We have ways of making you talk. The fear of difficult conversations.

  • Posted by: James Marshall
  • Category: Leadership

When it comes to leadership, what are the situations that cause leaders the most discomfort? After 15 years of facilitating leadership programmes, I would guess it’s having a difficult or a courageous conversation.

Courageous conversation can be described as when time is short, stakes are high and emotions run deep, when our imaginations and inner voices run riot in the context of unpredictable outcomes.

Psychologists say difficult conversations trigger our “schema,” the unconscious rules we develop growing up on how to behave. Our schema often encourage us to avoid uncomfortable situations. Schemas can be useful shortcuts but often ignore the whole picture.

I think leadership programmes are MOTs for our schema, to be curious if they are working well and perhaps to develop new ones.

For me, having grown up in a variety of different families as a child, I have developed fairly unhelpful schema around conflict or how difficult conversations might lead to people disliking me or rejecting me. We ask all our leaders, when it comes to Courageous Conversations, what are their biggest fears. Which ones are applicable to you?

  1. I will be rejected, disliked or not respected
  2. I will look foolish, stupid or not be understood
  3. I will make a mistake, be wrong or be imperfect.
  4. I will not fulfil my potential, fail, disappoint myself or be seen as incompetent or as an imposter
  5. I will create a toxic environment or legacy
  6. I will hurt someone or be seen as being unfair

These fears might well represent a kind of x-ray of our anxiety management systems, the aspects of life we both value and dread losing. Twenty years ago, as a producer on the BBC TV documentary The Human Mind, an eminent neuroscientist told me our fear circuits are not always fit for purpose. They have been redeployed from keeping us safe from predators to now protecting us from damage to our egos. Humans, like many mammals, have innate fears around our safety, status or inclusion.

So, what helps to have a courageous conversation

  1. Realise that you are not alone. Fearing these conversations is very common. Once people realise, we all have the same doubts and fears, it can be reassuring.
  2. Your schema do not always tell you the truth. Your fears are not always real, more an impression of the world and we tend to catastrophise. Nothing is as bad as it seems. You may believe the person will erupt in fury, you’ll be ostracised, or you’ll dry up, but that’s a necessary part of your defence system, trying to keep you safe. The truth is usually more prosaic.
  3. Learn to live in your body and not just your head. An actor friend once told me “there is no such thing as fear, just poor breathing.” Take control of your breath and you take control of the situation. It’s also about recognising fear and the accompanying inner critic and developing an inner coach.
  4. Get crystal clear on your intention and outcome. Then plan the conversation, even rehearse. State calmly what the facts are and talk about the impact and your needs. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
  5. Listen at a deep level. Develop an intense curiosity to what is really happening to the other person. It’s rarely about facts and usually about conflicting needs, perceptions and interpretations.
  6. Carry out an experiment. Write in a journal what you think and fear will happen and how the other person will react, have the conversation and then write up what actually happened. It’s a great way of finding out whether your fears tell you the truth

Part of the journey with Courageous Conversations is to build what has been described as “creative hopelessness.” It’s a great phrase. Learning to be uncomfortable and deal with those difficult moments. Notice your triggers, your emotions, your stories and stay there. Learn to diffuse and focus on outcomes and intentions.

What really shifted my schema was the idea that I should really be frightened of NOT having those conversations. You face far more threat to your status, growth, respect or safety by dodging these conversations.

With our strategies, tools and a safe “container” we can steer people to get in touch with their fear and begin these conversations. I know we have changed lives, because as the writer Veronica Roth once said, “fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up.”

Come and try our Courageous Conversations half-day or full day, virtual or Face-to-Face.

Author: James Marshall