Blog - Straight Talk: Conversational Courage

Conversational Courage is the grit, skill, commitment & willingness to lean into a conversation that we anticipate will be difficult for any number of reasons.  Read our latest blog by Emily Cosgrove of which she discusses the importance of Conversational Courage.

Straight Talk – Conversational Courage

Conversational courage is the grit, skill, commitment and willingness to lean into a conversation that we anticipate will be difficult for any number of reasons. In a work context these kinds of conversations often fall into the performance or attitude bucket but may just as easily be around mental health or bereavement.

Our work at Conversation Space has shown us time and time again that many people would rather choose any other route than the one which leads to having a difficult conversation. We know that fear and assumptions are major players in why we avoid them.

As humans we have evolved by surviving in groups and we innately worry about what other people think, of being perceived negatively by others, particularly by those in power. Even though the threat we face is most probably not life threatening, our primitive brain still rules and sends us into fight or flight. The impact of which often sees us avoiding conflict. We find endless justifications for our avoidance, including reasons such as, “I don’t want to hurt their feelings”, “If it happens again, then I’ll speak with them”, “It’s not my place to have the conversation”. The list goes on.

So how to change this? Often, we give people a process to follow, a formula or method. The theory. Seldom do we give people the opportunity to practice stepping in and have a go at speaking our difficult conversations out loud. In a safe learning environment.

The current trend in learning and development is to do it in fast, bite-sized chunks. More insta. We work hard to ensure that learning experiences can fit easily into those snippets of our busy days not already jam packed or scheduled to the hilt. We ensure that they are accessible on as many platforms as possible, ready and waiting for us when it is most convenient to access them. We strive to make it as ‘easy’ and convenient as possible to learn. And, let’s be honest, why wouldn’t we when the rest of life seems to be going this way? Who doesn’t enjoy listening to a great podcast on the tube or in the car heading home?!

The reality, however, is that for some aspects of our development – the ones that we often find most challenging but can make the biggest difference – we need to exert more effort than just fitting it in to a convenient moment. In the same way, talking and reading about physical fitness will not develop the muscles we hope to grow by turning up and digging deep at the gym. This is what Mary Slaughter and David Rock describe as effortful learning, “The same way you feel a muscle ‘burn’ when it’s being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning.”

Conversational courage is a great example of the need for effortful learning.

Back to the gym! We can understand all of the academic theory on this, know all the questions to ask but that’s no help because when we’re in the room, face to face with a colleague, team member or even difficult neighbour, that all goes out the window. To get better at this, and be able to do it when it matters, we must grow the muscle to be able to do it through practice, practice and more practice.

To really shift our people’s skills in stepping up to great conversations, we need to help them understand how to do this well and, critically, provide them with the opportunity to practice in a psychologically safe environment.  Growing the confidence to have those tough conversations requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to experience discomfort, to practice, and to reflect. We need to feel the discomfort of doing it, and this takes effort.

So, are you willing to take a risk and do something different? Something to really help your people shift into the discomfort, have a go and start talking.

At Conversation Space our mission is to “Strengthen human connection through the power of conversation”.  We work with companies like Boots, King, EY and HM Treasury to help people at all levels grow their conversational courage, and we’d love to work with you too.


By Emily Cosgrove

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