Courageous Conversations: The Challenges for Women

unhappy woman on the phone
By Chris Allen, Ph.D.

5 minutes

You’ll better thrive in business by using these three strategies for having tough but necessary interactions.

We need courage in many different kinds of conversations. Typical examples include handling conflict, confronting a co-worker, expressing an unpopular idea on a team, asking for a favor, saying no to a request for a favor, asking for a raise or trying to have a conversation with someone who is avoiding you.

Many women find such “courageous conversations” challenging. Some reasons that I have heard women give for this include:

  • Fear of hurting the relationship
  • Discomfort with conflict
  • Fear of someone becoming angry
  • Fear of saying the wrong thing or saying it the wrong way (as if there were a perfect way to say anything)
  • Fear of being wrong or of not knowing enough
  • Fear of losing emotional control (especially of crying when angry)

Avoiding Courageous Conversations Can Hold You Back

When we avoid difficult conversations, we don’t take risks needed for success. While we do not get what we want each time we address an issue, failing to speak our minds is a sure-fire way not to get what we want. Sometimes a whole team or organization (or even a marriage) may head down a wrong track because someone doesn’t speak up, voice the unpopular point of view or address “the elephant in the room.” Moreover, unvoiced concerns turn into resentment, bitterness, and disengagement. At work, people become disengaged. In volunteer organizations, people disappear. Relationships and marriages break up.

Gender Differences in Socialization Contribute to Difficulty in Courageous Conversations

Differences in communication between men and women have “biopsychosocial” roots. We know that socialization influences how the brain develops for boys and girls and also that biology is not destiny. Therefore, we should focus on what is in our power and control!

Many studies, in fact, show that girls are socialized to “be nice” while boys are socialized to “speak up.” However, research also shows that when girls are given choices in their families and encouraged to speak their minds, they are more likely to be direct and to worry less about being excessively polite.

While on an individual level, we may differ from the cultural stereotype, differences between most men and most women contribute to expectations that persist in our culture and affect us all. If we expect women to be unassertive, then men and women may react negatively when women speak up. Because women are socialized to be “nice,” assertive women tend to be viewed negatively by men and by other women.

Many of these biases are unconscious, meaning that people are unaware (or even deny) that they have them. For example, data reliably show that when women try to negotiate their salary or ask for a raise, they are viewed more negatively (by both men and women) than when a man does the same thing.

So What’s a Woman to Do?

1) Use your emotional intelligence to handle courageous conversations. EQ can boost our efficacy in courageous conversations and help us to use our natural gifts and strengths. Studies show that over 98% of successful leaders have high EQ and women outperform men in some crucial aspects of EQ.

Women, in particular, excel at awareness of others’ emotions and needs and in pursuing the “win-win” in relationships. Caring about the relationship in this instance becomes a strength instead of a weakness. As women, we need to learn to harness the EQ skills we excel at to manage tough conversations (tuning into and managing others’ needs, feelings and behaviors through EQ).

2) Be mindfully authentic (a.k.a. your strengths are your superpowers). Know your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Even a strength overused can be a weakness. So, if tuning into others’ needs is your strength, use it mindfully for courageous conversations. Overused empathy can be a weakness leading you to put others’ needs over your own. Similarly, although being direct is a strength, we need to know when to be patient or to soften our approach or we may be perceived as abrasive.

3) Be mindful of verbal softeners. Verbal softeners (such as “just,” “actually,” and “does that make sense?”) can undermine how powerfully we come across. This way of talking tends to imply subordination to others. Importantly, women and men both use these softeners (in speech and in emails), but data show that women tend to do so reflexively and automatically, whereas men tend only to do it when they are unsure of themselves.

Rather than becoming self-critical (as we were socialized to speak this way), women can use their excellent relational skills purposefully and intentionally to manage difficult conversations. We need to know when not to use these softeners because it will undermine our credibility.

Finally, if men learned to purposefully use more verbal softeners, perhaps the world would be in better shape, as there might be more compromise and less need to win at all costs.

As one of my favorite leadership gurus, Margaret Wheatley, said, “Be brave enough to have a conversation that matters!” Your relationships and your business will thrive if you do.

Chris Allen, Ph.D., a workplace psychologist and executive coach, is the president of Insight Business Works. She helps organizations and leaders develop the “people” side of the business. She is a Certified Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator Practitioner, a Certified PeopleMap Trainer, a Board Certified Coach, a Certified Workplace Big Five and Workplace 360 Practitioner, and a Licensed True Alignment Practitioner. Changing organizational culture to align cultural values with business outcomes is her passion.

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Chris Allen, Ph.D., will present the Elite Access course "Powerful Communication for Women" at noon on March 30, 2021.
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