Courageous Conversations in the Workplace

Courageous Conversations in the Workplace

Have you ever avoided a difficult conversation with someone at work, in the hope that the issue will resolve itself?

If only things were that simple!

A few years ago I was the leader of a team of 12 people. There was a particularly challenging situation that I was reluctant to address: a team member had a persistent body odour problem. It was affecting the workplace atmosphere and making interactions with their colleagues difficult. My team members began avoiding any interactions with this person, and eventually, the issue even started causing complaints from our clients. My reluctance to have this uncomfortable conversation led to a loss of trust and respect from my team, and the situation became increasingly problematic.

I realised that avoiding a courageous conversations only made things worse. To resolve the issue and maintain a comfortable and professional workplace, I had to embrace the discomfort and initiate the conversation. This experience taught me the value of having courageous conversations, no matter how awkward they might be.

Here’s how you can handle such situations effectively using a simple yet powerful approach:

1. Observation:

Start by describing the specific situation or behavior. Be factual and avoid making judgments or bringing emotion into the conversation.

Example: “In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that there have been instances of noticeable body odour, particularly during team meetings.”

2. Impact:

Explain the impact of the behavior on you, the team, or the work environment. This helps the person understand “why” the issue needs to be addressed.

Example: “This has made some team members uncomfortable and has also led to a few client complaints. Your workmates are starting to avoid you, and our clients don’t want you back on-site until the body odour is addressed.”

3. Listen:

This step is so important because it is where you invite the other person to share their perspective and listen actively. They might share insights and information that you weren’t aware of.  Show empathy and acknowledge their viewpoint.

Example: “I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Is there something going on that we can help with or address?”

4. Request:

Make a clear and specific request for future behavior based on the information gathered. State what you need or expect moving forward, and work to find a common agreement where you both agree on the next steps.

Example: “Moving forward, it would be great if you could ensure your personal hygiene is maintained. Try wearing a stronger antipersperant and changing your shirts more often.  If there’s anything specific you need, like support or resources, please let me know. Let’s check in together in a weeks time to see how you’re getting on.

Why Courageous Conversations Matter

As uncomfortable as they may be, courageous conversations are essential for maintaining a healthy and productive work environment.

By addressing problems early, it prevents them from escalating into larger issues that can affect team dynamics and performance.

Being willing to have tough conversations shows that you care about the well-being of your team and are committed to maintaining a respectful workplace.

Also, when issues are addressed constructively, it fosters a positive work environment where everyone feels heard and valued. This is so important for psychological safety and healthy team dynamics.


Tips for Having Courageous Conversations

Prepare and Practice: Think through what you want to say and practice the conversation if needed. Being prepared helps you stay calm and focused. Try starting with low-risk conversations to get more comfortable with the process, before you move onto conversations with higher stakes.

Choose the Right Time and Place: Be discrete and have the conversation in a private setting where you won’t be interrupted. Timing is also important—choose a moment when you both can have a calm and focused discussion.  I would also recommend you don’t have a conversation on a Friday afternoon which leads the person to “stew” on it all weekend.

Stay Calm and Composed:  Keep your emotions in check. Take deep breaths and approach the conversation with a calm and respectful demeanor. Don’t have a courageous conversation when you’re feeling emotional or stressed, as your “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) won’t be operating rationally or logically – you are much better to calm yourself first so you don’t have a conversation from a place of anger, frustration or other heightened emotions.

Use Positive Body Language: Maintain eye contact, keep an open posture, and nod to show you’re listening. Positive body language reinforces your message and shows empathy.

Follow Up:  After the conversation, agree on a time period to follow up together and ensure the issue is being addressed and to offer any additional support. This shows your commitment to resolving the issue and supporting the person.


How can you encourage assertive communication in your team?

Always lead by example and demonstrate assertive communication in your interactions. Your team will be more likely to adopt similar behaviors when they see positive outcomes.

Create a safe space and foster an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns without fear of judgment.

Being assertive can be very unfamiliar and uncomfortable for many people, so you may want to consider offering training, workshops or resources on assertive communication to help your team develop the necessary confidence and skills.

Invite team members to give and receive feedback on a regular basis to help build a culture of openness and continuous improvement.

Acknowledge and reward team members who demonstrate assertive communication. Positive reinforcement encourages others to follow suit.



Having courageous conversations is an essential skill for leaders and team members alike.

By following Observation | Impact | Listen | Request steps, you can address challenging issues constructively and maintain a positive and productive workplace.

Remember, it’s not just about addressing problems—it’s about fostering an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to succeed.

So, the next time you’re faced with a difficult conversation, embrace the discomfort, and remember the impact it can have on your team and workplace.

With a bit of courage and the right approach, you can turn challenging situations into opportunities for growth and improvement.

And who knows, you might even become known as the workplace superhero who saves the day with a single courageous conversation!


If you or your team could benefit from guidance or training in have courageous conversations and building assertive communication skills and confidence, book a free discovery call with me and let’s talk!

Carley Nicholson
[email protected]