Why Real Talk Matters & How To Make It So

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Development
Why Real Talk Matters & How to Make It So

Why is real talk hard for many leaders to do?

Real talk is two-way communicating that moves past what’s obvious, superficial, and assumed to get at the core of authentic meaning and connection.

Unless leaders use thoughtful engagement to probe and clarify, the best we can hope for is a best guess, which isn’t a very firm footing for effective leadership or success.

Making conversations real is hard. Real talk requires willingly mastering a challenging combination of awareness, curiosity, and courage. Awareness that sometimes what is said isn’t what is really meant. Curiosity to move deeper than what we see and interpret on the surface. Courage to be vulnerable and ask the questions that confirm we don’t have all the answers.

In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work—so much so that the conversation is the organization.
~ Alan M. Webber, Fast Company Founding Editor

Because he so embodies the paradox of head and heart, I’m a big fan of David Whyte, a poet and philosopher who does leadership consulting. I concur with his belief that the conversations we have at work are not so much about the work as they are the work.

Talking about technical competence may allow us to safely skate across the surface of interactions, but it doesn’t always produce the results we want or foster the connections we’re hard-wired to crave.

To reach that level of meaning sharing requires that we have both courageous conversations as David has labeled them and be willing to accept the purposeful discomfort that comes with having them.

“The courageous conversation is by definition the one we do not want to have,” says David.

Purposeful discomfort enters the picture because, as he describes, “If you get into a real conversation, it’s going to nourish you, but it will also pull you apart to make way for the new person.”

David notes five entities with which we need to have courageous conversations: the unknown future, the people we serve, different parts of the organization, our work groups and colleagues, and ourselves.

Having courageous conversations from the 360-degree perspective of our personal and professional life does three things for us:

  • It takes us off autopilot.
  • It builds our self-awareness.
  • It also deepens our attentiveness to those around us.
“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.”
~ Ronald Laing

Seeking out courageous conversations and embracing purposeful discomfort aids us in seeing what we fail to notice.

5 Entities To Engage In Courageous Conversations

  1. The Unknown Future – As we consider what’s to come, we should ask ourselves:
    • What do I want my future to be?
    • What do I anticipate the future around me being?
    • Am I doing the right things now to have the future I want?
    • What do I need to be doing to prepare?
  2. The People We Serve – From the many around us, customers, clients, vendors, shareholders, stakeholders, community and other groups, we should ask:
    • What do you need?
    • What can I do for you?
    • How can I serve?
    • What brings you satisfaction, and how can we do together to make that so?
    • How can we prepare for the future together?
  3. Different Parts Of The Organization – We should ask those up, down, and across the organization in all functions:
    • What elephants are in the room that prevent us from being and doing our best?
    • How can we collaborate to create positive outcomes for our customers and shareholders while fostering employee engagement?
    • What do we need to start, stop, or continue doing to fulfill our mission?
  4. Work Group & Colleagues – Of our employees, colleagues, peers, bosses, and others, we should ask:
    • What do you need from me that you are not getting?
    • How can I best communicate with you?
    • How can we team up to do our best work?
    • What am I doing that keeps you from doing your best work?
  5. Of Ourselves – I love how David phrases this one as having the talk with the tricky moveable frontier called yourself. As we ponder our awareness, curiosity, and courage, we should ask ourselves:
    • Am I living my purpose every day?
    • If not, why not?
    • How am I getting in my own way?
    • Are my head and heart in alignment?
    • Is the story I keep telling myself about myself still true?
    • Am I paying attention to what matters or what’s easy?

Making courageous conversations a regular part of our lives bridges our inner and outer worlds, connecting what we know with what we do and who we are. When we bravely do that, we create alignment – and peace – between our intellect, feelings, and action.

“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”
~Marshall McLuhan

Ready to have a courageous conversation or two?

What is the most meaningful question you have ever asked at work?
Photo Credit: Dreamstime

About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
I’m a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. Love chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John Smith  |  12 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Jane:)

I always enjoy your thoughtful and comprehensive posts here and elsewhere.

I was vaguely aware of David Whyte, but he is much brighter on my radar screen, due to your sharing. I appreciate you highlighting his work and concepts.

The term “Purposeful Discomfort” caught my attention, as an example of a short phrase that conveys a real wallop, if we take the time to consider what is being described. Most people would either avoid discomfort as much as possible or minimize it, because most are not comfortable when they are uncomfortable … get it:)?

Those five entities and the resultant strategic questions associated with each are a great road map to reaching a clear understanding of what is and what is not. This alone makes me want to learn more about Whyte’s work.

As always, your post is useful, makes me think and plan, and is enjoyable to read:)


Jane Perdue  |  13 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Good morning, John!

As always, your comments are thoughtful, kind and engaging…smiles and thank you for that!

My introduction to David Whyte was through his book “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.” I’m thinking you might enjoy it!

Your observations about the phrase “purposeful discomfort” are spot on. I started using that phrase as I began thinking about leaving corporate America and continue using it to describe the unfurling of my second act of life. As you note, the phrase covers a lot of territory!

With a smile,


Rosa Adames  |  12 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Wow this technique is not only mind blowing, it’s genius! In order to build an empire we must build a team. The team should consist of natural born leaders with open minds, future visualization, team player, positive mindset & willingness to change our world & help make it a better place….. Making a difference for a better future is legendary! 🙌

Jane Perdue  |  13 Nov 2015  |  Reply

Great observations, Rosa! It takes interacting with others to make us a real leader, and David Whyte’s courageous conversations concept sure helps us be more effective at it. Thanks for sharing!

Join The Conversation