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5 Ways To Build Courage And Competence For Difficult Conversations

5 Ways To Build Courage And Competence For Difficult Conversations

Some people think I’m courageous. I’ve lived and worked all over the world and regularly speak in front of hundreds of people, so I must be, right? Well, no. For whatever reason, I don’t find this scary, and courage is the ability to do something that frightens you. What would take courage is for me to jump out of a plane. So, I don’t do it. And I’m comfortable with that because, let’s face it, there is very little upside in falling through the air.

One thing that most people find frightening is speaking up when faced with decisions or actions they disagree with. And that makes sense: Many of the stories we hear about people speaking up end with the individual facing some kind of negative outcome, including, in extreme cases, being ostracized. There are few movies or books written about employees who point out a problem and are immediately thanked and rewarded for doing so, and yet that happens, too – and more often than you might think. When people speak up effectively, they can find that not only do they survive, but thrive.

My favorite example of this is a man I met in London. A highly-paid banker early-on in his career, he became the owner of chain of successful antique shops. He no longer relied on his day job to pay the bills and so started to speak up, questioning decisions he felt weren’t adequately reasoned out and asking questions that previously he might have avoided in case he came across as less than all-knowing. Suddenly, his peers and the people above him began to notice him, and he made extraordinary progress very quickly, repeatedly being promoted.

It is possible to create positive change by speaking up. Indeed, it’s practically impossible to do it any other way. But being courageous isn’t enough. You have to be competent, as well. Speaking up isn’t enough – you have to do it effectively. It’s not always the right time, the right issue, or the right person – and of course there are risks. But you can minimize these by remembering some key principles.

1) Build the relationship before you need it.

If you already have trust with the person or people you need to talk to, they’re much more likely to listen.

[Related: Advice On Building Trust From Business Advisors Who've Been There]

2) Get the timing right.

You’re a lot less likely to get a good response if you address an issue with your boss in front of her boss. Instead, find some time when you’re alone and give them a succinct explanation of what you want to address.

3) Explain your purpose.

As important as it is to be clear about what you want to address, it’s equally important to explain why. Left to our own devices, we’ll often come up with the worst possible explanation about why somebody is raising something we don’t enjoy hearing. Make it clear why you’re taking this risk.

[Related: Solutions to Cut the Drama and Tackle Communication Breakdowns at Work]

4) Make it about them.

If possible, link your purpose to something the person you’re talking to cares about. A great example of this is a client who knew that her boss cared about hitting the sales budget and pointed out that if he interrupted the team when they spoke, he was less likely to hear good ideas about sales initiatives over time.

5) Take responsibility.

In many cases, you will have some responsibility for the issue at stake. Even if the only thing you did wrong is allow the “bad behavior” to continue longer than you should, take that responsibility. It usually disarms the other person and stops the conversation being derailed as they respond with, “But you did/didn’t….”

Remember that the skills needed to speak up effectively can be learned, but they are skills and, as such, must be practiced. You can’t simply read a book or articles; it takes deliberate practice over time.

[Related: Self-Awareness Tips for Leading With Positive Impact]


Author, Managing Director, and Executive Coach Dawn Metcalfe helps people to hear and be heard effectively to get the results they want, no matter their culture, background, or experience.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.