How to have courageous conversations

People at Vanti are super-nice. Supportive, funny, caring… Care is even one of our values – care for clients and care for each other.

This does have an unfortunate side effect: we sometimes find it difficult to talk about hard stuff. This is typical of a company at Green/Organisation-as-family stage.

When people in organisations aren’t able to have frank conversations about things that could be better because they’re afraid of the discomfort, improvement can be slow and things can fester then blow up in a bigger (or apparently unrelated) way.

If we’re able to clear the air regularly, things move much faster. A guy I knew once called this ‘flossing’ your relationships which conjures the idea that this should be a regular thing.

People think that conflict means something dysfunctional is going on. But healthy groups involve looking for both agreement and divergent perspectives, and even if people’s intentions are good, they can have unintended harmful impacts.

At Vanti we’ve started tackling all of this through introducing a couple of useful concepts. I have done this so far through live workshops, plus a subtitled video with a downloadable mp3 and pdf transcript, catering for all sorts of learning preferences and time commitments!

NB I used to call this work ‘difficult conversations’ but I’ve borrowed the term ‘courageous conversations’ from a conversation between the legendary activist Professor Angela Davis and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. It holds in it the quality we’re aspiring to, rather than a description of what we don’t want. 

Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference is something that I came across from organisational consultants Argyris and Schön, via Roger Schwarz. It’s a tool to see how we cognitively create ideas from data.

At the bottom of the ladder is data, stuff you can see and hear.
At the top of the ladder are conclusions and beliefs.

We shoot up the ladder very fast, and then forget that we didn’t start there.

Someone passes us in the corridor and doesn’t say hello (data).
We immediately shoot up the ladder and presume they’re annoyed with us (conclusion). Often we then look for confirming data, and start interpreting other stuff as if the first conclusion is the truth… many ladders later, we’re convinced of something that wasn’t true in the first place.

Someone doesn’t smile as much as they normally do in a meeting (data).
They’re not happy in their job (conclusion).

Someone sends a very curt-seeming message (data – kind of).
They are angry at you and you’re in trouble (conclusion).

If we can be aware of when we’ve gone up a ladder, we can, well, try and come back down it.

There are two parts to coming down the ladder:

1. Verify the data

2. Check the conclusion

Verify the data

Sometimes we didn’t even get the data right. Did that person not say hello to us? Or did we just not hear them? Good to check that out first!

Check the conclusion

This is where the terminology helps. In Vanti, I hear people saying “I think I’ve gone up the ladder… Can I check something out with you?”

Patterns that work are things like:

“When you [data]… I’m thinking you [conclusion]… Have I totally got the wrong end of the stick?”

Another thing we’ve implemented is a check-in at the beginning of every meeting. This can just be as simple as:

“What’s your mood, and what are you hoping is going to happen in this meeting?”

Knowing that someone is having a stressful time elsewhere, or has a headache, or that their kid woke them up five times in the night, helps you to not misinterpret their lack of energy or facial expression.

Which leads us on to the second major part of talking about hard stuff…

Impact eats intention for brunch

When I do something to you, I know my intention. I can only guess at the impact my action has on you.

When you do something to me, I know the impact your action had on me. I can only guess at your intention.

Within this simple impact/intention pattern lies a WHOLE HEAP of trouble.

Very very often, the impact of our actions is highly different from what we intended, and people’s intentions are different than we assume they are.

So things to work on here are:

Be curious about others’ intentions and curious about your impact on them.

And to a lesser extent

Be clear about your intentions and clear about others’ impact on you.

So much conflict comes from people guessing the wrong intentions, and being unaware of the impact they’re having.

We ran a day with the service team the other day and part of what we did was sharing people’s preferences for how to begin a conversation.

Some people said:

“Please send me a private message first, as sudden spoken communication stresses me out”

Some people said:

“Please don’t send me a typed message if at all possible as I find spoken communication easier to interpret”

These two types of people are likely to have the same intention (to communicate clearly in a friendly and considerate manner). The impact they are likely to have if they approach the other person in the way THEY LIKE to be approached is probably going to be stress or confusion.

“Why are they messaging me when I’m sitting right here?”


“Why do they come straight up to me and force me to suddenly switch into verbal mode?”

But when people hear the impact that they are unintentionally having, it opens the possibility to shift to take into account someone else’s preferences.

One of the major ways we go up the ladder of inference is guessing at people’s intentions.

Their actions are visible to us, but their inner life is invisible. This intersects with a cognitive bias that we think we’re opaque to the world, but other people are transparent. What that means is we forget we don’t really know what is going on inside someone else, and should really check it out.

So introducing phrases like:

“Can I just let you know something? I’m presuming this wasn’t your intention, but when you [action] I felt [emotion]. What was going on for you?”


“Can I check something out with you? When you [action] what was your thought process?”


“I’m worried – when I [action] I’m concerned that you felt [emotion]. Is that right?”

These are all examples of feedback-seeking behaviours which are key to keeping your relationships clear.

Sometimes things are more than a misunderstanding. It’s still effective to focus on intention and impact – taking turns maybe to explore both aspects for each person until there is at least mutual understanding.

The major thing to bear in mind is that impact eats intention in one gulp.

It doesn’t matter if I intended to step on your foot, I STEPPED ON YOUR FOOT and I should apologise and try and help you. I don’t expect you to not feel hurt just because it was an accident.

We understand this when they pain is physical, but somehow a trap we fall into is not thinking it works the same when the pain is emotional. ‘That wasn’t my intention at ALL’, we wail. The correct response is to say sorry and find out if there’s anything you can do to support/make things better. You can talk about your intentions, but you don’t focus there, or expect that to negate the impact you’ve had.

There’s a subtlety here when there is a power difference between you and the other person.

In general, impact is way more important than intention. The only major time I can think of that this isn’t the case is if the person you’re talking to is talking to you about oppression or marginalisation that you don’t experience.

For example, if:

  • a Person of Colour is talking to you about racism and you’re white
  • a disabled person is talking about ableism and you don’t live with that disability
  • a woman is talking about misogyny and you’re not a woman
  • a trans person is talking about transphobia and you’re not trans
  • a queer person is talking about homophobia/queer antagonism and you’re straight.

In this case, the impact of their words on you is not more important than their intention. In this case, their intention is more important, and if you feel scared/annoyed/misunderstood/embarrassed/ashamed, you need to process that later, away from this person.

It’s not appropriate to explain to them how their words about their oppression made YOU feel. It’s your job to listen and presume they are giving you an opportunity to learn.

(NB: This is also not the time to tell them about your oppression on a different axis and how your experience is just the same, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Apart from that specific situation, impact takes precedence over intention.

Feelings can be information

In order to be able to discuss impact, you often need to talk about feelings. Yep, feelings.

I think it can help to know that the feelings you’re feeling are often the logical ones for that situation. Here’s how I personally slice it. Your mileage may vary. Treat this as a starting point for you to find what emotions mean to you and how you can use them to get to the root of what’s happening to you.

  • There’s sadness, and its siblings wistfulness and grief.
  • There’s anger, and its siblings annoyance and rage.
  • There’s fear, and its siblings nervousness and terror.
  • There’s the weird mess that is shame and guilt.

Sadness is what we feel when a part of us thinks it’s losing something.
So if a part of you thinks it’s losing something, sadness is the appropriate emotion to feel.
In this way, sadness can also become information. You can ask yourself, ‘What is it that I think I’m losing?’

Anger is what we feel when a need isn’t being fulfilled.
It can be useful to ask yourself, ‘What need of mine isn’t being fulfilled?’

Fear is what we feel when a part of us thinks something bad is about to happen.
Asking yourself ‘What bad thing do I think is going to happen?’ can help you get to the root.

Guilt and shame is not so clear-cut for me.
Something about having broken a personal rule? Something about not being congruent with your self-image? Something linked to regret and powerlessness? Anyhoo, it’s a signal.

Being able to identify what emotion you’re feeling can help you to see if there’s a request you want to make of another person. It can also help you to unpick what’s your ‘stuff’ and what’s theirs.

Emotions aren’t always this straightforward, of course, but moving a little towards some clarity is helpful.

The magic question

Finally, there’s a magic question which I recommend you ask at the end of every meeting.

“Is there anything you’re worried about telling me?”

Feedback-seeking behaviours are one of the key ways that an organisation can maintain its flow of information and course correct at the earliest opportunity.

If you ask this question, it means you’re actively looking for feedback and keeping that channel open is vital.

Takes a bit of guts, maybe, but it really is magic.

So that’s how we’re working on developing courageous conversations at Vanti. Having conflict as a topic helps us to not brush awkwardness under the carpet, and helps us to maintain adult-to-adult conversations, instead of the normal parent-to-child conversations that often happen in organisations.

Transparency, honesty and care are how we are going to develop into the kind of organisation we aspire to.

If you’re interested in other culture work we’re doing, here’s the first in five articles that sets the scene for where we began.

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