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Courageous Conversations

Courageous Conversations

Mark.Freed / 21 May 2018

Achieving positive outcomes from difficult discussions

If you are expecting a conversation to be difficult or awkward, it probably will be – here are six points from the E2W Career Coach to help you prepare.

Why do we find some conversations difficult?  What makes some conversations require more courage than others?  This topic was discussed by one of the groups at the April E2W Front Office networking event.

Certain conversations will be difficult because they really matter.  There may be a strong link to your values, principles, or sense of fairness.  It is equally important therefore to be aware of your emotional responses to your planned conversation.  Women in the E2W membership have told us asking for a pay rise, requesting flexible working, positioning for promotion, questioning a performance review, can all be conversations they find challenging.  These requests are intrinsically linked to our emotional wellbeing and the outcome will have a personal impact on our motivation and job satisfaction levels. 

Emotions and the brain

The primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, deals with emotions, producing straightforward fight or flight responses.  Responses can be powerful and illicit the emotional responses to cry, flee, or get angry. Understanding how you feel about the topic of your conversation will help you plan your response so you can stay in control.  ‘You can’t control other people, but you can control how you react to them.’ (Anon). 

In addition, research shows that over 80% of conversation is non-verbal, so although you may be careful about what you say, you also need to be aware of your body positioning and facial expressions, as these may be communicating a different message.

How can you manage difficult conversations?

  • Change your mindset

If you are expecting a conversation to be difficult or awkward, it probably will be.  Try and reframe the conversation in a positive, constructive manner. 

  • Plan your conversation

Try to plan what you want to cover, including your anticipated emotional responses and plan how you will deal with them.  Practice your conversation with a trusted friend.  They will be able to give you feedback and pointers (exposure technique).

  • See it from both sides

Avoid the ‘my way, or no way’ approach.  Understanding the other person’s challenges will enable you to ask questions, display empathy and allow flexibility to find a middle ground.

  • Can you give something back?

If you are requesting access to a project or assignment, present your request with a viable solution.  Try not to create a problem they won’t have time to solve.

  • Keep to the facts

If you are planning on asking for a pay rise or promotion understand the value you have contributed to the company.  Have your case prepared to back up your request: examples of when you have gone beyond expectations and quantify your contributions.

  • Think about the timing

Try not to spring your meeting on your boss.  Warn them of your intentions and give them time to plan for the meeting.  

‘Having a difficult conversation well is not just a skill, it is an act of courage,’ (Holly Wells, ‘Failure to Communicate’, HBR 9/1/15).   The best conversations and decisions are made using both logic and emotion.  Aim to keep these in balance during your conversation to retain focus and composure and achieve your goal.

If you would like support with a difficult conversation, the E2W Career Coach Rhian Bowler is here to help.  Please contact for more information.
Footer: Rhian Bowler is the E2W Career Coach with many years’ experience of human resources and coaching at leading organisations.

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