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Wednesday Wisdom

Courage Cultures

- Reflect -

Witnessing a whole range of extraordinary acts of bravery over the last week has caused me to reflect on the smaller acts of courage that take place within our everyday lives. Every day, millions of people take deep breaths to do things that feel enormously difficult and which merit the label of ‘courageous’.

Any readers who have attended one of my talks will have heard me mention the concept of ‘courage cultures’ at home. We know that it’s mentally and physically beneficial to try things that perhaps frighten us at first. This might be getting on a skateboard or bike for the first time, or volunteering to do something that induces butterflies in the tummy. As parents, it can feel counterintuitive, mean even, to nudge our children towards things that make them feel nervous. However, if we don’t, they risk never discovering what they are truly capable of, they risk never upskilling and they risk missing out on feelings that embolden them to do better, try harder and exploit life’s rich opportunities. 

I will give you an example. Last weekend, my son wasn’t able to fulfil a promise of volunteering at a local charity shop. He had a good reason for this, but he still pleaded with me to make the tricky phone call to his ‘employer’.  We tried to brainstorm his ‘fear of calling’ together. What did he think was at the heart of his reluctance? What was the worst that could happen if he told his boss he couldn’t come in? I suggested he needed to be ‘10% braver’ and make the call himself. 

By thinking through multiple scenarios and role-playing how the conversation might go, he felt slightly more able to give it a go. As he dialled, I noticed he put the call on speakerphone – the equivalent of asking me to watch him jump into a deep pool in case he couldn’t swim and indicative of the fact he was still anxious about the outcome. Happily, the chap he spoke to was delighted to hear from him and grateful that he had been considerate enough to let him know he wouldn’t be coming in. 

Once our children make these little acts of courage, how can we respond in ways that optimise their learning? I once interviewed the eminent psychiatrist, Professor Tamsin Ford, and asked her how parents should react when children do something scary for the first time. Her reply underlined the importance of noticing their bravery and, rather than simply giving them a ‘pat on the back’, encouraging them to reflect on that most important of questions:  “How did you manage to do that?” Reflection breeds resilience and gets children thinking through what it took to achieve their goal. What did you tell yourself so you could do it? What helped to calm your nerves? How do you feel now that you have done it?  My son left that call feeling better about himself, mentally stronger, and more resilient about the prospect of difficult conversations in the future. 

- Motivate -

It can be a useful exercise to think about the bravery you have witnessed in your own life. In recent weeks, I have been moved by some of the everyday acts of courage that I’ve been told about by friends and professional contacts.

These include a friend who took the decision to be a ’whistle-blower’ at work, risking his career (and his mental health) to hold a bully boss to account, a mum with a terminal illness telling her children the truth of her prognosis and an autistic teen who overcame a fear of a particular food after weeks of 1:1 support from a paediatric dietitian. None of these brave people knew how things would turn out, but they dived in and did it anyway.

Being brave requires us to expose ourselves emotionally to others, and this can feel deeply uncomfortable, for a time at least. As Professor Brené Brown, researcher and author, dictates, “You can’t get to courage without ‘rumbling with vulnerability’”. We have to both occupy a state of vulnerability and live with uncertainty of outcome in order to reach a place where courage can be experienced. 

Maybe we should all consider the brave conversations we wish we could have with family, colleagues or friends. The things we want to talk about, but utterly dread. How might we find the language to communicate that unmet need, that injustice, that regret? How might we find the words to say that we aren’t happy with the status quo and wish for things to be different? Most importantly, how might we feel if it goes better than expected? Imagine the best outcome and consider how good you might feel on the other side of that conversation.

- Support -

Now, the tricky bit. Deciding how, when and where to have that brave chat. Significant conversations, where the outcome might be nerve-wracking, require thought.

This is why, across various professions, people receive training on how to have difficult conversations; learning more about how to structure them, language that can open up dialogue, and appropriate, tried and tested strategies to manage an array of possible responses. 

More often than not, at home, we avoid having difficult conversations because we simply don’t know how to start. ‘Starting poorly’ might mean blurting something out that immediately places someone else into a state of pure defensiveness, or bringing something up at just the wrong time, when people are caught off guard. 

Before starting, you should reconcile your own feelings about the conversation. What is the objective of this chat? What are the main points that you would like to get across? Then, consider the optimal context, timing and tone. It might be worth thinking through a time when a conversation definitely didn’t go to plan; remember the last time you brought something up and it all went badly, quickly? 

Consider giving the person(s) some warning and a little time to absorb the fact that you want this tricky conversation. “I was hoping that we could have a chat over the weekend, if that’s ok? Could we set aside a little bit of time for it?” At this point, it’s important to provide some sort of framework for the chat and state its purpose. These are the crunch moments and, as you step into that state of vulnerability, remember you are being brave. Be clear and be calm. Promise that you are looking forward to an exploratory chat together, rather than an argument. 

Remember, not all tricky conversations need to happen across a table. Depending on who you are talking to, you might consider a side-by-side chat on a walk, a dinner combined with a chat, or a chat that takes place over days. Having a tripartite structure in your head may help. The first part of the conversation might involve ‘discovery’, where you share observations and learn how each other feels about a particular issue. Then, move into a deeper exploration (actively listening to each other’s viewpoints) and finally, attempt to come to some sort of consensus and agree future actions. 

In general, family life is something that I would encourage us all to regularly audit. How are things going for us? What are we doing well? What could work better? What one thing could we each do to enhance the quality of our family life?

If we can model courage to our children and show ‘how’ to have difficult conversations at home, we invest in their self-efficacy, agency and give them the best possible chance of having healthier and more authentic relationships themselves. So let’s all aim to be 10% braver. Perhaps it will mean that we will be 10% happier too.

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve added some brand new resources to the Tooled Up library, designed to help kickstart these tricky conversations about the good and the bad in family life. Make sure that you check out our top ten tips on making family conversation more productive, particularly when teens are involved. We’ve also created an accompanying template to use before and during these family audit meetings. If you have younger children, our My Family Life activity is a great way to prompt reflections on the positives and negatives of everyday life. It’s not only in family life that we have tricky conversations. Sometimes, prospective chats with colleagues and friends can leave us feeling equally nervous. If this sounds familiar, take a look at our brand new conversation model, provided to Tooled Up by the fabulous relational coach and educator Sally Graham, which can be applied to any situation. 

Don’t forget that March is packed full of expert webinars on various subjects, exclusive to our Tooled Up community. You can book your free place on any of them now. Tonight, you can join me to learn evidence-based tips on how to help your child thrive academically, whilst also protecting their mental health. Take a look at all of the webinars we have on offer here.

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Have a great week.