Whether it’s raising a concern with a colleague about their behaviour or asking your boss for support to help you progress or to change your career path, it can be scary to ask for what you really want or need. It’s not unusual to hesitate or to avoid having these difficult conversations and instead to keep your head down and go about your business as usual. Meanwhile, your assumptions about what others might think or feel remain unchallenged — instead they remain in your head as truths and form stories that live inside you and that can drive you to unwanted behaviours.
When you get caught up in your own stories, rigid thinking can set in and cause you to feel stuck in a dead-end job or hopeless career or to believe your colleagues will never change. You may begin to minimize your concerns, to expect negative responses from others, and to avoid interactions that might cause waves or feel uncomfortable. After holding in what’s on your mind for too long, you may even begin to overreact to interactions or to respond destructively.
I describe this place of stagnancy and discontent as the “caution zone,” where curiosity, empathy, compassion, and self-compassion may not exist, and where your stories are untested and protected. You may feel safer and more comfortable here than in what I call the “courage zone,” where you share your thoughts and feelings and are vulnerable. I’m not suggesting you should be unprofessional or tell others everything that’s on your mind, but by expressing even one thing that concerns or worries you, you can begin to clear the mental clutter that’s been getting in your way. In doing so, you can change actions that others may view as a negative attitude or a lack of focus and productivity.
If you’re not sure when is the right time to leap from the caution zone to the courage zone, start by considering these questions.
- What do I risk by leaving the caution zone?
- What do I risk by staying in the caution zone?
- What’s my worst-case scenario if I discuss what I’m thinking about?
- What’s my best-case scenario if I discuss what I’m thinking about?
By considering these questions, you can begin to rationalize your thoughts and feelings and prepare to move to the courage zone, where you can challenge your assumptions and create new stories in partnership with others.
To illustrate what a shift from the caution zone to the courage zone can look like and the impact it can have on career fulfillment and trajectory, let’s take the example of “Kate,” a mid-career professional who asked if I could help her carve a new career path. She said she felt trapped in a job where her work was constantly scrutinized and her recommendations were rejected often. She doubted that she could move laterally or advance in her organization due to her specialization. She had started to think about a career change, perhaps to teaching or consulting.
When I asked Kate to think of a peak or highlight of her work experience, she replied that she had been working on an interesting new project, but it had been shelved due to lack of resources. When she first spoke about this project, she smiled for a second and her eyes lit up as she recalled it. That moment was a perfect coaching moment. I asked her to tell me more about the project and then challenged her assumptions about the value of her work on it. For the next six weeks, I worked with Kate to help her shift out of her caution zone and create new stories about the value she could bring to her organization. During this time, she had several courageous conversations with her boss and other leaders in the organization that resulted in her landing a new position overseeing her dream project.
Like Kate, you can prepare to enter the courage zone by framing your approach in advance. Ask yourself these questions.
- How do I want to show up and be viewed by others in this conversation? As assertive or aggressive? Controlling or collaborative? Curious or judgemental?
- How would I like others to feel during and after the conversation? Clear or confused? Pressured or informed? Engaged or disinterested?
By identifying your intentions and recognizing how you may appear to others, you can make better decisions about the words you choose and how you act. While you cannot control how others feel, you can listen to learn and to better understand their concerns and respond by addressing their needs and interests.
Scripts don’t work well in courageous conversations because they don’t allow you to be fully present and attuned to your own and others’ thoughts and feelings. By being curious, empathetic, and compassionate, you can better understand mutual wants and needs, create new stories with others that are forward focused, and discover new pathways to more fulfilling career experiences.