Shipra Biswas Bhattacharyya is a Partner at Kearney
I asked for it to happen and all it took was a courageous conversation.
For some, having bold conversations at the workplace comes easy—especially if you were raised and conditioned so. With the risk of being generic and banal, let me say, it is comparatively easier for men to have these conversations—asking for a raise, expressing dissent over bonuses, not shying away from taking credit for fantastic work. These conversations are considered “normal”. But for most women, this can be uncomfortable and super terrifying. Having said that, most of us, hide behind what’s easy—“say nothing, do nothing”. And that is the cumulative sin we commit, which sends us collectively back in time.
I must say, over the years, I have had many of these uncomfortable workplace conversations. Whether it was about putting myself up for a deserving promotion without being weighed down by an unplanned pregnancy, or out-counselling my beloved mentee to pursue a different career path more amenable to his individual strength, or demanding better sanitation facilities at a client factory side for women consultants on the team, I would say, I have not taken the easy route of doing nothing. What worked for me, may not work for you, but it may help you in starting the thought process. Pick what works best for you.
Be ready to feel the discomfort but be authentic and clear – Don’t assume you’ll be all hunky-dory. Don’t hide your true feeling under the pretense of being professional. Discomfort is often a feature, not a hurdle on the path towards having bold conversations. Nothing is worse in a conversation than being dishonest to one’s true self. However, keep your ego at bay—don’t focus on your sense of entitlement or attack the other person.
Pick the right time and place – This is hygiene! I mean you don’t want to talk about extremely touchy and sensitive topics when the other person is about to catch a flight, leaving 50 other bystanders bewildered and/or amused!
Weigh your fears – Think of the worst and best possible outcomes. As you decide on how you want to approach the situation at hand, weigh the pros and cons of these two questions a) What happens if I don’t speak up and do nothing? b) What’s the worst consequence of this conversation? Am I ready to face that?
Have real expectations – Courageous conversations are often thought starters, without having immediate results. Keeping ‘age-old’ problems unresolved is the most comfortable solution after all for most people, so you may not be able to find common ground instantly—be prepared for that.
Do the groundwork, find allies – Everyone is entitled to their opinions and this can be overwhelming. Therefore, be sure you bring the facts because it helps make the case in an objective way. Most leaders are more responsive to data than to emotions. Also, check in with a few other colleagues who might have similar issues or views as yours, but haven’t been courageous enough to broach the topic. Bringing them on board will provide powerful momentum and thus, the cause being discussed will gain more traction.
Practice the conversation – This is super important! Especially if the topic is close to your heart, it is natural for emotions to take over. Do a role play with your close buddy, spouse, or your alter ego in the mirror. Despite practising, I have been guilty of teary-eyed and emotion-strung conversations. But the best advice I have gathered over years is, if you do get too upset, take a break and reschedule the meeting.
Have you faced issues in your workplace and your wider professional relationships that are weighing you down? Are you not able to cope with what is being asked of you? Are you afraid to challenge your superiors? Are you harming your junior’s development by not providing honest feedback? Do you have questions that you have been sweeping under the carpet for long? If the answer is yes to any of these, then it is about time you had a “courageous conversation”.
The author is a Partner at Kearney