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Courageous Conversations

Courageous Conversations: A How-To

Shared with permission of Soul Fire Farm Institute. Usage guidelines here.

In 2024, Soul Fire shared an updated presentation on their Courageous Conversations protocol, which is available on Google Docs.

For Soul Fire Farm to continue to improve its functioning as a community and to strengthen our culture, we need to improve our ability to address and process conflicts, misunderstandings and behaviors that are unaligned to our community agreements and standards. Skillfully having “courageous conversations” is a trauma-informed method for addressing troubling incidents. Below is a template to support us all in developing our ability to hold and sustain productive conversations in challenging circumstances.

A courageous conversation is a conversation held with the intention of unpacking an event that troubled, hurt, mystified, or worried the person asking for the courageous conversation, with the intention of creating an improved relationship or improved performance with the other person as well as dispelling myths and false assumptions. The process recognizes that no individual has access to the whole Truth; we each perceive one aspect of the truth. While not intended as a script to be followed exactly, “courageous conversations” have a sequence and structure to guide them. The structure is designed to help make the most effective learning conversation possible.

The Courageous Conversation Protocol #

  • Prepare yourself for the courageous conversation by reflecting on your goals and intentions.
  • Write down what exactly you hope to get from the conversation. Write down whatever assumptions or possible assumptions may be in play for you or the other person. You can keep these notes as your personal reference.
  • Ask the person to have a “Courageous Conversation.” Share your purpose in holding the conversation and what you hope to get out of it as well as the issue/conflict/topic. Obtain consent for the courageous conversation and agree upon a time that works for both parties. This initial contact can be face to face or in writing. “Can I pass you a kumquat?” is our key phrase for feedback oriented conversations.
  • Remember that either person can invite a witness to be present for the courageous conversation if desired. Please check with the other person to make sure they are comfortable with the person you want to witness. If not, brainstorm a person who would feel comfortable for both of you.

Step II: The Conversation, In Three Parts #

Hold the “What Happened” conversation

  • Take a learning stance by explaining the issue and telling the story of the problematic event/issue. DO NOT express certainty or speculate about why the person did what they did. Hold your view as a hypothesis and your feelings as real.
  • Invite the other person to tell their story of the same event/issue.
  • Identify any community standards, expectations, or agreements that you believe were broken.
  • Explore, explore, explore both stories to develop agreement about just the facts of what happened, “the movie” (NOT how anyone felt about it yet).
  • List any unknowns/unknowables or irreconcilable facts for shared reference.
  • Avoid getting stuck in “who’s right” or adopting a frame of blame.
  • Look for evidence that both people may have contributed to the event/issue/conflict and list those contributions.

Hold the “Feelings” Conversation

  • The convener of the conversation expresses and names their own feelings about the issue under discussion AND then invites the other person to share how they are feeling about the issue.
  • DON’T evaluate the other person’s emotions. Not your job.
  • DO acknowledge their feelings.
  • DON’T try to control the other person’s reactions.
  • DO take a break if needed at any time.
  • You may also share your assumptions, wonderings, and internal narratives at this time.
  • Acknowledge their subjectivity by saying, “This made we wonder whether…” or “I want to check out an assumption that I have…”
  • This conversation element is done when both sides have expressed and had their feelings acknowledged by the other person.

Hold the “Identity Conversation: What Does This Say About Me?”

  • Recognize that the issue may raise deep identity questions for both people:
    • Am I competent?
    • Am I a good person?
    • Am I worthy of love?
    • Am I acting out of a place of privilege/trauma/oppression?
  • You may want to share past events in your life that feel like this situation.
  • Acknowledge triggers.
  • Recognize that all people make mistakes, are complex, and contribute to problems.
  • If you find yourself getting uncentered, take a break.
  • Avoid all-or-nothing syndrome with both denial and exaggeration.
  • Once both parties have considered the role of these questions in the issue at hand, proceed to problem solving.

Step III: Close the conversation #

  • Invent options to address the issue and list them. Make specific requests for next steps.
  • Commit to the best one. The best solutions include mutual caretaking, ongoing commitment and communication. If helpful put the commitment(s) in writing and agree to check in at some point in the future. The commitment to that check in is critical.
  • If tone becomes adversarial, re-engage curiosity: e.g. Why do you suggest that way to address the situation? How does that fit everyone’s needs? Etc. Make sure the options are based on community standards and expectations.

Additional Training Materials for Courageous Conversations #

Start with stories of times that someone took issue with what you did, and dealt with it in a hurtful way.

What did you wish they did differently? (don’t use this space to bring up beef with someone present).

The Opposite of Courageous Conversation = Dehumanizing Behavior #

Public ShamingRetaliationUndermining
Recruiting others to dislike a personStereotypingAmbush - surprise group critique
Non consensual conversationCalling the policeOnline blasting
Gossiping/spreading rumorsIgnoringTalking about, but not to, someone
Lying/exaggeratingPassive aggressive behaviorAssuming person’s thoughts, intentions
One-sided narrativesHarboring ill feelingsPhysical violence
Casting “shade”Sabotage

Consequences of Dehumanizing Behavior #

Damaged relationshipsPhysical health challenges
Mistrust and feelings of “it’s not safe here”Suicide
Team disintegrationCycles of violence
Mental health challenges

Why is CC trauma-informed approach? Share story of at least 2 members of SFF team who needed medical intervention because of dehumanizing behavior, and the suicide in the larger community. How do we consider the trauma and mental health burdens that land disproportionately on people of color (and Jews) and not trigger/perpetuate trauma through our communication choices? Our society has conditioned us toward harm. Share story of “gossip.” How can we use courageous and compassionate communication as a mindfulness practice, a reconditioning toward humanizing the other?

Prompts for the Listener to Show “Resonance” with Speaker #

  1. Can you say more? I want to make sure I understand.
  2. How could I have done that differently so that it would have worked better for you?
  3. I want to make sure you are complete before I share my perspective. Is now okay?
  4. What I hear you saying is… Did I get that right?
  5. I’m sorry.

Sorting Feelings vs. Views (Feelings Inventory from Center for Nonviolent Communication) #

I felt panicked when I saw the look on your face.I felt like you were shaming me.
I felt frustrated when I saw that broken tool.I felt like you were being irresponsible.
I felt grief when I was not invited.I felt like you were excluding me.
I felt envious when I saw your work quality.I felt like you were being elitist.
I felt ashamed when you named my mistake.I felt like you were blaming me for everything.
I felt furious when you raised your voice.I felt like you were being an asshole.

Sorting Clear vs. Vague Requests #

Clear RequestVague Request (still valid, but less actionable)
Please do not point at me when you speak.Please stop intimidating me.
Please ask me how I am doing before telling me about the tasks for the day.Please treat me as more than just a worker.
Please make sure everyone has a chance to speak before you speak twice.Please be less dominating.
Please show up to your events at least 5 minutes early.Please be more responsible.

Scenario for Role Play #

Any semblance to reality is accidental. A principle of courageous conversations is consent, so no one would be “put on the spot” to have a courageous convo about a real incident.

Eushavia is calling a courageous conversation with Sheila, who has been frequently misgendering her and other members of the team. Eushavia was born in a male body and recently came out as trans female, changing her pronouns to she/her. Sheila refers to Eushavia as he/him often. Eushavia is feeling frustrated, hurt, and also worried about the impact of Sheila’s behavior on trans and GNC participants coming to the farm. This behavior is in violation of important community agreements and Eushavia is wondering if it’s time to engage with an “accountability process” since the casual reminders have not been working. Eushavia is a co-director at Soul Fire Farm, but is not Sheila’s direct supervisor. Eushavia is light-skinned Latinx, age 28, raised upper middle class, and college-educated.

Sheila is having a hard time feeling welcome and part of the team at Soul Fire Farm, since joining as an administrative assistant 3 months ago. She is an elder, currently 68 years old, a Black woman raised on a farm in Alabama. Since moving north to be closer to her children and grandchildren, she is grateful for a flexible job with decent pay where she can stay connected to agriculture, which she cherishes. Everyone on the team, including her bosses, are much younger than her and they have many cultural differences.

Their perspectives on gender and religion, in particular, are very hard for to Sheila to understand and accept. She wonders if people are judging her all the time, and cannot afford to lose this job, so worries about doing the right thing.