On Having the Courage to Have a Tough Conversation

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On Wednesday I spoke to the MD here and handed in my 30 days’ notice. When I explained why, we had a great discussions about working more flexibly – paying for my contribution, not my time etc. So after February, that’s how we’ll work which means if I have lots of other client work, I won’t be involved but if a project comes up and I have the time, I can work as an associate. The first one in the company’s history! She said she recognised I was the future but still thought I was mental for not wanting a steady job….

As someone who always has a quote to guide me, I love the concept Cheryl Strayed explores in her book Brave Enough, in which she calls quotes “mini instruction manuals for the soul”. In a recent interview with Michaela Hass, Strayed elaborated:

When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I remembered Winston Churchill’s “Never give in.” A quote doesn`t have to be incredibly complicated or profound to have a powerful impact. It can be something as simple as, “I can do this!” This might allow you to do something that you think you can’t do. The quote I essentially made up for myself on the hike is just a statement: “I’m not afraid.”

The poet David Whyte has written my soul’s current instructional manual – in a recent workshop on Conversational Leadership I scribbled furiously in my notebook, but this really grabbed me: “the gateway to the next epoch of your existence is always through the doorway of a conversation”. I love the word “epoch” – so much more inspiring than “stage” – there’s a sense of something being created that matters, a period that will be reflected upon as one of real growth, as transformational. As the founder of Capital Conversations, an organisation that puts communication that is conversational, participatory, questioning and collaborative and the return on human, rather than financial capital at its core, I think a lot about conversations.

Real, purposeful conversations are more often than not difficult conversations. Difficult conversations take self-awareness, skill, strategy and a sincere desire to do good. They also call for courage. In life and work, too often we choose the path of safety and give up the possibility of addressing issues that undermine relationships, limit productivity, chip away at the culture and constrain opportunity, rather than create possibility.

Such conversations are powerful enough to open the gateway to the next epoch of your existence. I know this first hand, but it always thrills me when others discover this for themselves, as my friend did just last week. A former Learning & Development professional for a large organisation, she has founded her own company to help organisations develop the culture required to shift to the next stage of their evolution.

In the early days of a lifeshift the new venture doesn’t always provide regular income and taking on part time work, short-term contracts or freelance work is a necessary means to an end. Balancing the need to pay the bills and generate clients is challenging and difficult to always get right, but having a very clear sense of what it is you are trying to create and why is crucial.

The “means to an end” work needs to sit in the context of this over-arching purpose. If you find your energy is being depleted, or leaves you little time to focus on the new venture, such work becomes counter productive. Or to quote Glenna Doyle on the creative impulse: “you have enough energy to do your work. You just don’t have enough energy to do….not your work” This is where my friend got to with her current contract and knowing this gave her the courage to have the conversation which led to her being her the first associate in the company she was intending to leave.

I had a similar conversation just this week with an artist friend who 5 years ago left her job as an analyst to pursue her dream. The success she’s enjoyed as an artist is impressive with huge clients both commercial and in the arts world, commissioning her, but as all artists know, cash flow is a perennial challenge. A part time administrative job in an arts organisation seemed to be the answer to meet her regular bills and allow her to maintain her creative energy, but returning to office life when she’d enjoyed the autonomy life as an artist afforded her, left her wondering whether she’d done the right thing.

I’ve written before about the years it took for me to make my own lifeshift and that was also through the doorway of a conversation.

After several years of being relentlessly focused on the next promotion and leaning in hard to break the glass ceiling, events conspired such that I found myself taking a package from my “dream job” (it was a nightmare). Whilst I kept in mind the mantra my executive coach friend (and now business partner, Michael) had given me – “how can you think of events happening for you and not to you” – I still felt like I was stumbling; I knew I was precisely where I needed to be (my Mum had terminal cancer, the time I spent with her in her final months was truly a gift from the nightmare job), but I lacked the clarity about where I was heading next, which was new, uncomfortable territory for me.

In 2013, 9 months after taking the package, an ex-colleague, now in a new role as Finance Director at a UK retailer, called me and asked if I’d be interested in helping him create the organisational culture he wanted. There was much to recommend the role – I knew my potential boss well and like him and was aligned to what he was trying to create and I had been exploring creating something around cultural change and leadership with Michael. However location wise it wasn’t right – I’d be required to weekly commute to the HQ 400 miles away and I wasn’t keen to return to Finance, a function I’d been away from for 5 years.

Unattached to whether I got the job or not, and having practised living with the mantra that events were happening for me, I explored possibilities and asked searching questions of everyone I met through the interview process. This contrasted with past interviews, where I’d focused on selling myself, forgetting of course that they also had to prove themselves an employer worthy of my talents.

This lack of attachment to the outcome allowed me to be more assertive about staking a claim for me in my career; I negotiated 11 weeks holiday pa and I worked 2 days a week from home, 3 in the office allowing me more flexibility to manage family life and opened up the possibility of re-training. Whilst I didn’t know it at the time, the role was a means to an end; I hired Michael to help me run a 3-day leadership programme and its success generated the self-belief I needed to lifeshift, just 9 months later.

Having a very clear sense of purpose is critical to keep you on the path to the next epoch of your existence and through the ups and downs that “means to an end” work invariably has. When what you’re doing has a higher purpose, the conversations necessary to maintain the balance are no less difficult, but they require less bravery; there is simply too much at stake to not go through that doorway.

If articulating that higher purpose is proving to be difficult, “don’t die with your music still in you” seems an appropriate quote to live by as you stumble towards the gateway to the next epoch of your existence, to do the work that you can’t not do. The work only courageous people can.
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