I spoke at the American Camp Association national conference in February on the topic of conjuring courage to have hard conversations. It turns out, there were several hard conversations young professionals in attendance wanted to have, including holding staff accountable, making camp more racially and gender inclusive, and confronting higher ups who create hostile work environments.
I took attendees through a process of identifying and evaluating key components of courage that work together to promote courageous action. In a best case scenario, young leaders would be able to navigate through the process with ample lead time to in order to evaluate risk and resources appropriately.
But, we don’t always have the time we desire, as someone in the audience aptly captured in her question to me. “Can you talk about how to muster the courage to have the hard conversation in the moment vs. later on?”
The essence of her question, I figured out, was about speed of access. How do you convince courage to show up in real time when you’re in your boss’s office listening to them lob disrespectful comments in your direction?
The way to gain quicker access to courage is to increase your experience level, engagement, and familiarity with the courage process.
Think about signing into a website with your user name and password (one that requires a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters). If you visit the website frequently, you probably have little problem calling to mind your credentials to gain access. However, if you only go to the site once a quarter, you’d likely have a more difficult time remembering the password you set up. In both instances, the process to access your account remained the same. However, the frequency with which you accessed the process had changed.
If you want to elevate your chances of calling up the quality of courage to help you with a difficult situation in the moment, you’ll need to increase your engagement with the courage process.
What is the courage process?
Courage is an adaptive process that involves weighing the risks in front of you and the resources inside of you to face those risks. As you make your assessments, courage wants you to end up in a place with the right motivation, skills, and confidence for acting.
Considering the risks
Weighing risks beings with identifying them. This may sound easy enough, but it can, actually, be a difficult evaluation to go through in the moment if you lack reliable prior experience. Think quickly. What are the risks of challenging your boss about the condescending comments they spew?
You might say that you could be retaliated against, humiliated or judged. Those responses may not have been hard to come up with since it’s quite easy for our minds to think up worst. But, here’s the other, less considered, side of the question. What is the risk of not challenging your boss about their disrespectful comments? You suffer in silence, disappoint yourself and underrate your worthiness for being respected. Now, we’ve set up some tension — tension that you want to be able to resolve in real time. To do that, you’ve got to measure the risks. Why? Because all risks are not created equal. Therefore, you’ve got to be able to mentally separate out and classify them. You can do this by identifying a sequence of consequences attached to the biggest risks you’ve identified. What happens if you lose your job as a result of standing up for yourself? What if you stay mum and perpetuate an internal feeling of worthlessness? The impact of risks can be large or small, brief or lasting.
Clarifying the purpose
The courage process doesn’t stop at identifying and evaluating risks. You also need to evaluate your motivation for action. What’s the point of calling out your boss, anyway? The answer to this question could have an impact on whether you’re equipped to see courage through. Courage likes for the reason behind an action to be internally inspired and connected to your values because that connection can make the motivation more identity-congruent. According to research, once a choice becomes identity linked, it is automatized.
Sizing up skills
There’s still more evaluation to do. You’ll need to size up your skills, abilities and confidence level to face the risks you’ve identified. After all, what’s the point of understanding risks and your reason for challenging your boss without having a good handle on whether your skills are reliable enough to help you navigate through the risks? There are several skills you may need to initiate the conversation, one of which is technical. Technical skill and ability gives you the words to say and the technique to display in the conversation. On top of that, you’d want to be able to depend upon a solid ability to settle into your discomfort. This skill that allows you to control strong, biological reflexes to flee when your brains perceives the situation as distressing. And, you’ll want to have good rebounding skills. Acting courage doesn’t come with any guarantees (other than personal growth), so it’s important that you believe in your ability to dust yourself off, if necessary, and persist.
This might seem like quite a bit to evaluate, and it is. But, here’s what I know from mining my own experiences with acting courageously: the evaluation process often gets faster and easier the more you engage with it. That fact may not be exactly what you want to hear if you feel compelled, yet uncertain, to address your boss’s toxic tone then and there. You might wonder if there’s a way to freeze time around you to allow yourself an opportunity to take the beats you need to prepare for the confrontation. There isn’t … but there is something else you can try.
Buying time to call up courage
Here’s a mental trick that may buy you more time to evaluate risks and resources in the moment and create a larger space for courage to creep through: ask more questions.
Questions are great whether you’re trying to stall or not. They will allow you to engage with your boss in a way that invites them into the conversation and help you establish a sense of control in a likely uncomfortable situation.
Let’s say your boss just called you incompetent for being able to figure out a new scheduling system installed last week.
What you really want to say to your boss is that labeling you as incompetent makes you feel disrespected and undervalued and that this isn’t the first time you’ve felt that way. You want to bring up the three comments from earlier in the week that left you feeling dejected, and of course, you want to explain how your boss’s communication creates a fearful work environment where no one feels happy or productive.
But, you don’t have a good sense of the risks from making such comments and how you would deal with them. So, you can try inserting questions to ease into the conversation and give yourself space to listen and think.
Was your expectation that I would be able to learn this system in a week? How did you come up with that expectation? You sound upset with me. Is that how you’re feeling? Can you tell me what you mean by incompetent? Do you have other examples of how I have displayed incompetence at my job? (Hopefully, the answer is ‘no’.) Is incompetence an appropriate word to use here?
Following up questions like these with precise statements about how your boss’s comment made you feel takes courage. The hope is that the questions do a good job of giving you a bit more time and space to conjure it.
There is no short-cut to courage. Conjuring it in the moment or in the distance involves a process of evaluating risks, reasons, and resources. That evaluation can happen quickly or in time depending on the level of experience, frequency and familiarity a person has with going through the process. In some cases, when your courage hasn’t quite arrived, beginning a hard conversation with questions may give you a bit of extra time for evaluation and for courage to show up.
If you are interested in learning more about the courage process in order to activate your own courage, check out The Courage Workout Plan program.