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Five top tips to having a courageous conversation in the workplace

  • Written by Sally Kirkright

From time to time we all encounter situations where a person's behaviour is inappropriate and we feel a need to say something.    It may be that your job requires you to have these conversations with people on a regular basis. A common myth is that raising the issue might make things worse, however a carefully constructed conversation might save things from getting worse.

Recent data from AccessEAP shows that both conflict with managers and colleagues are two of the top ten presenting issues that Australians face in the workplace. Close to 15% of the employees, seeking support, presented with these issues. Conflict is an unavoidable consequence of working life, but in many instances it doesn’t have to escalate to that level. It is a common myth that raising an issue could turn a working relationship sour; however a carefully constructed conversation might be the saviour. 

“Our imaginations are very powerful, and this can be quite problematic when coupled with the anxiety which is often generated by the prospect of having a potentially difficult conversation. We tend to imagine that the worst will happen,” explains Sally Kirkright, CEO, AccessEAP, a corporate psychology organisation which supports and develops positive organisational behaviour. “Instead on dwelling on the negative aspects, we need to reframe these conversations as courageous conversations and focus on the opportunities these conversations could present.” 

Here, AccessEAP outlines some tips on having courageous conversations;

1. Be confident with your concerns

It can be easy to stop ourselves raising concerns by minimising their importance. For example, we may tell ourselves we are ‘just being silly’, we are ‘being too sensitive’ or ‘it’s not such a big deal’. These thoughts are counterproductive because the fear keeps you from being courageous. If the issue is impacting you or someone else negatively or if there are consequences to not raising the issue, then it’s important. Be clear about the reasons why you are initiating the conversation.

2. Focus on the behaviour

Let the person know that it is their behaviour that is upsetting or concerning you. Be careful not to label the person as this can result in them becoming defensive. Counter their defensiveness by distinguishing the problem from the person, and invite their input in how to address the issue. For example instead of saying ‘you’re selfish and lazy’, you could say ‘when you leave me to clean up everything I feel let down because I’m doing it all alone without any help’.

3. Be clear and specific

Anxiety about how someone might react can lead to messages being ‘watered-down’. We may give a lot of positive feedback in amongst the negative, or we might talk generally to a group about behaviour that bothers us without speaking directly to the person involved. The risk is that your message will not be heard by them. Say what you sincerely believe needs to be said, even if you know the person you are speaking to may not enjoy hearing it. Share what it is you want to say, and be sure to phrase it in a way that is respectful towards that person.

4. Listen

This can sometimes be the hard part because people can be defensive or angry after hearing your concerns and feedback. They may deny that there’s an issue and even convince you it’s ‘all in your head’. Before you launch into your opinion of the situation, listen first. Don’t interrupt, explain, justify or defend. There are always two sides to a story and there will be time respond later.

5. Respond calmly

Depending on how the person has reacted to your concerns remaining calm can be tricky, however focus on clarifying the factual accuracies of what the person has said. Their feelings are subjective and you can’t change these. The person may be angry with you for some time. Confidently re-state your concerns, but remember if you start getting upset, call time out. You have to manage your own emotions first before you can respond well to others. You may need some time to think about what each other has said before you come to a resolution or compromise.

For more information on training available to engage in a courageous conversations and constructive communications, please visit