who we are in the world and highlights what we hope we are but fear we are not.
Viewed from the outside, Ben would seem to have nothing to fear;he holds all the cards. Even so, Ben isn’t getting any sleep. He explains: “My father worked for one company his whole life, and I always admired his loyalty. In my own life, I’ve tried to do the right thing, and for me a big part of that is sticking by the people around me—my parents, my wife, my children, and my colleagues. Telling my boss I’m leaving raises this loyalty issue directly. My boss was also my mentor, and has been very supportive. The whole thing
is making me wonder: Am I really the loyal soldier I like to think I am, or just another greedy jerk willing to betray someone for the right price?”
Ben’s predicament highlights a crucial aspect of why some conversations can be so overwhelmingly difficult. Our anxiety results not just from having to face the other person, but from having to face ourselves. The conversation has the potential to disrupt our sense of who we are in the world, or to highlight what we hope we are but fear we are not. The conversation poses a threat to our identity—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves—and having our identity threatened can be profoundly disturbing.
Getting knocked off balance can even cause you to react physically in ways that make the conversation go from difficult to impossible. Images of yourself or of the future are hardwired to your adrenal response, and shaking them up can cause an unmanageable rush of anxiety or anger or an intense desire to get away. Well-being is replaced with depression, hope with hopelessness, efficacy with fear. And all the while you’re trying to engage in the extremely delicate task of communicating clearly and effectively. Your manager is explaining why you’re not being promoted while you’re busy having your own private identity quake.
Watch 1minute video of Amanda Springob sharing how being unable to say no, to engage in a Courageous Conversation, created a Self-Identity robbed of authenticity.
You can’t “quake-proof ” your sense of self. Grappling with identity issues is what life and growth are all about, and no amount of love or accomplishment or skill can insulate you from these challenges. difficult conversation can cause you to relinquish a cherished aspect of how you see yourself. At its most profound, this can be a loss that requires mourning just as surely as the death of a loved one. There’s no use pretending there’s a quick fix, or that you will never again lose your balance, or that life’s toughest challenges can be overcome by mastering a few easy steps.
But there is some good news. You can improve your ability to recognize and cope with identity issues when they hit by being coached and trained in Courageous Conversations.