Creating the conditions that make difficult conversations possible

By Elisabeth Goodman, 8th December 2020

Creating psychological safety and belonging are fundamental factors for high performance teams

..the way we engage with each other, discuss and debate important issues that we may disagree about, and challenge ourselves to find common ground with one another, especially when we have different beliefs and backgrounds, has everything to do with our ability to create a healthy team environment and do great work together.

Robbins (2020)

This is one of many insights in Robbins (2020) latest book that really seems to get to the heart of what’s important to high performance teams. It’s about, amongst other things, psychological safety (Goodman, 2020), and going beyond diversity and inclusion to creating a sense of belonging for every single member of your team.

Speaking up for what you believe is important, when others are doing or saying things differently, can feel very vulnerable and exposed. And yet to not speak up, to not express yourself, is to deny your right to be an equal partner in the conversation, and to deprive others of what might be potentially valuable insights.

There are things that team leaders, and every individual team member can do to create the climate that makes difficult conversations possible. The following themes are garnered from Robbins (2020) but with some of my added interpretations.

Remembering that ‘they’ are also ‘us’

Remembering that we are all ultimately part of the wider human community is one of Robbins’ (2020) powerful reminders – and a central theme of his book “We’re all in this together”.

Many of our difficulties in work-related conversations originate from the small tribes that we create to give us a (false?) sense of security.

  • Silo’d organisational teams get in the way of us remembering that we all ultimately have the same goal to make our organisation successful.
  • Hierarchies get in the way of us remembering we are all human underneath our work personas, with all the vulnerabilities as well as strengths that this might imply.

Remembering just these two examples could go a long way to turning what might seem like a difficult conversation into a positive and beneficial one.

Having conviction without being self-righteous

This is such a fine but all important distinction. Having conviction will enable us to express what we think and feel with the passion and hopefully supporting evidence that will engage people’s attention.

Relinquishing any associated self-righteousness will stop us worrying about our egos, make us more open to considering counter-arguments, and so lead to healthy debate.

Having conviction is not a question of being right or wrong. And hearing and being open to other people’s point of view might actually enhance our credibility rather than undermine it.

Creating a learning environment

When a leader positions the team’s work in the context of a learning environment, it immediately takes the threat out of making mistakes, trying things that might not work, and expressing different opinions.

Leaders can accentuate this by the way in which they show interest and curiosity in what every single member of their organisations and teams have to say. They can also do this by their general openness to ideas, opinions and suggestions for improvements.

Speaking up and taking ownership

One of the themes that sometimes comes up in our RiverRhee management courses, and in our coaching with individuals and teams, is how difficult it can be to speak up when people feel things are not right.

And yet, as Robbins (2020) also asserts, we have a responsibility to speak up and to take joint ownership for the success of our teams and organisations.

Speaking up applies to sharing ideas, highlighting things that might be happening that clash with our individual or organisational values, and asking for what we want.

There are no easy solutions to any of these, but if we don’t speak up, then what we believe in will definitely not happen.

What we can also do, is explore different ways to express what we want to say – it might be a question of choosing the moment, the person, or the setting that feel more ‘right’ to us. Some of the ideas from earlier in this blog might also help.


I’ve written a few blogs now on this theme, see for example Goodman (2018), and yet it’s one that I keep learning more about. Robbins (2020) calls it ‘sweaty palmed’ conversations, and puts a lot of emphasis on how developing our emotional and social intelligence will help us through it.

Engaging in difficult conversations is definitely not easy. As Robbins (2020) quotes another Robbins (Tony) in saying that:

“80 percent of success is due to psychology – mindset, beliefs and emotions – and only 20 percent is due to mechanics – the specific steps needed to accomplish a result”

Robbins (2020 p.xxii)

If we can relax into remembering our common humanity, developing our self-awareness, tuning into what others are thinking and feeling, and speaking with honesty and humility, we may start to find that these difficult conversations are not so difficult after all.



Goodman, E. (2018). Conflict is “the lifeblood” of high performing organisations.

Goodman, E. (2020). Creating a culture of psychological safety in project and operational teams.

Robbins, M. (2020). We’re all in this together. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through coaching, courses and workshops, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.

She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to achieve authenticity and autonomy in the workplace by enhancing their management, interpersonal and communication skills, and their ability to deal with uncertainty and change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is also a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

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