Why difficult conversations are the most important ones to have
How communicating honestly leads to more productive and trusting relationships
People naturally tend to avoid uncomfortable conversations. They can lead to awkward, stressful, or challenging situations, especially in the workplace. Addressing complex issues like social justice, race, or privilege can make people squirm. But what if we embraced courage and intentionally made space to candidly discuss difficult topics? How would open and honest communication, even when it is uncomfortable, impact our interpersonal relationships? Such was the topic of the day 1 keynote address “Courageous conversations: change through communication” delivered by Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA; and Philip Nelson, DVM, PhD, at the 2022 Fetch dvm360® Conference in San Diego, California.
What is a courageous conversation?
Weinstein and Nelson sought to flip the concept of the uncomfortable conversation on its head, instead calling it a courageous conversation, because of the bravery required to initiate a discussion on a topic you’d rather avoid. The idea is not to force others into an uncomfortable situation, but rather to be open, truly listen to their experiences, and mindfully broach subjects that can elicit strong emotional reactions. It’s not easy to navigate, and there are many potential pitfalls. That’s where courage comes into play, they noted.
Weinstein explained how he started on this path. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, he reached out to his friend Nelson to talk about it in hopes of better understanding the racial and societal issues at play. Their conversations soon became regular and eventually grew into a podcast, "Peter and Phil’s Courageous Conversations", when they realized the value of confronting these topics head on. “One of the lessons that we did learn was that we came to different conclusions, even though we were considering the same acts, and the conclusions that we made were largely based on our life experience,” said Weinstein.
Why is it important to have courageous conversations?
If this type of communication is so fraught, why have courageous conversations at all? Weinstein and Nelson suggested that, when handled successfully, these conversations lead to stronger bonds and more positive relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. They said that in the workplace, empowering employees to speak their truth can help teams to understand more perspectives, be more inclusive, broaden diversity, promote productive feedback, address unconscious bias, and more.
As an example of different experiences and perspectives, Nelson explained how the term “the talk” means different things to different people. For Weinstein and many others, the talk is when a parent explains the concept of sex to their children for the first time. He said that for a Black man, family has suffered discrimination from law enforcement, and this means the talk is very different: “My talk is making sure that my boys know how to survive an encounter with the police,” Nelson said.
The speakers suggested that this example is a microcosm of all the differing experiences people have, and it’s hard to truly understand another without talking about these issues and learning where each person is coming from. “We must be courageous enough to express ourselves without fear,” Nelson said.
How and when to foster courageous conversations
Pushing outside your comfort zone leads to growth, but there is a right way to go about it to maximize impact and minimize the risk of a tough conversation turning awkward or hurtful. The first step is knowing when to have one. The pair offered a few key situations in which a courageous conversation would be productive:
- When you or another person has been negatively impacted by someone’s behavior or words
- When you see or feel something that negatively impacts others not present
- When you feel a different point of view needs to be represented in a conversation
Other situations that can lead to courageous conversations include conflicts between coworkers, saying no to a request, and poor performance.
In these moments, it’s important not to wait to have a courageous conversation, the speakers said. Hesitation can cause an issue to escalate. Invite all parties to an open and honest discussion, and be prepared not just to speak your truth, but to listen with intent and suspend judgement.
The speakers said to envision how the conversation should preferably end, while keeping in mind the potential emotions, reactions, and motivations of others involved so that you might steer the conversation toward the ideal conclusion. Keep emotions out of the discussion by sticking to the facts and practice what you’re going to say beforehand. Over time, Weinstein and Nelson said, your team will get better at handling the adversity of these courageous conversations and be stronger for it.
Nelson P, Weinstein P. Courageous conversations: change through communication. Presented at: Fetch dvm360® Conference; San Diego, California. December 2-4, 2022.