Do You Need Courage for a Courageous Conversation?

Bob Wiesner | November 6, 2018

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We all have faced the prospect of providing comments, news or feedback that we rightly believe will be tough to hear. We fear the reaction we’ll get. Not just disappointment, defensiveness or anger. Perhaps also indifference or rejection.

What do we do?

Either we avoid the conversation completely. Or we sugar-coat the message to the point where it’s unrecognizable. Or we say what we have to say, then at the first sign of an adverse reaction, we roll it back.

Nothing here does any good.

The solution offered by many executive coaches and trainers has often been called the “Courageous Conversation.” I used this term a lot myself.

The Courageous Conversation is a myth

But think about it. Why does it require courage to speak the truth the someone, no matter how they’ll take it?

By framing the giving of bad news or tough feedback as a “courageous conversation,” I think we’ve made it even harder for the giver. We’ve asked them to take on an emotional and mental attitude that seems daunting.

And I now think unnecessary.

Instead, let’s think about it this way: Effective communication needs structure. A beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs an objective. What do you want the receiver to think, feel and/or do as a result of the communication? It needs information, evidence, compelling stories. And not too much of any of these. Finally, effective communication is two-way. You listen to the other. You make sure they understand the message from their standpoint, not just from yours.

Giving bad news fits neatly into this.

You don’t need courage. You need purpose, structure, and information

Words matter. So let’s drop the idea of these conversations needing courage. Right away, that idea makes people nervous. Or too aggressive.

What these conversations need is a plan. A sequence that makes the objective of the communication crystal clear. It needs real information, not hearsay or conjecture or even emotion. As I often tell my clients, facts are your safety zone. It needs clarity and, when required, balance. It has to be delivered in way that allows both you and the receiver to give it full attention. And it needs great listening by both parties.

Delivering tough news is necessary. But as this HBR article points out, it’s better to be direct when there’s a problem then to launch into a BMC session. (“Bitch-Moan-Complain”). You don’t need to be brave. You just need to be smart.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash



Difficult conversations are necessary for anyone. Not just for bosses giving feedback. It needs to happen with peers if you want to ensure high-functioning teams. It needs to happen between clients and their consultants if you want long-term relationships. It needs to happen with direct reports if they want their supervisors to be a great job developing them.

In fact, in leaner, faster-moving organizations where people have to do more with less, it’s going to be even more common.

There are multiple situations where disagreements, even conflict, are possible. So our Conflict Resolution workshop can make a huge difference in how well your people work with each other, how much they enjoy (and benefit from) what they do, and how long they can sustain key internal and external relationships.

The program takes the situations that your specific organization or team finds to be most problematic and provides tailored solutions. These solutions are built from solid understanding of key elements like mindset, self-perception, motivations and needs, networking, goal-setting and purpose. Your teams get real plans for minimizing the impact of disagreement. They can even use those occasions to strengthen key relationships.

Photo by bernardbodo / Getty Images

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