Human beings are strange. More specifically, our natural instinct to shy away from interacting with other human beings is probably the strangest thing about us. I’m generalising here, but recently I’ve come across many people and situations where this has shown itself. As my dear Sister puts it, people become ‘Awkward Turtles’ when having to interact with other people. What on Earth is an Awkward Turtle? Well, basically an awkward turtle is a person who suffers from self-induced social anxiety. Here’s a scenario: you’ve forgotten someone’s name and you’re afraid to ask them for it. So instead you ask them to punch in their phone number with the correct spelling on their name. Turns out their name is Ben. Awkward Turtle! Here’s another scenario: when someone keeps calling you Adil or Atif but you’re afraid to tell them that your name is actually Adit. Awkward Turtle! Man, names are clearly a problem. We need some sort of numbering system for humans. Back to the point, these Awkward Turtle situations invariably drive people away from human interaction. If you’re a software person, I completely understand why you would much rather prefer dealing with your code than with people. Code makes much more sense than human beings! Well, sometimes. But when it doesn’t, there’s always stackoverflow.com. Now you tell me, where can one find a Stack Overflow for difficult situations involving humans – a community of people dedicated to finding effective and efficient solutions to other people’s social problems? You can’t! That brings me to the purpose of this blog post: socialising and talking to people can get really difficult and awkward, even more so when you need to have a difficult conversation that confronts someone or something. So, what are courageous conversations, why should you have them, and how should you have them?
What are Courageous Conversations?
To put it concretely (Andrew Ng reference, cue Gopolang’s impersonation), courageous conversations are conversations which are extremely difficult and uncomfortable to have. They generally stem from a need for change or intervention. Some examples of courageous conversations are:
- Telling an important business stakeholder that their R23 million project has no value.
- Telling you Boyfriend/Girlfriend that they have bad breath.
- Telling your Indian mother that she’s putting too much masala in the food while she has a rolling pin in her hand.
I’ve humoured it a bit but please, let this not detract you from realising how difficult some conversations can get, like confronting a racist person in public when they’re being openly hurtful. If you haven’t already, check out this Youtube channel ‘what would you do’ to get a clear sense of what Courageous Conversations are.
Why Have Them?
Arguably, the most underrated, overlooked and necessary questions you can ask in any situation is ‘Why?’ and ‘What is the purpose?’. The absence of purpose is the absence of reason. So, what is the purpose of courageous conversations and why should you have them? Well, to mention just a few, courageous conversations prevent bad decisions from being made, they allow for an exchange of perspective, and foster openness. At a much deeper level however, courageous conversations satisfy a fundamental human value – Integrity. Allow me to elaborate by performing a rudimentary Root Cause Analysis exercise using the ‘5 Whys’ technique:
And that’s what integrity is! Being true to who you are and who you are is reflected in your values. The way I have traversed this ‘why tree’ may be different to the way you would traverse it and I would love to hear from you and see what your tree looks like. I am quite certain, however, that your tree will terminate at a branch of values (provided you have asked and answered questions honestly). Having a courageous conversations is an active attempt at maintaining integrity and aligning with your value system.
How to Have Them?
I cannot profess that I am in any way an expert in having these courageous conversations or that I have a ‘Five Step Approach’ to having them. What I can do is draw from the wisdom of others which has guided me to date in tackling courageous conversations. Nike’s slogan articulates one approach quite neatly: “Just do it”. I suppose that’s where the word ‘courageous’ makes its way into the term. The starting point is mustering up the courage to just do it – have the conversation. Once you’ve mustered up this courage, it’s important to note that if you’re going into a courageous conversation with the intention of starting a fight, you’ve already lost. Courageous conversations are about honesty, respect and perspective! Greek Aphorism thief from my previous blog post once told me “you need to be fully present in the moment and be open to taking in all that comes your way”. Sathya Sai Baba says: “You cannot always oblige but you can always speak obligingly.” There’s a time and place for everything and it’s important that you remember that at the end of the day, you’re talking to another human being.
There’s no doubt about it, courageous conversations can be really difficult to have sometimes and can even leave you with emotional, mental or physical bruises. By choosing to have a courageous conversation you make yourself vulnerable and vulnerability puts you at risk of getting hurt. But let me just say, this type of vulnerability is beautiful! Here’s why: consciously accepting vulnerability shows that you have taken a step towards integrity and towards being true to yourself. And in my opinion, the biggest fallacies that can be committed are those which go against who you really are – your value system. So, I leave you with this:
“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.” – Margaret Wheatley