Dr. Allessandra Wall spoke at an Ellevate San Diego event titled, “The Talk”: Finding Your Courage and Confidence in Conversation. Allessandra shared techniques and tips on how to build the strength of your voice and prepare for those “difficult” conversations. Dr. Alessandra Wall is a licensed clinical psychologist, executive coach, engaging speaker, and founder and CEO of Life in Focus Coaching Inc. She works closely with smart, professional women to help them find their voices, show up more confidently, and do more of what’s right for them.
Dr. Wall fervently believes that the world would run more smoothly and effectively if every woman were confident in her ability to consistently say what she means and mean what she says.
Her mission is to advocate for and act as an ally for women in the workplace who want to be seen and heard, and support the organizations striving to retain them and foster an inclusive environment.
Why Difficult Conversations are Important
Allessandra started her talk asking the audience how many difficult conversations such as negotiations they’d had in the past month, past week, and today.
“So in the last 24 hours, I’ve had to negotiate screen time with my eight and 10-year-old boys more than I’d really like to admit, to look like an effective parent. I have gone out of my way to contact organizations and individuals I really want to work with but who I don’t know. I have sat down with family members to figure out what we’re doing for Thanksgiving and who’s making what, when, and where. And I sat and talked with my brand new VA about what she’s doing well and what her areas of improvement are.
The thing is, whether you realize it or not, on any given day, you go through at least half a dozen negotiations or difficult conversations.
If you don’t have the confidence or the courage in those moments to say what you mean, or mean what you say, you are actually giving up this unique opportunity to shape your careers, to shape your relationships, and build the lives that you want to build.
I am by trade a clinical psychologist, and I’m also a confidence and leadership coach for professional women. And in both of those capacities, I spend nearly every single working day either stepping into the conversations myself with as much confidence as I can, or teaching other people how to speak up, and how to use their voices confidently and as courageously as they can.
Speaking up, on paper, it looks super easy. But the reality of speaking up is that it’s very, very difficult to do. Saying what you mean, meaning what you say, showing the authentic you, this is really hard. And it’s especially hard for women because we are socialized to attend to the needs and the feelings of other people before we ever think of our own. And again, this becomes really problematic. Because speaking up is the simplest way in which you can affect change in your world. And as a psychologist, it’s one of the best ways that we have to teach people to develop good self-esteem and confidence.
So today, I’m going to have you think about what it takes to enter any kind of conversation with confidence, and we’ll talk about how courage ties into this idea of confidence.
I want you to think about a conversation that you’ve been meaning to have, a conversation that’s either difficult or that you’ve been avoiding. And because it’s important to write [by hand], rather than typing, I would like you to write down what that topic is. What’s this conversation you want to have?”
The Why, the What, and the How of Difficult Conversations
Allessandra said there’s actually a six-part formula to having successful conversations. “Because we’re limited in time, I want to focus on three aspects of that formula. The three things I want to focus on are the why, the what, and the how of having confident and effective conversations. And the reason I tie this to confidence is the more you are certain that you can be effective communicating, the more confident you’re going to feel walking into a situation that you can’t entirely control.”
“So let’s start with why. The first thing you need to do when you walk into a conversation is figure out why you’re willing to put yourself in this position of potentially opening yourself up to conflict.
There are a lot of times when our patients or clients were really upset about something and I asked them okay, well, why do you want to have a conversation? They’ll say, I just want them to know. I just want them to understand my perspective or my point of view.
That is not why you have conversations. We communicate with people, usually because we want them to understand something about what we need, or how we feel. And we expect an outcome.
So a patient of mine was talking about a road trip from hell with a friend of hers, and she’s like I’m done, the friendship is done. Should I talk with my friend? And I always say, ‘Yes,’ all my patients and clients know this, I will always say ‘of course you need to talk about it.’ If you are upset with somebody in your life, let them know why, they might be able to correct it. If you don’t let them know why, they will never correct it. They cannot read your minds.
I asked her, ‘What’s your objective in having this conversation? What is your why?’ She’s said, ‘No, no, I just kind of wanted to understand how I’m feeling.’ That’s not true. Because if you tell her how you’re feeling, and she looks at you, I guarantee you’re gonna leave that conversation really upset and angrier with her.”
What is your objective? What are you expecting to happen or to change as an outcome of taking the time to have a conversation?
“I figured I’d share another story coaching client of mine, we’ll call her Kate. And one of the reasons Kate comes to see me is because she has lots of feelings. She’s really bad at sharing them. So what Kate does, she does whatever you want her to do, with a smile until you break her, at which point she releases her anger on you, or her sadness or hurt or stress. And that doesn’t work well for her personal relationships and doesn’t work professionally.
She walks into my office a few months ago and says that she’s incredibly upset because as they’re pitching projects for new clients, she realizes that her name is not added as a person to contact and it’s only the name of her co-director. She sees this as undermining her relationship with clients and also her authority. It has been bothering her for months. So she’s only bringing it to me now. And she is crying. So this is really important. She wants to talk about it with her direct supervisor and her co-leader.
Work is personal. We’re always going to be emotional. This is understanding what you want out of that conversation. And it was twofold. One, she wanted to make sure that the name being left-off wasn’t committed because she had done something wrong and it was evidence of loss of confidence. The other thing is, she wanted to be reinstated as an authority and as a leader on this team, and specifically she wanted her name back on those pitches. She had a conversation and what she found out is that leadership never told her that they were splitting the team into two groups. Her co-leader was to lead the pitches. And then she was going to design the projects after. So talking about that, and talking about it effectively not becoming a cycle she’s used to having with her bosses and his friends, to actually have them communicate with her.”
Someone in the audience had an independent contractor that wants to be hired full time. The audience member advocated for her to be hired full time, but it’s not possible and she needs to communicate that to the contractor without losing her enthusiasm and her drive. She was able to get the contractor another smaller things she asked for. How should that be communicated?
Allessandra said, “So part of your objective is breaking the news without creating tension and animosity in the relationship, though she will be disappointed. What does this look like very specifically? How do I know if that’s there? What am I expecting her to do if she feels tense? How can I set that up for her? Answering the Why is really important from the confidence perspective because invariably in these types of conversations, we get emotional, the people we’re talking to get emotional. And as that happens, we start getting sidetracked. We start getting diverted. We start worrying. We tripped over our words. If I know what my objective is, in the midst of all this emotional super mess, I can reorient the conversation, refocus it, and make sure that the needs that I have my objective continue to get better in the conversation.
The idea is that difficult conversations are, by nature, full of emotion. And we tend to get sidetracked and we tend to walk away from those conversations. I was so prepared for this one thing, but then this reaction came and if I know what my objective is, I’m so much more likely to be able to deal with that, to actually say what I need to say, and to get my needs met. And that’s really important. If you know you have that, I guarantee it will increase your confidence.”
The next thing you have to figure out is any time you enter a conversation, you presumably are having a conversation with more than yourself. So there’s at least one or more individuals that you normally have to contend with in addition to your own emotions and your own needs. You have to deal with the reactions, the needs and the emotions of all the parties in the conversation. What most of us do when we enter these difficult conversations is we anticipate some kind of pushback. We prepare for what we think is going to happen. They’re going to push back. And then when we get that push back, when our assumptions are confirmed, we tend to get really anxious or angry.
We’re just anticipating pushback, but we’re not asking ourselves what that reaction is going to look like. What’s driving that reaction? If you can anticipate those things, then you’re going to be so ahead of everybody else in that conversation in terms of being able to meet some of these reactions without defensiveness. It’s going to help de-escalate a conversation. It’s going to help you stay calmer. And again, going back to your why, it allows you to reorient the conversation back to your objectives and your needs.
An example is that my husband comes home one Tuesday night which is normally my late night at work. We’re having a late dinner and the kids have already eaten. And just to start, that’s a horrible time to have an important conversation. And as we’re having dinner, my husband starts talking about how he wants to introduce a grand piano into the house. So this might not seem like that big of a deal unless you know a few things. First of all, my husband is obsessive and driven. So he doesn’t just do things. He does them as well as he possibly can. He plays the piano on weekdays an average of two hours a day and on weekends that upwards of six. Right now we have upright in a room that I had built a year and a half ago.
Part of the reason we moved was because the eight-year-old and 10-year-old boys wanted to entertain their friends at home. And I am an INFJ. I am a social introvert. I love people. I love being here having these conversations, but I will be tapped out after this. And tapped out on weekends because my job is interfacing with people all day long. So part of the reason we moved was so that I could have some silence. And so as he’s talking about if I want to get the piano at some point in time, my thought was once the boys moved to college, his was we’ll just get it, it’s just a matter of figuring out the finances, you can rent-to-own pianos nowadays. And apparently, without realizing it, my head started doing this square. I didn’t know it, but it just did this. And immediately he didn’t push back. So he got anxious and angry, anxious that his needs weren’t going to get met, angry that I could not listen to him. But what he didn’t do is understand what exactly my reaction was, what this meant, what was driving it, and what needs he needed to address this conversation with me.
It’s really important to not just anticipate that you’re going to get pushback and dread that pushback. That’s half the reason we get so nervous. The reason we don’t feel confident in conversations with other people is because we have to deal with their stuff. Of course, half the time it isn’t even personal. It’s just a reaction. You’re asking me, if you want to take something from me, there’s my time, my energy, my money, my freedom, my sadness. And so we push back. I can sit there and go, I know exactly what’s going to happen. I’m going to walk in, I’m going to ask for this. I’m going to step in this person’s shoes and empathetically try to understand what this looks like from their perspective, from their point of view. They are not assholes for pushing back. Now, they’re just like me. I get it, if I were them, I guess I won’t want X to happen either.
If you can do that, you will feel much more in control. And the great thing is you completely disarm the person. To be able to answer that question of what their reaction is going to be, what it’s going to look like, what’s driving it is most important.
As a psychologist, for me, a lot of what we do is ask, “What is it about this thing that’s leading you to feel? What’s driving that reaction?’
The interesting thing is just doing this work, even if they come with a reaction, you’ll find yourself staying much calmer.
The second huge confidence booster to keep in mind from this is that because we enter conversations, assuming that we’re going to get rejected in that conversation, when you can actually show up at the end and go, I get it. ‘I totally get why having a piano in this house [could sound stressful]. I know that you really price your silence right now. I can meet your need.’ When you’re met with them, the lead is disarming. And people can pacify really rapidly and suddenly when we feel that somebody’s listening to us, even if they disagree with us, we want to work with them. So it softens everybody.
You build confidence when you’re having these conversations, because we want to know so much more.”
“So you know why you’re in the conversation and you know what to expect from this other person to the best of your knowledge. The next thing is to figure out how, how are you going to respond to their needs and their reactions? What kind of concessions are you willing to make? What’s the collaborative playing and putting in place? How are you going to stay calm? Because let’s be real, no matter how prepared you are, in some conversations, no matter how if I bring something up it was going to push my buttons.
I really need to think about how I manage that whole emotional appeal internally so that I don’t let that anxiety or that stress take over and drive my conversation.
The first ‘how’ is a strategic planning we do this all the time for work. If I know I’m going to get an objection, if I needed to do a little bit of research and realize that grand pianos they have the same feel for anybody who plays. And the second you plug in headphones, there’s a damper that goes on all the strings. And suddenly it hybrids, it shifts into an hour with the same feel.
A magical solution. Now the only thing we need to argue about is the space and where to finish, and I’m much less interested in space. And I haven’t stopped to think about that till after we argued. And after I’ve done all the work of explaining my side.
How do you stay calm? Who here thinks they’re really good at staying calm when somebody is yelling? What are the things for those of you who stayed really calm in the face of oppression or in the face of tears and sadness? What’s the emotion that might disarm you? Is there an emotion that you might receive from somebody that we’re disarming? I think that thing that throws you off or suddenly or you’re tripping mentally over what your plan was over what you want to say where suddenly there’s this internal slight anxiety about how do I manage this?
Number one for me what keeps me calm is when I can understand why they’re upset. So usually there’s a reason they’re upset, not that I agree with their reaction. So the opposite of that would be if I can’t understand the reason they’re just so upset about. It just seems like there’s a disconnect between the reaction and what’s going on.
Figuring out that one will really help. No matter how disproportionate the reaction might be, at least you’ve got something to anchor into.
This morning, I was in a room with a patient who’s really pissed because she’s a perfectionist, and it’s part of her job. So she’s like, ‘They’re always mistakes, and why can’t everybody just function at my level?’ And it’s a conversation we’re carrying over from last week. What I told her is, ‘You’re here, at the 98th percentile for standards and consideration compared to the rest of the world. So your expectations are here, and they don’t match the rest of the world.’ But she had this reaction in my office, and I don’t like that I upset someone.
And then I did this thing. The first thing I want to encourage all of you to do. I took a breath.
And I sat there and I’m like, okay, she’s pissed. That’s what I said in my head. It’s okay. She’s pissed. Just listen, because I’m going to figure out how to give her what she needs. I just need to listen.
So one of the first things you can do, when somebody’s reaction starts to stress you out, is breathe, because immediately when you feel stressed, your body goes into fight or flight. And your body doesn’t care whether you’re facing an angry bear who’s trying to defend their cubs, or whether you’re facing somebody who’s talking to you about this deadline you need to make happen now. Biologically, physiologically, neurologically, it’s exactly the same reaction. Your body tenses up, your heart rate goes up, your extremities get cold, because your blood vessels in your fingers and toes contract to send all your blood to the muscle groups so that you can fight or flee. In fight or flight mode we don’t think very logically. Because there’s no need to really figure out complicated solutions when you’re facing an enemy, you just need to react. You can shut off your sympathetic nervous system and activate the opposing system, your parasympathetic nervous system, by relaxing your body.
So, all my clients, whether it’s coaching clients, or whether it’s therapy patients, they know to say when in doubt, breathe. For my coaching clients, if they have important presentations, they will have it written on their sheets of paper or on their computers. Breathe. The only thing they remember to do to stay calm. I use it all the time.
The other thing [I recommend] for a reminder is for your body to stay as relaxed as possible, adopt the most comfortable, appropriate position you can adopt.
One of my coaching clients who was doing a presentation, we didn’t know if she was going to be standing or sitting down, she had two things:a panel interview for promotion and then a presentation. And on the panel interview when she gets nervous, she starts jumping back and forth. So I have to tell her she was doing this and I had her sit back as comfortably as possible in the chair so that her body posture was relaxed. And then she showed me her station and she had a note at the top about keeping your body as relaxed as possible.
The third one is all the work you’ve done before. Remember, when you see somebody coming at you, whether it’s with anger, or arguments, or sadness, or a lot of questions that you know aren’t really questions. They’re just positioning for their ‘Yes,’ but you anticipated this reaction.
It’s not scary. It’s not new. You can do this.
Remember that really important conversations and change usually take place in 3, 4, 5 iterations of the same conversation. So if you’re talking with somebody about something you need to see happen, and a single failed conversation is not a failure, to gain an opportunity or to learn more.”
“I want to give you an example of emotion. I have this client and she has had a very long career, she is massively competent in her field. She came to me because she is completely burnt out at work. She made a move to her current company in the last three years, she moved her house all the way to North County to not have a commute. And then the president of the firm promoted this guy who is known to be authoritarian and aggressive, and somebody nobody can work with, to the position of CEO and he is now her director.
So my client, who loves her job and felt really competent and empowered, every single day
she tries to have all these conversations with him about what she can do. Apparently it’s happened a number of times in their career, and she’s found that either by being really conciliatory and kind of showing them what she can do, she can either soften them that way and have really good working relationships. Other times she just draws the line in the sand and says you will not speak to me this way. So her previous boss, who she got along with well, eventually would yell at everybody and she said if you’re going to speak to me, you cannot yell at me. Right? I will not work in these conditions to yell at everybody else, which is part of the reason she was so stressed.
The new CEO was friends with the President. He’s not going anywhere until retirement. She just bought a new house. She is a primary breadwinner for her family. And she initially when we started working together, she was asking me ‘Can this relationship be repaired? What can we do?’ Eventually, by the end of the conversation, we realized he’s not going to change anything. So she decided she’s going to change jobs, but we’re waiting to find the perfect job.
Now when she enters all these conversations, which now even just saying ‘how you doing on this project,’ require her to think about management’s reaction. So her tactic, which I highly encourage in your life, is what I call the adolescence fence.
[When fighting with my mom], by the time I was 15 or 16, I realized the calmer I stayed, the more my mom got angry, the more I won and the more she lost. I just smile. Then I walk away from the conversation. I wasn’t at all put off by whatever argument we have.
So this is a strategy that she is using with her boss, with a 60 something-year-old boss and she’s like on a highway exit strategy. ‘I know exactly what the script is for how he’s going to respond to me. It’s the same every single time. I do not need to engage.’
Figuring out how you’re going to respond to somebody, figuring out what specific strategies you are going to use to stay calm in the face of their emotions, and having your emotions strategically prepared.
The last mistake is when conversations are getting really, really uncomfortable. And that’s inevitable and what most people do well, but many of the women I work with do is when the conversations get heated and uncomfortable, they’re like, ‘okay, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.’
And by not persisting, they don’t get their needs met. And then they walk away from the conversation and think ‘I can’t do this’ so it undermines the confidence.
No reaction is a reaction. Would that throw you off? What if you’re waiting for a reaction or response to be able to get to your solution?
And then the next piece is if you have your why, then you come back to that Why?
Realistically, if that unlikely event were to happen, I think you just exit the conversation and come back. Or eventually realize you’re not going to get your needs met. Now you have information to make a better decision about whatever it is you want to do.
It’s a process. I’ve been doing this near-daily for 15 years, and it’s super easy with other people’s issues. It’s another issue when it’s my own conversations, and then I will be having fights with my husband, like putting in my own personal therapy session. I thought that what they needed was to talk about, I thought that the issue needed to be addressed. And that’s why we were both avoiding it.
One of the great things you can do is step into somebody else’s shoes and you can respond to whatever they’re throwing your way with it. With empathy, you can say, ‘hey, you just got really quiet. And I have all these thoughts in my head about why you’re quiet. I’m thinking you’re really hurt. I’m thinking you don’t know what to say. I also think this is really hard and this is really hard for me. I really wanted to have this conversation. I was having this conversation, because I thought this needed to be processed between the two of us because it needed to be aired. And I wanted to make sure we were okay. Right. Why does it need to be or someone has to be okay. Right. I wanted to make sure we’re okay. And now it’s out here. And you’re quiet. I think you’re hurt. But I don’t know. This thing I wanted was just for us to be okay.’ Initially, I recommend you do this stuff in advance. It’s just easier. The more you practice it, the better you become at doing it and the confidence piece. It’s a skill.
So when somebody gets quiet, and I was totally expecting a reaction, because I can’t read your mind. Ask ‘Can you tell me what’s going on? Why did you suddenly shut down?’
Confidence is a skill
I want to make sure that we’re on the same page about what it means to be confident because there’s a lot of talk out there. So confidence is not thinking that you’re awesome. It’s not waking in believing that you own the space or that you’re going to win or be great at everything you do. It’s not about being really calm. Confidence is the belief that you can do something, it is that trust in yourself to follow through the something you want to do. I might trust it and follow through on something and have no idea what I’m falling on my face doing it but I have that confidence and trust myself to at least engage in the conversation. Confidence is a skill. Yes, we all know some people who since the time they were children, we think they’re really confident because they’re outspoken.
Confidence is a skill. And the biggest mistake we tend to make around confidence is thinking that we need to develop it in order to take action. We cannot wait to feel confident about something to do.
Confidence is developed. It’s a byproduct of taking action. Confidence comes from practicing things that make us uncomfortable. In the book ‘The Confidence Code,’ they come to this final conclusion that everyone they spoke with talked about how they were scared and did it anyhow and the more they did it, the more they felt capable of doing it, and ultimately that’s what confidence is. So confidence and the belief that you can do something is just follow through on it because you trust in yourself to do it. Not being calm, just doing it.
Confidence requires you taking action in the face of things that you fear and things that are uncomfortable, in my coaching language. That means doing things differently than you normally would even though they feel really uncomfortable, then confidence requires courage.
Confidence is a byproduct of taking action and doing things that make us uncomfortable. Courage is the process of acting despite.
People in the military on special ops say it’s not courageous to walk into something you know, that you can take over. Courage is going into something that scares you. Courage comes from allowing yourself to be vulnerable to somebody else’s emotions, to get in physically or emotionally.
The biggest mistake women make
We’re really talking about recognizing that the biggest mistake we made as women is not speaking.
The biggest mistake we make as women is holding back from having really important conversations, whether it’s a negotiation, whether it’s talking to our spouses about something that’s important to us, whether it’s talking to a friend or talking to a boss or coworkers.
And we do this all the time, though we are really considerate with everybody else’s needs. But the more we hold back from speaking up, from saying what we mean, meaning what we say, showing up authentically asking for what we need, the more we undermine our confidence. The more we erode our chances of success when it comes to relationships. All these games we play and all these things we do to be nice, to not make other people uncomfortable, and that make us resentful, they destroy a relationship so much faster than having an argument with somebody.
So my hope is that you use anything I said today when you come across a conversation, or a moment, or an interaction with somebody that makes you feel uncomfortable. You remind yourself that you are fully capable of having this difficult conversation, of managing these tricky talks.
And if you just be courageous enough to step into that conversation and realize that the more you do it, the more confident you will become. Because you’ll realize that it’s just discomfort.
The worst that happens is the relationship blows up in your face, but you know, what if that relationship blows up because you’re trying to address an issue, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about personal or professional relationships. If asking for what you need means that somebody rejects you, or abandons you, then that relationship is always going to end.
So the script is when you describe whatever situation you’re bringing to the person’s attention. In dispassionate, anthropological terms. You’re just describing your behavior or situation.
In English, we say ‘I feel’ and sometimes we get an emotion. ‘I feel like I’m such a loser. I’m such a loser because of [thought].’ I’m sad isn’t emotion in French, which I speak, in Italian, which I speak too. We don’t use the same words to talk about emotions as we do thoughts. And my rule of thumb is if you can follow ‘I feel’ by a single word, it is usually an emotion. For example, I might be sad and anxious because I feel all alone.
Because remember when I said that when you say ‘I feel’ because I understand your point of view, I get perspective. I’m going to empathize with you and I’m going to anticipate your pushback here and now.
‘But’ is an awful word, if you will notice, with neurolinguistics and copy of the way your brain sees things as you say, I know you’re really busy. But I really need your help with this, too. The second you introduce ‘but’ there’s a straight-through and you’re really busy. Given that you’re really busy, I need your help with this deadline. If I say, I know you’re really busy, and unfortunately, I still need your help with this deadline, the human brain goes up. She’s got it. She got both pieces of this, right? So it’s not ‘I understand’ but ‘I understand, however.’
It’s semantics but ‘I need’ and the need piece is articulated in two ways. Usually, it’s a global need and then a specific language then your need can be met. I need you to listen to my talk. Specifically, I would like you to get off your phone. I would like to make sure that you make eye contact. I’d really appreciate it if you took 10 minutes out of your time and just had a one-on-one meeting and text me back. If not, then this is not a threat. It’s not happening. It’s just stating that the real logical consequences of no change. If you’re bringing something to somebody, it’s because it’s creating friction which is creating an issue. So the idea is that if not, then … is really presenting to that person. What’s going to happen if you won’t do anything about this. I’m not telling you, you have to. But if you don’t, you just need to be aware. And this is the natural consequence.
Let’s just say you have a friend who’s chronically late and you are just a stickler for punctuality. Instead of saying, ‘when you never show up on time and when you’re always ditching me.’ She’s gonna push back and beat it. Say, ‘You know, the other day, when we’re supposed to meet for the movies, you were 20 minutes late. When we’re going to pick you up, I had to stay in my car. [Just describing what’s happening.] When you do that, I tend to feel really angry. I get really frustrated. Because I make a point of showing up early. I make a point of being here on time and when you don’t do that, I feel like you don’t respect my time. And you’re just okay wasting my time. I understand you have kids now, and they’re unpredictable and they throw you off. But as a friend, however, I need to know that you value my time just as much as I value yours. Specifically in this case, I need to know that you’re going to show up when you say you will show up. Have your time if you need to, we can think about it together if you want to. But here’s the thing, this is getting to me so much, that if it continues happening, I’m gonna have to do one of two things. Hey, I want to leave to wherever we’re going to go. And when I say I’m leaving, you will be there when I come. For me, I’ll just stop doing stuff. Because at this point, I just get really angry just thinking about it. Right?’
So that’s if you were to use the script in that way. All those six pieces. That’s your formula. That’s the magic conversation piece, theoretically, and then realistically, the more you practice constraints around those pieces.
Thank you Allessandra!