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  • Andy Garnett

Courageous and Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations, which may end up turning into outrageous conversations can have a critical impact on the individuals concerned and the organisation. When does a conversation become an argument? When does a discussion become a political joust? Are both thoughts and opinions heard?

Two colleagues at odds following tension which requires a difficult conversation.

There is often the perception and feeling that there isn’t enough time to truly listen and thoughtfully respond to one another. But if we value our work or personal relationships, time should be made to invest in these and sometimes that means to have these difficult conversations, which most try to avoid for various reasons.

Ultimately, the way to resolve conflict is through productive and successful conversations between two or perhaps several parties, whether this is trying to establish world peace or simply discussing who is taking the children to school. Communication is key. Sometimes, depending on the area or difficulty of the conversation, a mediator may be required so that both sides of the story is heard. However, this is a skill base we are able to develop ourselves and amongst our teams with the correct training, building confidence and the ability to have these courageous conversations.

Unfortunately, language can often go wrong or misinterpreted and contrast the intention.

“I know I said it but I didn’t really mean it”.

So you ask yourself why did you say it? Was it a moment of haste or driven by emotion? Or did the message simply become confused through choice of words and tone of voice?

I once said to an individual that they were a liar, which gave them an adjective and a label. This created a huge barrier in our ongoing relationship. The fact is that they had lied to me, which in my view was a matter of fact, in their view it was a matter for consideration. I continue to regret this clumsy use of language 15 years on. Although for a variety of reasons we have been able to maintain our relationship despite some difficulties. Was I arrogant to make this judgement? Yes. Was it worth it? No.

Regardless of how tempting it may seem, insulting people rarely has any success and is likely to damage future professional or personal relationships.

One of the great things about the United Kingdom is we have freedom of speech, a cherished civil liberty. Sadly, however, we have the ability to abuse this liberty at our own cost and that of others. The prolific use of social media now means we have the ability to transmit messages without consideration or context and in my opinion it is just noise, with a far reach.

The reoccurring issue is that the thought of having a difficult or courageous conversation, is scary! Will I say the right thing or offend? Will I look engaged and interested? I have good intentions coming into this meeting, but will my points and opinions be valued or perceived in the intended way?

Below are a few suggestions on how to have more successful (courageous) conversations:

  • Being able to meet and converse in person/face to face is still proven to be the most effective way to communicate, despite the ever-growing use of virtual platforms and hybrid working

  • Consider when the right time, right place and right tone is for this discussion, you do not want to be giving a performance review in a pub for example.

  • Confidence in approaching conversations is important, and this can be built from the preparation you have made prior. It is worth writing down what key points or situations you wish to address and what you want to achieve from the conversation, the desired outcome and what steps should be taken to achieve this.

  • Avoid chatting or banter.

  • Stick to the facts, particularly if you are dealing with performance matters. Often leaders/managers can come unstuck when they cannot define acceptable levels of performance that were not previously agreed.

  • When giving feedback the SAID model will provide a structure and focus to the feedback without the conversation feeling accusatory.

SAID model
  • Remember that open questions are useful to gather information and closed questions are used to clarify. If you only ask closed questions you won’t get the insight required to develop and progress in the conversation and this can become more of a monologue.

  • When approaching a difficult conversation, it is key that both parties feel comfortable in speaking freely without the fear of repercussions.

We all have the ability to say nothing, but sometimes we don’t know when.


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