How to Have Good Faith Conversations on Issues That Matter.

Good Faith Conversations by Cathy Jacob at

Photo Credit: Photo by SDI Productions

If you’d rather listen than read, go to Sound Insight, Season 2 episode 11.

Note: This article has been revised and updated since the episode was recorded.

Recently, I came across the term ‘Good Faith Conversations’ in musician, Nick Cave’s insightful and beautifully written Red Hand Files. In this post, he says,

“[A good faith conversation] affords us, among other things, the great privilege of being wrong; we feel supported in our unknowing, and, in the sincere spirit of inquiry, free to move around the sometimes treacherous waters of ideas.”

Red Hand Files by Nick Cave

This resonated deeply and got me thinking about the relationship between good faith conversations and courageous conversations.

My colleagues and I talk about courageous conversations when we work with teams. Courageous conversations matter. They involve some risk. They sometimes need us to engage in controversy or conflict. They can be uncomfortable. They can be vulnerable. They can be transformative.

In our polarized social and political environment, almost any conversation that matters takes a degree of courage. The risks of speaking up and speaking out feel high. As a result, we are reluctant to do so. At the very time when it has never been more important for us to talk to one another, people are choosing to be silent.

I don’t think this is a good thing.

We need more courageous, good faith conversations. We all need to create environments where it is safer to have them.

Why do courageous conversations matter?

In organizations, courageous conversations are the life blood of a high-functioning, high-performing team. They expose the fault lines and the risks associated with decision-making. They expose flaws and biases in our thinking. They expand a team’s perspective and pool of information.

Convening and engaging in courageous conversations in a way that people feel safe and valued for their views is an essential leadership skill. To do it well requires a high level of emotional intelligence. It asks that leaders cultivate openness, flexibility, and finely tuned listening skills.

Here’s the challenge. These skills often take time to develop. And the only way to develop them is to practice. To dive in. To engage in these kinds of conversations.

That means, by definition, you need to have a lot of courageous conversations that don’t go well. It means the risks are high that you’ll say something insensitive, hurt someone’s feelings, have your own feelings hurt.

So, how do leaders and teams get around this?

That is where “good faith conversations” come in.

Engaging in a good faith conversation is a tacit or overt agreement that you will engage with good intentions and that you will assume good intentions of others. You don’t necessarily need to be skillful to engage in a good faith conversation, you simply need the willingness and desire to do so.

7 ways to support good faith conversations.

1. Be Present

A good faith conversation begins with being present.

So often we drag things forward during our busy day from other conversations or circumstances that have nothing to do with the people in front of us.  Maybe it’s the residue from a previous interaction, or a poor night’s sleep, or a sick child you are worried about. Whatever it is, people can sense when you are not fully with them or if your energy or mood is off. And it will have an impact.

You can manage that impact best by being aware and attuned to your own energy and what you are bringing to the conversation. You may need to take a deep breath and consciously put it aside. You may need to be transparent and acknowledge it.

The key is to become present and attuned not only to what is going on around you but what is going on within you. You cannot manage what is outside of your awareness.

2. Design for good faith.

When we have conversations on topics that matter deeply to us, we put all of our attention on what we are talking about and not on how we are engaging in the conversation.

Design is our jargon for having intentional conversations about the how. This is where you get to ask questions and be curious about what others are bringing to and needing from the conversation. Where you all get to clarify and honor your intentions and create agreements together on how you will engage.

These agreements are not imposed by the leader but co-created with the participants.

Some teams have standing agreements about how they engage each other. For challenging and courageous conversations, it may be necessary to check in with those agreements and see if they are sufficient to support open, vulnerable and real dialogue in this particular conversation.

3. Assume good intent.

At its heart, a good faith conversation is about having good intentions and trusting the intentions of others.

It’s a conscious choice.

This can be especially challenging if people hold views that you disagree with. It requires that you see others as human beings. It requires that you see them as multi-dimensional , complex individuals – not as ideologies, ethnicities, identities, or institutions. It asks you to see them as more complex than what they believe or the position they espouse.

It requires that you recognize that their positions are logical or reasonable to them, even if they aren’t to you. It invites you to be curious enough to understand how their point of view might make sense to them. It invites you to try to inhabit their world for the time you are in conversation with them.

4. Engage fairly and peacefully.

Most of us want to engage in good faith, and most of us think we do. And still, there are very common behaviors we all slip into when we become attached to being right or to persuading people to come to our way of thinking. It’s a slippery slope from right to self-righteous, particularly when values and beliefs are involved.

Two common behaviors that undermine good faith conversations are:

Engaging to win or persuade rather than to understand.

  • Engaging in debate versus conversation, where the goal is to prevail. Debating has its uses, but a debate is not a good faith conversation and rarely do debates change minds and hearts.
  • Deliberately over-simplifying, mishearing, or misrepresenting another’s argument to make it easier to attack. Sometimes called “a straw man fallacy.”
  • Interrupting to prevent the other person from clearly and completely articulating their position.
  • Ending a discussion when the other has not had a chance to fully air their point of view.

Attacking the person and their character rather than engaging with their position or ideas.

  • Blaming and shaming. Blaming and shaming can feel like an assault and often results in either an aggressive response or a retreat from the conversation.
  • Labeling the person to weaken their credibility. Equating a person’s point of view with an extreme group identity or stereotype.
  • Assigning bad intent. Assuming the other person’s motives are bad or suggesting that they are not honestly expressing their true point of view.
  • Attacking the other person’s character or demonizing them.

5. Listen to learn and understand.

Leadership coaching and adult development expert, Jennifer Garvey Berger, has a simple Youtube video that describes three common ways we listen – listening to win, listening to fix, and listening to learn.

The most gnarly, contentious, high stakes conversations are rarely about simple, easy-to-fix issues. The conversations that require courage are usually about issues that are complex and nuanced, where there is more than one reasonable way of seeing the problem and its solution. This is where practicing the skill of listening to learn is invaluable.

Listening to learn stems from genuine curiosity. It assumes there is something you do not yet understand. This kind of conversation contains more questions than assertions.

In their wonderful guide to leading in complexity, Unleash Your Complexity Genius, Berger and her co-author Carolyn Coughlin, go deeper on this and add a fourth dimension – “listening to see.” This comes from the work of their fellow leadership coaches and colleagues Vernice Jones and Akasha. Listening to see is grounded in a desire to see and understand the unique perspective and experience of the person in front of you. They make the point that “if you are “listening to learn,” you are still trying to get something for yourself—new learning, new understanding. Listening to see is a gift you give another person, and in the same way laughter can be a gift…” It offers something to the other. The affirming experience of being truly heard.

6. Be Responsible for Your Impact

Sometimes good intentions are not enough. Sometimes we say things that are insensitive or offensive when we don’t intend to do so. Sometimes we hurt people unintentionally because we are clumsy or not sufficiently aware or mindful of their experience or circumstances.

No one can speak with authority about your intention, but anyone can speak with authority about your impact on them.

If you are fortunate, people will tell you when you offend them or when your words or actions have a negative impact. It takes courage for people to tell you when you’ve been insensitive or hurtful. Especially if you are someone who has some form of positional power or rank in the situation. It’s often hard to receive that kind of feedback but it helps to see it as a gift. And, how you receive it will determine where the conversation goes from there.

Just because you did not intend to offend or do harm, doesn’t absolve you from responsibility. Saying, “I’m sorry if you took offense to my words,” is not owning your impact. That is holding them responsible for your impact. Part of being responsible for your impact is owning when your actions have negative consequences and addressing those consequences in a way that acknowledges the harm, and if possible, enables you to repair any harm.

7. Be Forgiving

A colleague and I were on a business trip, using our travel time to prepare for an up-coming team coaching session. I was walking through the context for one of the exercises we would be delivering when she stopped me cold. She said, “When you use that tone with me, I assume you think I’m stupid.”

I was stunned. She is one of the smartest people I know.

I said, “Oh my god! How could you think that?”

“It’s your tone. It’s so professorial and condescending.”

In that moment, I realized two things. One, I had been rehearsing, so I hadn’t even been talking to her. I was imagining myself in front of the team we were about to work with. And two, if I sounded professorial and condescending to her, I was probably going to sound that way to them too. Yikes!

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I was rehearsing and not even considering how my words might sound to you. Forgive me.”

“Of course,” she said. “Always.”

As leaders, we need to create environments where we can practice good faith conversations AND where we forgive each other when we don’t pull them off.

Forgiveness does not mean being silent when someone’s tone is disrespectful or their words are insensitive. Pointing out when someone has had a poor impact is key to their learning process. Forgiving them for not being perfect or skilled, makes the process safer.

When there is forgiveness, we feel safe, we can learn, we can grow, we can do better.

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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