A study from TELUS Health found that 50% of UK workers aged 20-29 years old are concerned that speaking up about a mental health condition could stint their career progress, with this stat dropping to 29% as the workforce aged 60 years old and older.

Research revealed that one in four (25%) employees do not feel like they have a voice in their organisation, and the same study from Ciphr also revealed that one in six (18%) feel that they don’t belong at work most or all of the time, with this rising to 33% for under-24-year-olds.

We need to commit to changing this. Everyone deserves a workplace where they can get support if and when they need it. Having the courage to speak up and address concerns and issues is an underrated trait we need to start celebrating more.

What are courageous conversations?

A courageous conversation is any that deals with a particularly tricky subject. In approaching this subject, members of the conversation can listen and learn, and then can work to bring about real change that benefits everyone.

As an example, a minority could be upset about how they are treated, potentially not by the company but by society as a whole. They could then want to have a courageous conversation to bring awareness to the discomfort they feel in their everyday life. This, as a result, allows their colleagues to be more thoughtful and inclusive. It could also potentially encourage them to examine their own unconscious biases as they try to bring about change that benefits the one who originally raised the issue.

What makes these conversations courageous?

A courageous conversation requires courage both to enact and to even facilitate. These types of conversations are not easy to have. It is not the same as raising a point during a meeting or sending a note to a manager. Though these acts do require their own degree of courage to speak up, they should not be included in this type of conversation.

Courageous conversations tend to come with discomfort. Though they are necessary and are often put forward with the best of intentions, they can require a level of confrontation. People may have to examine their own personal biases or long-held beliefs, and they have to be willing to listen to the one raising the issue no matter how uncomfortable the conversation gets.

You should always protect your mental health and try to remove yourself from situations or conversations where that protection may be breached. However, that does not mean that you have the right to shut down a conversation about a concern raised by an employee or colleague simply because it will make you feel uncomfortable.

What are the main barriers to courageous conversations?

Choosing to hold a courageous conversation isn’t easy. More often than not, someone will feel like there are other factors holding them back from even attempting to open a dialogue, never mind actually holding the conversation.

These factors holding a person back most commonly include:

Little confidence

Firstly, a team member might lack the confidence to discuss nuanced topics like race or disability.

Having confidence is not the same as having courage, though the two may go hand in hand a lot of the time. Though a person may have the courage to bring up the issue, their lack of confidence could cause them to fear the outcome of the conversation. There is the potential to damage what might be a great relationship, or further harm might come their way, thanks to a rebuttal or pushback from affected parties.

However, the overall outcomes of courageous conversations can help us to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. By having the confidence to speak out and lead these conversations, we can work towards conquering our fear and making our organisation a great place to work.

Little time

It can often feel like we don’t have enough time for our tasks and responsibilities, never mind something important like a courageous conversation. A good leader will carve out time in their diary if a junior member of the team approaches them with an issue. This is not the time for a “walk and talk” meeting” — it needs to be taken seriously so full focus can be given to the issue at hand.

Little skills

People can feel like they have the confidence and time to take on such a conversation, but they might feel like they lack the conversation skills to be able to effectively speak on the subject. While we shouldn’t shy away from discussing topics such as racism and inclusivity, most people like to be educated on the subject so they can speak with confidence and understanding of the subject at hand.

How to facilitate a courageous conversation

Whether you are the person who wishes to have a courageous conversation or someone approaches you asking for one, you need to prepare facilitators and other parties for a structured and fair conversation. Considering each part of the discussion as its own stage helps to construct a structure to guide you through the conversation, prevent it from descending into a confrontation, and hopefully allow you to resolve the issue or at least work out how to carry it forward.

This typically looks like:

Before the conversation

First, you need to decide if the dialogue is worth having in the first place. Sometimes, the outcomes of courageous conversations can be incredibly difficult to bear. Participants may be left feeling like they are no longer welcome in their team or place of work, and their feelings may be left seriously hurt.

Put fear and ego aside and decide if the consequences of not having such conversations are more bearable than speaking up. Sometimes, in order to maintain our psychological safety, it can be best to keep quiet.

If you do decide to proceed with the conversation, make sure you know the purpose behind it. What do you think will be achieved as a result of this discussion? What gives you the right to open this dialogue?

During the conversation

When you sit down to talk with your conversation partners, take some time to set up the discussion rather than launch into it straight away. Prepare everyone for discomfort and ensure that they consent to it. Make it clear that they can walk away if they need to gather their thoughts and protect their mental health.

Set expectations and the emotional tone. Conversations such as this are likely to become very emotional, but for change to be made, everything should remain calm and rational. It can be difficult to fully explain our feelings when we become emotional, so writing out the points we wish to discuss can help us establish everything we want to say. Remember, courageous conversations can always be rescheduled if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed.

After the conversation

First of all, take time to regulate any emotions you may be feeling. You may need to take some time apart and gather your thoughts before deciding on the next steps. You also may need to wait for someone to recognise that they are responsible for some of the actions that have caused hurt.

Once everyone has had time to reflect on the conversation, the next steps can be planned and facilitated. Depending on the nature of the discussion, this could look like many things. It might involve sensitivity training or leadership development, amongst other potential paths.

No matter what, express thanks that the conversation could take place. It can help to dispel some of the awkwardness or discomfort that still surrounds you, and it can also be a good opportunity to open discussion over where to go next.

What can I do when things don’t go as planned?

Not all courageous conversations will have positive outcomes, and it is important that we recognise this. Someone could refuse to admit that a problem does exist, or they could turn around and point the finger elsewhere in an attempt to shift the blame.

A much deeper and more sinister problem could also be revealed, requiring further support to be brought in. This can potentially cause distress to the person who originally raised the issue as more eyes are brought to it.

Even if the conversation backfires on you, take heart in the fact that you faced your fears. Most likely, you will now have more information and insights that could help you to reach a conclusion on your own, whatever that might be.

Take steps towards courageous conversations today

Courageous conversations are never easy to ask for. However, choosing to bring the issues they discuss into focus can bring clarity and understanding to a situation.

No matter what, we need to make sure that we create a sense of safety and space in which these conversations can take place. A leader needs to be prepared to mitigate any conflict that might arise as a result of these discussions. With the right framework and respect being shown to all members of these talks, we should be able to navigate any challenges thrown our way, no matter the discomfort they may cause.

For 20 years, ChangingPoint has equipped organisations with tools to manage change and navigate challenging situations. Our Personal Impact Leadership course is designed to break habits and help you change long-held behaviours so that everyone in your business can continually evolve and thrive.

Book a discovery call today and find out how we can help your management facilitate and support all conversations and calls for change within your company, especially those who need the courage to speak up.

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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