As a leader, when someone on your team is being territorial and difficult, it’s a good idea to pause and think about why. Possibly, like Jeff just talked about in his previous two blogs, it has to do with your culture, systems, or structures. You need to ask yourself what might be encouraging or even causing this territorial mindset and lack of trust. Understanding and working on some of the root causes is critical to addressing the behaviors and to creating a culture of trust and collaboration.

But then, you still need to have that courageous conversation with your team member, no matter what the cause. Allowing territorial, secretive, or aggressive behavior to continue undermines the success of your whole fundraising program.

Whew, just reading that last sentence probably made your palms sweat or your heart race! But I want you to know that you do have what it takes to have that conversation and do it effectively.

And knowing how to have courageous conversations can have a powerful impact throughout your life. It will help you express your needs, set boundaries, find solutions in collaboration with others, and improve your overall well-being.

Now, if the thought of having to sit down with your colleague about their behavior fills you with dread, you are not alone.

Fear is the number one reason we don’t have courageous conversations.

It could be fear of failure, embarrassment, retaliation, judgment, having to accept terms you don’t want, or being taken advantage of.

Fear prevents you from showing up and having a conversation with a clear, calm presence, as it triggers your fight-or-flight response. Fight-or-flight is an instinctive response that puts you into a protective and reactive mode, meant to help you survive when in physical danger. You become hyper-focused on the threat. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by a release of cortisol and adrenaline, preparing you to run or fight.

The part of your brain that allows you to process emotions, be creative, or see the bigger picture gets shut down, putting all the energy and focus on self-protection.

Having a courageous conversation while you are in fight-or-flight mode might look something like this. As soon as thing get a bit dicey, you may become argumentative, or talk louder, or even run out of the room. Maybe you start to attack the other person’s statements, escalate the conflict, or name-call or label. Some people may become silent and withdrawn or feel deflated and powerless. None of which are helpful when wanting to find a collaborative solution or hold someone accountable.

What can you do about it? You can start out processing this with some good questions. The thing is that having or not having the conversation is a choice with consequences. Thinking through what you fear about having it AND the consequences of not having it can help you gather the courage to step into a courageous conversation.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is it that I’m particularly afraid will happen?
  • What will happen if I do nothing?
  • Can I live with the consequences of doing nothing?

The thing is that you can’t disrupt your fight-or-flight response through your mind. Have you ever tried to think your way out of feeling anxious before a speaking engagement? Those sweaty palms and nervous tummy don’t go away just because you tell them to.

The fastest way to relax is through your body, using strategies to calm it down.

Here are some body-centered tools that have helped others. Play with these and see what works for you…

  • Breath: One great way to lower the surge of the stress hormone cortisol is to breathe up the back of your spine and then take a slow, longer breath out. Let the breath come down the front of your body, relaxing your chest to the earth, while thinking of something that makes you smile. Try it three times and see if that makes you feel a bit calmer. Do this before and during a difficult conversation. It shifts you into a calm state and invites the person you’re speaking with to join you.
  • Body Position: Sit up and uncross your arms and legs. Crossing your arms and legs activates restrictor muscles and actually causes a physical surge of the stress hormone cortisol. Doing this while you do the breath exercise above is particularly helpful in calming down your body. If you start getting nervous, you can also wiggle your toes to get yourself back into your body and more present.
  • Imagination: There are a number of ways to shift our minds from feeling attacked and give you some space from a difficult conversation to see it more clearly. Imagine a bubble around you that you extend around the person you are talking to. That will help you to imagine connection rather than confrontation. Or imagine there is a basket in between the two of you on the floor or desk where all the conversation goes, so you can then observe what is being said and have a little distance to see it more objectively and less emotionally. Lastly, and I love this one, imagine you are bringing someone with you who is really good at courageous conversations, and they are supporting you throughout the conversation. I usually imagine Nelson Mandela is there with me, I’m not alone, and he is helping me be calm and clear.

Start practicing these tools in easy situations and develop them in your everyday encounters, like a meeting with colleagues or when you are getting ready to call a donor. It’s like developing a new muscle: the more you practice, the more effectively the tools work to bring your body back into a more present, calm state. Then you can be more resourceful, creative, collaborative, and hold your own in courageous conversations.

In my next blog, I will get into some tools that help prepare you before and support you during a courageous conversation. Meanwhile, practice those strategies to bring your body out of fight-or-flight and back to a more centered, calm state.


Other blogs in this series on collaboration:
  1. Can We All Get Along?
  2. Breaking Out of Organizational Silos
  3. Managing Your Fight-or-Flight Response for More Courageous Conversations (this post)
  4. Follow This Checklist to Prepare for Courageous Conversations