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Courageous Dialogue | Progress in the Process

By Bella Pratt, MBA – former Blue Sky Graduate Assistant

When I first heard about a Courageous Dialogue workshop being offered by Leadershape, I was instantly intrigued. Now, don’t get me wrong–I wouldn’t say that I, like others, necessarily enjoy having difficult conversations. 

In fact, I would say that I dread them. In any shape or form, conversations that require me to be vulnerable in my feelings, my beliefs, or my identity tend to pull me apart like taffy, and I often find myself retreating back into my shell. 

Which is exactly why the workshop immediately caught my attention. I often have conversations on difficult, somewhat controversial topics within my jobs. In these discussions, I feel like I sometimes stumble through my rationale or experience and find myself almost wide-eyed and wild on the other end. I knew there had to be a better way to approach these topics. 

Listening in on the 2-hour Courageous Dialogue session, virtually attended by around 50 other Boise State students, I quickly found that others often had similar experiences as mine. As respondents mentioned reasons why previous dialogues they’d had were unproductive, many of them felt familiar: maybe they had been assertive or lacked open-mindedness; some felt like they had not been heard; or maybe their ego, bias, or emotions got in the way.

Whatever the reasoning, almost all of these themes came together: they all had to do with the heart. When breaking down the phrase courageous dialogue, this is not surprising at all. In order to understand, we have to look at the original definition of the word courage: “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”. It takes courage to speak on your feelings, your experiences, and the things that make you you. 

As Brene Brown said, and as they pointed out in the seminar, “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both”.1 Knowing this requirement to be bold and brave can make it easier to go into a hard conversation. Being aware ahead of time that there may be some discomfort, I’ve found, can make it feel less surprising when it hits–or maybe even less uncomfortable than expected.

However, there’s more than just the word courage in this phrase. The second one is “dialogue”, or looking at how words and thoughts flow among the whole group, not just one person. This is very distinct from other types of conversations, like discourse, debate, or diatribe. All three of these other types of communication are either 1-way in nature or competitive styles of communicating, while dialogue is both 2-way communication as well as cooperative.2

This difference can be seen when we look at how to move forward with courageous dialogue, which “recognizes the humanity of each individual to find a common ground.”2 This style of communicating involves thinking about and considering the other person and their needs. 

There are four principles to help us find that individual humanity in conversation:

  • Engage authentically and respectfully and be open.
  • Be open to changing your mind (while still knowing your own values).
  • Find value in the process.
  • Take responsibility for the conversation and share the mic.2

Keeping these principles top of mind can potentially make difficult conversations go a little bit smoother. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”3

Now, these principles make sense in theory, but to put them in action, the seminar offered four main tips:

  1. Listen with your mind and your heart. Think about approaching the conversation as a compassionate explorer by asking questions like “Will you tell me more about that?” This offers more space to listen to others’ experiences and thoughts.
  2. Practice respectful questioning. This often means paraphrasing what someone has said and/or reflecting on what someone has said or what you’ve learned. Examples include: “Tell me how you see the current situation”, “How can I help or support you?”, and “What ideas could we come up with together to…?”
  3. Show care and concern, while also being real and authentic. Engage through both compassion and empathy.
  4. Look at others as experts of their own experiences. There are often many different ways to approach topics depending on different people’s experiences and sometimes there is no one all-encompassing truth.2 This can be seen by the picture below, clearly highlighting how there are sometimes numerous ways to approach a problem or varied experiences that can change someone’s perspective.2

Still, it’s important to note that this does not mean that marginalized identities should have to listen to offensive or hurtful comments about their identity. As the workshop pointed out, “If a person refuses to show you respect or treat you with humanity and dignity by claiming it as their truth, that is oppressive.”1

No matter what, this type of conversation is a hard process and needs to be practiced. Even so, it’s an ongoing battle. The vulnerability that comes with sharing thoughts you often don’t talk about with others, like your values and beliefs, can be risky. People won’t always react positively when you engage in courageous dialogue. However, even in these situations, there’s still an ability to listen for new ideas and pay attention to others’ reactions–as well as our own.2
One of the most eye-opening takeaways for me in this process was realizing how not alone I was in this fear of sharing my opinion or of being shut down. In talking in small groups to three peers, I found that all of us had similar struggles and concerns. 

There were two main ideas that stuck with me to get around these concerns: being a “compassionate explorer” and everyone being the “expert of their own experiences”.

One of the facilitators pointed out that it can be great to be wrong, because it means you’re able to learn. However, oftentimes, we’re so focused on being right that we aren’t able to learn from the conversation or others’ opinions and experiences. On this note, he recommended that sometimes it can be helpful to neutralize the other person by saying how you don’t know much about a topic or that you’d need to do more research in order to have a discussion.

In the end, it’s not always about winning the conversation–and this is something that I have struggled with my whole life. I get very passionate in disagreements, arguments, fights… call them what you will.

However, as the participant manual pointed out, “It is not always about you. It is about moving the conversation forward.”2 Sometimes to do this, it means taking a step back from the conversation if we’re shutting down or feeling triggered.2 On that thought, the seminar reminded me of the importance of everyone having an opinion. As Voltare said, “I will fight to the death for your right to have an opinion.”

At the end of the day, the workshop reminded me of the humanity of giving others’ space to share their opinion, even if I vehemently disagree. Oftentimes when I feel I am being the most empathic by fighting hard for the values I align with, there is a possibility that in reality I am not being empathetic at all–at least to the person I’m in dialogue with. Finally, there was the reminder of the progress that can be made in the process, of valuing the connection and conversation more than the outcome. 

Keeping these principles in mind, maybe next time I’m in the middle of a difficult conversation, I can be pushed together by humanity rather than being pulled apart like taffy.

 

References

  1. Leadershape. (2021, March 25). Courageous dialogue. Courageous Dialogue- Boise State Session.
  2. Leadershape. Courageous dialogue participant manual [PDF].
  3. King Jr., M. L. (1958, May). Advice for living. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol04Scans/401_May-1958_Advice%20for%20Living.pdf