Courageous Communication: Speaking From the Heart

By News & Events
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I was recently honored to speak to a group of more than 80 women in Syracuse for the February program of the Women’s Business Opportunities Connection, a local women’s business organization. The topic of courageous communication clearly resonated with this group of amazing women entrepreneurs, who generously participated, sharing their challenges and questions. Here’s a quick summary of the essential points!

We all know how much doesn’t get done in business, in government, and in life because people are unwilling or unable to have “that” conversation or because “so-and-so” won’t speak to “so-and-so.” Imagine the possibilities if we could have these important conversations. What if courageous communication were a “superpower” that we could learn to harness to exponentially increase our effectiveness in business and in life? I believe that it is. But like any skill—from playing tennis to running a business—courageous communication takes knowledge and practice. Fortunately, life gives us many opportunities to practice! Here’s some information that can make your practice more effective.

What is Courageous Communication?

The word courage comes from the French word coeur which means “heart”. Courageous communication implies bravery, which includes an open and perhaps even a pounding heart. If a conversation is easy for you, then it doesn’t qualify as courageous communication. What requires courage for you may be different than what requires courage for someone else, but we will all have conversations in which we need to brave.

Courageous communication is needed in many different kinds of conversations. Common examples include handling conflict, confronting someone you work with, expressing an unpopular idea in a group or on a team, asking for a favor, saying no to a request for a favor, asking for a raise, or trying to have a conversation with someone who is avoiding you.

Common issues that hold women back from having a courageous conversation are:

  • Fear of hurting the relationship
  • Discomfort with conflict
  • Fear of someone being mad at us
  • Fear of saying the wrong thing or saying it the wrong way (as if there was a perfect way to say anything)
  • Worry that we are wrong or don’t know enough
  • Fear of losing control of our emotions (especially of crying when we are angry)

How Avoiding Courageous Communication Hurts Us
When we don’t have these difficult conversations, we don’t take the risks we need for success. While we surely do not get what we want each time we address an issue, failing to speak our minds is a sure-fire way to not get what we want. Sometimes a whole team or organization (or even a marriage) could head down a wrong track because someone doesn’t speak up, voice the unpopular point of view, or address “the elephant in the room.” Moreover, unvoiced concerns turn into resentment, bitterness and disengagement. People at work may turn to Facebook, online shopping, or calling in sick at work because they don’t trust that their voice matters or their point of view will be heard. In volunteer organizations, people disappear and drop out. In personal relationships and marriages, there are breakups.

Gender Differences in Socialization Contribute to these Difficulties for Women
Many studies show that girls are socialized to “be nice” while boys are socialized to “speak up.” However, research also shows that when girls are given choices in their families and encouraged to speak their minds, they are more likely to be direct and to worry less about being excessively polite. Of course, on an individual level, we may differ from the stereotypes, but these group differences between most men and most women contribute to cultural expectations that persist in our culture and that affect us all.

Gender Bias Really Exists!

Because we are socialized to be “nice,” assertive women tend to be viewed negatively by other women and by men. Many of these biases are unconscious, meaning that people are unaware (or even deny) that they have them. For example, data reliably show that when women try to negotiate their salary or ask for a raise, they are viewed more negatively (by both men and women) than when a man does the same thing.

So What’s a Woman to Do?

1) Use your emotional intelligence (EQ) to handle courageous conversations

EQ can boost our efficacy in courageous conversations and help us to use our own natural gifts and strengths. (More on this in a minute.) Studies show that over 98% of successful leaders have high EQ and women generally outperform men in some important aspects of EQ.

According to Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, EQ is a combination of: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social/Other Awareness, and Relationship Management. Women in particular excel at Social/Other Awareness and Relationship Management. This is where caring about the relationship actually becomes a strength instead of a weakness. As women, we need to learn to harness the EQ skills we excel at to manage those tough conversations (tuning into and managing others’ needs, feelings, and behaviors through EQ).

2) Be Mindfully Authentic (a.k.a. Your Strengths are Your Superpowers)
This means know your own strengths and minimize your weaknesses. A strength overused can be a weakness. So if humor is your strength, use it mindfully for courageous conversations (through emotional intelligence skills). Overused humor can be a weakness and come across as insensitive. Similarly, directness is a strength, but direct people should know when to be patient or to soften their approach or they may be perceived as abrasive.

To discover more about your strengths, for starters, check out Strengthsfinder.com (inexpensive) or authentichappiness.com (Values in Action Character Strengths survey which is free) or hire a coach.

3) Be Mindful of Verbal Softeners
Verbal softeners (such as “just,” “actually,” “does that make sense?”), “uptalk” and “vocal fry” can undermine how powerfully we come across as women. This is a way of talking that tends to imply subordination to others. Not surprisingly, men and women both use these softeners (in speech and in emails), but women tend to do so reflexively and automatically, whereas men tend to only do it when they are actually unsure of themselves.

In my view, women should not be self-critical of this style because we have been socialized to be this way. Moreover, if men used more verbal softeners, perhaps the world would not be in as much trouble (from terrorism and war, etc.) and more deals could get actually get done.

Instead of being self-critical, what we want to do is use our skills for social awareness and relationship management purposefully and intentionally to manage difficult situations and conversations. We need to know when not to use these softeners because it will undermine our credibility.

Becoming an expert at courageous communication is like becoming an expert in any skill—it takes knowledge and practice. With the knowledge above, go out and practice (and track your progress in a journal or with a buddy coach). As leadership guru and author Margaret Wheatley said, “Be brave enough to have a conversation that matters!”

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