Calling on Courage

Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.

-Anais Nin

Most often, people cite fear as the central struggle they have when giving feedback or engaging in difficult conversations with colleagues. The thinking goes like this:

“I don’t want to hurt them.”

“I fear offending them.”

“I don’t want to alienate them and lose the relationship.”

Even with the benefits of honest feedback in mind—enabling healthy conflict, innovation, creativity, and building trust—fear of hurting the receiver often causes us to avoid or water down the valuable messages we long to deliver.

Gordon Barnhart offers Four Forms of Courage in his book, The Heroes Journey, that are relevant to anyone who is challenged to speak truthfully.

  1. The Courage to See and Speak the Truth

Before any discussion can occur, there must be something to discuss. That is, we must foster courage to see the (often difficult) truth. Once noticed, we can name what is happening between us. By learning to see and speak the truth we can mend problems or create new solutions. Being a truth teller means verbalizing what we see authentically to others, despite our worry that it might offend. It helps to remember that when we speak truth, it is simply what is true for us—the other person may not see it that way or even agree.

  1. The Courage to Create and Hold Forth a Vision of the Desired State

When it comes to difficult conversations, this form of courage invites us to imagine ourselves and the other person on the far side of a conflict or feedback conversation. The image of getting through the difference intact, whole, and in strong partnership, can guide the conversation, often unconsciously. With this vision of the outcome, our fears are less likely to usurp and break down the conversation. Look where you want to go: with successful resolution and an even stronger partnership in mind, those outcomes are more likely that if fear guides and derails the conversation.

  1. The Courage to Persevere and Hold the Course

In difficult interactions, the intensity of feelings and anxiety that the conversation might break down make it easy to hand in the towel prematurely. We must hang on even when the interaction gets stormy, trusting that on the other side of our differences is successful resolution wherein we both understand each other and feel that we have honestly expressed ourselves, listened, and been heard.

  1. The Courage to Collaborate With and Rely on Others

Ultimately, in hard conversations, we are interdependent. If we are in a feedback exchange or difficult conversation with another person, it is because both of us matter to the outcome at hand. The partnership itself is consequential to the eventual outcome, and each of us matters in it. As a result, claiming our interdependence helps us “show up” with another when it really counts. Telling ourselves we can do it alone at work usually results in the failure to garner and offer the support we and our team need to get material things accomplished. Our ability to foster and cultivate interdependence creates the phenomenal.

So, when your heart rate increases and your palms start to sweat as you prepare to talk about tough stuff at work, remember to call upon your courage. The fear of hurting another person can feed on our fear of disconnection—of fracturing a partnership that matters—and, as a result, drive productive feedback into the ground.  These 4 Forms of Couragehelp us remain centered and focused during difficult conversations. Practicing feedback courageously places progress, not disintegration, where it really counts: on the far side of disagreement, dissent, and disillusionment.

To reflect, when was the last time you used one of Barnhart’s 4 Forms of Courage? What was the outcome?

Jim Morris