How to have courageous conversations: Tips from our Thrive series with Ruth Cooper-Dickson

June 2020

“The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” 


This quote, by American psychology Carl Rogers, was at the heart of our latest Thrive session with Ruth Cooper-Dickson from Champs, the mental wealth consultancy. In the session she explored with her Fora audience what it takes to have courageous conversations and why they are more important than ever as we all gradually return to the workplace.


The impact of COVID-19 has forced many companies to rethink their operations and strategic direction over the past few months. For many it has created a great deal of uncertainty so there’s a heightened need for clear communications to help business leaders and their colleagues navigate the months ahead. “None of us like difficult conversations,” explained Ruth, “but having those conversations allows us to grow.” Leading and supporting others requires courageous conversations and a key attribute of these dialogues is the ability to listen.


Listening is an important skill that can be learnt and practiced. Ruth described the different levels of listening – accurate, attending, empathetic and generative empathetic. “Active listening is about harnessing all these levels of listening. It is about genuineness, acceptance, empathy and being non-judgemental,” she said. With the negative biases in our brains, trust takes a long time to build and open conversations are important in sustaining that trust. To do this we need to dig deep into that part of ourselves – our authentic selves.


“Empathetic listening is finding something in you and connecting it with someone else. Being able to bring your whole self and sharing that vulnerability,” continued Ruth. And there is skill in hearing not only what is being said, but also what is not being said. To have effective and courageous conversations, business leaders should always remember the main intention of the conversation but they should also allow their colleague headspace and then reflect back what they have heard. They should always be open to changing their position too. 


Ruth shared practical tips on how to ensure your courageous conversations can be as effective as possible and enable you to be supportive to colleagues :

  • – Think prevention. Notice those niggling early warning signs and initiate a conversation.
  • – Consider how, when and where to start the conversation.
  • – Listen; be empathetic and open. Choose your words carefully.
  • – Frame the conversation in the context of being supportive and exploring the issues.
  • – Don’t necessarily take ‘I’m fine’ for an answer and schedule a follow up.


Ruth recommended that people should avoid the temptation to immediately look for solutions – Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. ‘Remember,’ advised Ruth, ‘you are not a counsellor and you won’t necessarily be able to fix the issue.’ 


However, just allowing people the opportunity to speak their mind and articulate their thoughts can be extremely effective. You should ask your colleague ‘hero questions’ such as ‘what are your strengths?’ or ‘what have you learnt about yourself?’ It can give colleagues a greater sense of their own ability for growth and agency, ultimately creating a working environment that distributes power and fosters trust. As we forge a new way of working, this environment can become a springboard to future success. Ruth left her Fora audience with a reaffirmation of the positive power of courageous conversations and active listening: ‘I empower someone by listening to them.’


For more information on our Thrive series with Champs, and to sign up for up-coming sessions, visit our what’s on page. You’ll also find our full schedule of virtual events to explore and attend at your leisure. Enjoy!