Courage in Communication


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One of the best aspects of writing a blog is receiving a thoughtful comment from a reader. In today’s busy world, it’s a tremendous compliment to know that someone has taken the time to express their thoughts in response to a post. One such example was an email I received from Mason Jackson.

Mason, who as my former tae kwon do sensei has taught me so much, reminded me that a huge component of communication is courage: “Courage to ask questions. Courage to speak up. Courage to do the right thing even though the consequences are onerous or even potentially onerous. “

Mason is absolutely right, and I’d like to expand on his comments in this article.

Leaders show courage in communication when they jeopardize their own position to communicate what they think is right. Lyndon Johnson had a lifelong dream of becoming President. When he finally reached it through the worst possible circumstances, he might have been forgiven for playing it safe. Instead, just four days later he embarked on an ambitious program to push through long-delayed civil rights legislation. When advisers counseled against risking so much on a lost cause, he replied: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”

Andrew Jackson said “one man with courage makes a majority”, and I would like to rephrase that by saying that one person with courage makes a leader. In fact, the courage to speak up when on one else will, makes you a leader no matter what title you hold, and if you keep quiet through fear, you’re not a leader, no matter how exalted your position.

One vivid example of courage was personally witnessed by my mother and three sisters on a visit to Cuba to see the Pope earlier this year. As they were waiting for the Pope to arrive in Santiago, a man suddenly sprang up and began shouting “Libertad!”, and “Down with communism!” He was immediately jumped on by plainclothes police and severely beaten as he was hustled away—but not before news cameras captured the entire scene. Was it a futile gesture? Maybe—but 2011 also showed us that one man in Tunisia could spark an entire Arab Spring.

Fortunately we don’t live in a society where we have to make such dangerous choices in our personal communications, but daily life in business provides plenty of opportunities to make choices that may require courage in communicating:

  • A salesperson may have to make the choice to tell a customer they’re not always right even at the risk of losing a sale. Perhaps an even more courageous choice is telling the customer that a competitor’s solution is better for them.
  • A manager may have to say unpleasant truths to a subordinate or a superior, for the good of the company, or may have to speak out against an unfair policy.
  • Anyone who gets up in front of a group to speak despite having severe stage fright is showing courage, as is the person who stands his or her ground under tough questioning afterwards.
  • Courage in communication goes beyond speaking. As Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

The practical benefits of communicating with courage

Communicating with courage is the right thing to do, but obviously it carries great risks. Fortunately there are practical benefits which can improve the risk/reward calculation.

  • It will definitely get you noticed. People will pay attention to your words, if only to see what happens next. Besides, saying something that others won’t means your message will be different.
  • It makes you credible. Ethos is the most important of the three components of persuasion, according to Aristotle. Two major facets of ethos are your perceived personal qualities (your virtues, to use a word that’s sadly gone out of style), and your motives. Courage is still seen as one of the most important and impressive personal qualities, and the fact that you have something to lose, speaks well of your motives.
  • It can prevent bigger risks down the road. So many problems start out small, and only fester into major issues because people may not have the courage to deal with them early. Most communication issues don’t get smaller by being ignored—run to the problem and fix it before it gets out of hand.

…but there is a price

Of course, it would not take courage if there were only upsides. The reality is that in the majority of cases you will pay a price. The only job I was ever fired from was because I refused to lie. In 1991, I was in charge of the management training program at our bank, which had gotten itself into serious financial trouble through poor lending practices. We had 53 trainees who were expecting to move into their first management positions after graduating from the program, but my boss told me the bank could only afford to keep two or three. He also told me to keep it quiet, because he wanted everyone to stick around so that the bank could pick from the best. I didn’t think that was right, so later that day, in response to a direct question, I told them the truth. I was fired the next day.

I guess the moral of that story is that I definitely paid a short term price for speaking out. On the other hand, it got me out of a dishonest organization and into my present career, so the long run effect was positive, even if it didn’t seem so at the time.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Malcolm
Jack founded Falcon Performance Group in 1996 specifically to combine his complex-sale expertise and his extensive financial background to design and implement complete sales process improvement initiatives at top national and international corporations.


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