Creating Safe Spaces for Courageous Conversations

A conversation is a dialogue not a monologue.

That’s why there are so few good conversations:

Due to scarcity, two intelligence talkers seldom meet. Truman Capote


Susan Scott, in her book Fierce Conversations, says that all relationships are based in conversation. “The conversation is the relationship”. Without conversations our relationships falter and wain.  This goes for businesses too.  One of the things I constantly see in all types of organisations I work with is the lack of Courageous Conversations happening because people are unskilled, afraid, or indifferent to stepping up to challenge the status quo.  Scott states that business is fundamentally an extended conversation with colleagues, customers, and the unknown future emerging around us.  What gets talked about in a company and how it gets talked about determines what will happen, or won’t happen.  A leader’s job is to engineer the types of conversations that produce epiphanies.

What is required is an engagement in dialogue.  Quantum physicist, David Bohm, describes dialogue as a process of “awakening”, as a free flow of meaning is created among all participants.  It originates from two Greek words, dia and logos which translates to “meaning flowing through”.  Dialogue differs from both debate and discussion which mean to “beat down” and to “break things up” respectively.

When we can learn to dialogue, which is to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, we expose people to their own thinking and open that thinking to the influence of others. (Senge 1990: 9).  This means we set the stage for discussing the “undiscussibles”.  These undiscussibles are generally the things that really need discussing.  They are the things that are blocking deep, honest, meaningful conversations from occurring.  When we can have the courageous conversations that address these undiscussibles we create an environment for positive change and growth within a relationship, team or organisation.

The first step in creating a safe space for dialogue is to create a set of guidelines that set the scene for standards of expected group behaviour.  Roger Schwarz, in his paper, Are You Using Ground Rules Effectively?”, provides a set of behavioural guidelines for effective participation in dialogue.  These are:

  1. State views and ask genuine questions.
  2. Share all relevant information.
  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
  4. Explain your reasoning.
  5. Focus on interests, not positions.
  6. Test assumptions and inferences.
  7. Jointly design the next steps.
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues.

Once we have agreed on these guidelines and we understand what they actually mean in practice (ie behaviours) we can begin to navigate the conversations with shared respect and openness.

Some other guidelines I think are useful are:

  • Listen.
  • Be present.
  • Suspend judgment.
  • Seek first to understand then to be understood.
  • Choose language carefully.

A courageous conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, into the conversation, and make it real.  This requires a set of agreed guidelines to assist us in commencing the process to establish shared meaning that leads to aligned action.

I would be delighted if you would share your thoughts on courageous conversations with me.  Please email me at


Posted in On Leadership