Courageous Conversations and How to Have More of Them

by Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Coach Jill Farmer | Physician Coaching, Podcast

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“That’s the truth, that’s the kindness, that’s the love. And at the same time, making space for an honest conversation and saying, ‘Hey, you know what, whatever you have to say is ok.’” -Coach Gabriella Dennery MD 

In today’s episode, Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer and Coach Gabriella Dennery MD guide us through having courageous conversations. You know, those conversations that you sometimes dread having. That dread is usually caused by a fear of the other person’s reaction or because we don’t want to feel vulnerable. The Coaches explain why these conversations are important to helping us thrive (THRIVE). And they give us actionable tools that we can use to empower ourselves to have those conversations and move forward in our lives starting today!

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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Gabriella: That’s the truth, that’s the kindness, that’s the love, and at the same time, making space for an honest conversation and saying, “Hey, you know what? Whatever you have to say is okay.”

[DocWorking theme]

Gabriella: Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery at DocWorking, and welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m joined by master life coach and my good friend, Jill Farmer, as we talk about courageous conversations, not any old kind of conversation. We can have any old kind of conversation anytime, but a courageous conversation. Jill, above all, is it an intentional one?

Jill: It is. You said it, sister. That’s all we’re really talking about with courageous conversations, is being intentional. Another term we might use is hard conversations. I don’t know about you. I have often been the master of avoiding hard conversations, because I don’t love conflict, I value harmony, I have some people-pleasing tendencies. So, they can be really hard for me. I had often the coping mechanism of having a conversation and I would default to various methods that didn’t really serve me. 

One method would be to come in preparing for it, and I was the prosecutor. I was going to say all the reasons why you just needed to believe me, and I was going to prosecute this case, and needed you to understand why I should win the argument before it even started. Or, I might come in, just tap dancing all over the place about, “Okay, well, you’re probably going to think this, but here’s why you shouldn’t think that about me because, and I’m so sorry. And whether I came in really aggressively with that, here’s why I need to be right in that conversation, or tap dancing around and not really saying what I wanted to say,” I was lacking courage in both scenarios, I was not being intentional about thing.

Coming into a hard conversation or challenging conversation, I need to have the courage to speak the truth as clearly, concisely as I can. I always try to speak the truth with kindness, but that doesn’t mean avoidance, or niceness that isn’t really saying what’s true. To make room for whatever the person’s reaction is, as opposed to trying to control their reaction, I think that’s what I’ve learned that makes courageous conversations so much more successful than any of the old coping mechanisms I used in hard or challenging conversations. Because when I’m willing to be courageous enough to be open to whatever the person says, even if it’s something hard, I’m more likely to show up in integrity and have this chance to show up using my values as opposed to letting things devolve into something that is not going to be helpful. What about you? What do you think of when we talk about courageous conversations, Gabriella?

Gabriella: Well, I’m hearing you say that, one, to speak truth with kindness and to listen, which is probably 80% of it is listening and 10%, 20% is speaking. I would add one thing. For me, I’m a risk avoider and a conflict avoider about less and less as I’m hopefully a little older and wiser, but that’s definitely my default position as well. It’s easy under those circumstances, when feeling on the defensive to point fingers and blame. So, I think vocabulary becomes important when having courageous conversations. Instead of saying, “You did this, and you did that. I’m really pissed about this,” the point is, “Well, where am I fitting into this?” It takes two to tango. What is my responsibility? What have I created? What am I willing to own up to my creation and my part in this? How do I describe my upset? How do I describe that to the other person as well to be able to say, “Look, I made a decision that I know is painful for other people” “At the same time, I recognize what that is, and I want to know what that is for you.” That’s it. That’s the truth, that’s the kindness, that’s the love, and at the same time, making space for an honest conversation and saying, “Hey, whatever you have to say is okay.” And if the other person is upset, “Well, you did this, you did that,” it’s okay, because they’re venting. 

Allowing that space or the vent, allowing that space for not being on the defensive as much as possible, and also not to blame whoever you’re engaging that courageous conversation with, I think that’s key. For that person who’s initiating the conversation, to not point fingers, but to create a space where there is mutual understanding and respect. Upset can happen and that’s okay. You’ll get through it with that intention. That’s where I’m sitting at this point, Jill. What do you think? 

Jill: Yeah, really, really good points. Another thing for me to recognize often if I’m worried about the outcome of a conversation or I’m feeling a little bit challenged with going into a conversation, because I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, is some advice that I got from a friend who’s a marriage and family therapist. Again, we’ve learned, everybody’s heard for the last decades now that when you go into a conversation, if you use “I” statements, “I feel this,” that can be helpful. But if you use “I” statements, and then say, “I feel frustrated, because you throw your things all over the floor all the time,” the other person is still going to likely just have a natural defense reaction. Then what happens is everybody’s either lodging assault or defending from, and then the dance becomes kind of unproductive, no direction, we don’t get moved forward. She talks about being willing to pause and ask for what you need, and I found that to be really helpful in hard or challenging situations. 

What I need is this, and I discovered I’m really uncomfortable often asking for what I need. Somehow, I either want the other person to just know it, so I don’t have to ask for it. That comes to worthiness, like deep-seated stuff, I need to feel worthy in order to really ask about what I need. Practicing that has been helpful for me in challenging hard conversations, and it helps me be more courageous. It requires me to be courageous, but when I’m courageous, often I find that really hard conversations turn out a lot better than my fear mind was projecting scary movies about ahead of time. Do you have any thoughts on that?

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Gabriella: Very true. I think that the word ‘practice,’ identifying what you need, what are my needs in the situation, and being able to articulate that, for physicians, it’s an interesting challenge, because physicians for the most part are there to meet other people’s needs. That gets repeated over and over and over again, day by day, hour by hour. That’s where a physician lives. So, to be able to say, and I’ll be honest with you, my spouse said that to me, when we first met, “Well, what do you need?” My response was, “I don’t know. I don’t need anything.” To me, that was such a strange question, nobody ever asked. 

So, it really started that process of thinking about what are my needs, because everybody has them. In any number of situations, everybody has them. For a physician to be able to say, “Well, what are my needs?” and to be able to articulate them is a big step forward towards having those courageous conversations, or being able to bring that to the forefront. It also brings something else to the table, Jill, because a courageous conversation also means, the V word, vulnerability, and articulating a need definitely is a very vulnerable thing. What do you think?

Jill: Yeah, that’s huge. Of course, vulnerability is where the magic happens. I know you guys like, “Quit saying that to us, you coaches,” but we have to keep saying it because it’s the truth. It’s truth that’s necessary to help you thrive. Another thing I want to say is, it’s okay to practice. We talked about practice a little bit, but to have a pre-conversation with somebody else who you really trust. So, for instance, I had a physician client not too long ago who was gearing up for a challenging conversation, let’s say, working with a leader that was really not doing a good job of listening ever, and was projecting out all the time, “Well, you’re like this, and you think this and you do this.” This physician, who is somewhat introverted, was recognizing that a lot of resentment is building up for him and so that it was time to have a courageous conversation with that leader so that he could be heard and seen and have more impact, which was very important to him based on his values. 

He used me as the coach and a trusted thinking partner to workshop. Here’s some of the key points I want to make. What are some ways that it might be helpful for me to make some of those key points? What if he says X, Y, Z, and we workshopped. Okay, what if he throws back a jab or something or is dismissive? How do you stay on track with still expressing what’s meaningful for you in this conversation, and not being tied to the outcome, and it was just really helpful. The feedback later on was, “Oh, my gosh, it was a really meaningful and successful conversation because we have workshopped it out ahead of time.” I do that sometimes with a coach, friend, or my spouse who tends to be really emotionally regulated and calm in a lot of situations. So, he could tell me, “Uh-oh, you’re getting mad,” or you’re getting self-righteous, and you’re not going to communicate as effectively there. That can be helpful to workshop it out ahead of time. Thoughts on that, Gabriella?

Gabriella: Agreed. One rule of thumb that I tried to hold myself to and to also suggest other people, let’s talk about what is that one thing you really want to talk about and focus on that because once that defense mechanism kicks in, for example, for the person that you’re talking with, they may take it in so many different directions, as their defense mechanism, as their way of deflecting, as their way of derailing the conversation, as a way to wrestle control back in the way that they think they’ve lost control, whatever the situation might be, because that’s an emotional reaction. It’s not a logical one, or a thinking one or a present one. It’s purely an emotional reaction, and to have compassion and patience with that. 

For me, one of the ways to not get distracted by all of that is really, at least in my own mind, to know what my topic is, and to bring it back to the topic, and just keep it there as much as possible, no matter what else is going on around me. Is that a tactic that you also use, recommend, or that you do yourself?

Jill: That’s so good. That comes up so often in coaching conversations, because a physician will say, “Okay, I’ve got to have this hard conversation.” Then, they have a list of 25 grievances [laughs] of, “Here’s all the things you’ve done that I have not bothered to bring up until now.” And then, it doesn’t go well. That is one of the most important things is to challenge yourself to focus on– it can be something big that has some subtopics, but distill down everything into one thing that matters and keep coming back to home base on that in a challenging conversation. 

A couple of other things just to wrap up what we talked about here is listening. Going into courageous conversation means you don’t have to go, just state your case, and ask for the judgment. It’s being clear and kind and direct and being willing to listen. To understand that there may be some discomfort or vulnerability, because a lot of meaningful and hard conversations require a degree of vulnerability. And I think most importantly, take a deep breath and allow yourself to express courage in these conversations and courage can really open doors often to help you to get out of a stuck situation and move through it into a thriving one when you’re willing to express it and to use it in a situation like this.

Thanks, Gabriella, great ideas, as always, and very fun to think about this and embolden hopefully all of you listening to be willing to have that meaningful conversation about what matters to you this week. 

Let us know how it goes, hop on social media, and say, “Yay, this helped,” or, “Oh, my gosh, here’s what happened to me.” We’re here to continue the conversation with you as well. As always, thank you so much for being here on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.


Amanda: This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe. Thank you for listening.

Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.

She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.

She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.

Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.

Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.

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