Leaning into Fear or Discomfort: The Power of having Tough Conversations in the Workplace

Gloria Cotton, Senior Partner at inQUEST

Gloria Cotton headshot - Menttium

In this episode, Gloria Cotton, Senior Partner at inQUEST, offers a powerful strategy to address the fear or discomfort that often makes people resist having a courageous conversation. Gloria highlights how to move from having a courageous conversation to getting input from stakeholders to implement meaningful action that will make a positive difference. She also shares her best advice for leaders.


Brown: Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life and the transformative power of mentoring. This is Solveig Brown, and today I am thrilled to have Gloria Cotton as my guest, Gloria led Menttium’s September Business Education, Webinar on Courageous Conversations.


We had such an overwhelmingly positive response to that webinar. So I am grateful that Gloria is here with me today to continue the conversation. Gloria will offer some great advice on how to address the fear or discomfort individuals often have when they need to have a courageous conversation. We will also talk about how to move from having a courageous conversation to taking action that makes a positive difference.


Before we begin our conversation, I would like to give you some background information on Gloria. Gloria Cotton is a senior partner at inQuest. She is an expert HR and organizational development professional. Gloria has more than 25 years of experience working with corporate nonprofit union, non-union and government entities.


She’s committed to helping individuals, teams, and organizations create and sustain environments where all people can be and do their best. Gloria also has a podcast called The Delicious Truth, which is a podcast that presents the diverse truths about issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Welcome, Gloria.


I am so happy to have you as a guest today. Thank you so much.


Cotton: I’m so happy to be here with you. Thank you for honoring me and asking me to be here and thank you.


Brown: Gloria, when you presented the webinar, one of the questions you asked people was, why they don’t have courageous conversations consistently.


And I thought it was really noteworthy that so many of the answers related to fear, discomfort and avoidance. So I am just so delighted that you’re back today to go a little more in depth into this, how to move through fear. So can you talk more about how people can address their fear?


Cotton: Certainly and thank you. That’s a great place to start because that’s one of the things that gets in people’s way. One of the thing is people are afraid to admit they’re. So it’s like a double whammy going on. So the first thing is to acknowledge, you know what? I’m feeling uncomfortable. I don’t know where it’s coming from.


I don’t know what’s expected of me, suppose I mess up. All of these things. Whatever it is, just face it, look at it and look at it as. As if it’s a separate entity, even though it is part of you. So acknowledge it, then work to understand it. Where did this come from? What is it about my history, my lived history, or the history that’s been lived by someone else that I respect that has created this Place within me where it takes my breath away and not in a good way when I think about having to do this.


And so what I say to people is acknowledge those things. Then approach each one of the what. To understand what’s going on, what is behind the fear, to understand why it’s there. And then with respectful curiosity go more deeply into understanding where this took root, how it was born what it means and what the need is.


What do you need in order to feel safe? Because if we don’t do that, you won’t ever feel comfortable. You’ll just be putting bandaid on gang green and that’s not what we wanna do. So we wanna be sure that we are doing that. And then without judgment, this is another key thing because some people say I shouldn’t feel that way in.


You spend all that time and energy judging yourself and others, which doesn’t help healing after you have understood where it’s coming from. Now the question is now what? What will I do now? And so then you can look at, here are my values, here’s how it’s in alignment with the expectations and the aspirations of our company, of our team, of myself, my family.


Make sure that’s in alignment, and then you won’t have to feel embarrassed. Or be ashamed or any of those other things, that’s what you do. So just to boil it down, one, acknowledge, Yeah, I have a fear. Admit that, be honest with yourself and then get to understand where that fear is coming from. And then understand what needs to happen so that you feel safe.


And then with that information, what do you need to do to get that need met? You got.


Brown: I love that. It’s like having the first conversations with yourself.


Cotton: Yes.


Brown: And I love that leaning in with respectful curiosity of where is this fear coming from? And that’s a really. Doable step, of just like you said, acknowledging the fear without judgment.


Cotton: Yeah.


Brown: And just being curious about it as opposed to judging it. One of the things that came up in the webinar was the people talked about practicing when they needed to have a courageous conversation. Is that something you recommend? Is it good to role play or kind of figure out what you’re gonna say because you’ll likely be nervous in the moment and the more you can practice it or at least the starting the better it might turn out.


Cotton: Yeah, absolutely . We have to practice too. It’s so amazing because many times if we don’t do it, it is like we have an accident. Like being in a car, you don’t just get in a car and drive. You have to practice that thing. So anything that’s going to impact your life and the life of others, you need to be sure that you’re getting good at it.


So what do you do? So what I have done is, first of all, you have to identify who are your allies. Who are the people that is safe for you to say, I’m uncertain, whatever your fears are and then; Here’s my aspiration. They won’t judge you. So the first thing is you don’t judge you, but then you need allies.


You’re your own ally first, and then you find other allies who don’t judge you. Who also have those same things about respectful curiosity, and you let them know what you need them to do. So sometimes I will go to people, I don’t want you to give me any advice. I just have to, what I call, take a visit to the vomit Tabernacle.


I just have to get this stuff out and so I, this is a safe place for me to do it. I’m not ready to talk about the strategy behind it. I just wanna get this stuff out, projectile vomiting of this stuff, and so it’s safe for me to do that with you. All right. All right, I got that. Okay. I might need some more.


Okay. Whatever you need. And then you begin to say, Now let me think strategically. What do I need to do? Then you can get some coaching from them, or you can get more support, more active support, and there’s plenty active, let me tell you, just listening, holding the space for people to really get in touch with and love and respect themselves while they’re addressing things that might not be so respectful. But that is what you do. Find somebody that you trust that you’re safe with, that is respectfully curious and supportive of you. That is not judgemental of you, that will not put your business in the street. You won’t hear about it on CNN or MSNBC or Fox or whatever it is you look at, right? TikTok and Flip. And all that other… and you can just be, and that is how you begin to say, Okay, this is what I can do differently. And then find somebody who is close to, in many ways, the person or the situation that you need to address. Don’t just have it with people who don’t have any information. They live in a whole different world. Find somebody who lives in that world, who has some experience. Try it out with them. Get their feedback and input. They may tell you something that you never would’ve thought of. Just because you’re innocently ignorant, you can’t know everything. So tap into the privilege that other people have had of knowing things that you don’t know. Leverage that, and then you’re ready.


Brown: Oh man, I love that. I have one other question about this. Can you talk about like workplace power differentials and having courageous conversations, with a boss versus a coworker versus someone that you manage?


Cotton: Yeah. So part of your privilege, and thank you very much. That’s a great question. So people sometimes say, You know what? I don’t have any problem having these conversations with people that report to me or my peers, because it’s not the same kinda political skin in the game. . So if you are feeling unsure or unsafe, see it’s not just unsafe and I know it, but if I’m not sure that I am safe, what you wanna do is leverage the privilege of someone else, maybe.


Brown: Okay.


Cotton: Somebody else who will that person listen to your manager. It could be that it’s there isn’t anyone. That they, he, she, they are not gonna listen to anyone. Then the question is, what can you do so that you don’t violate yourself? What can you do so that you honor yourself? And so that’s a whole different level of strategy that takes more energy from you.


I do understand it, but that’s a reality sometimes. . . Don’t deny that. Don’t deny that because now you’re walk walking into landmine. So just, are you gonna reward yourself for learning to navigate those treacherous shark-infested waters? You probably can’t heal or help that person advance, except just to let them know that they are safe with you.


I am here for you. I am here. I’m not going to not do this job. You can depend upon me. And so you’re acknowledging and you’re supporting them. You’re also acknowledging, supporting, doing what you need to do if you can speak with them. If you have that kind of relationship, then leverage the strengths of your relationship, build on that.


That’s a privilege that you have. But if you don’t have that relationship, who do you have a relationship with that has a relationship with them?


Brown: Oh, that is great advice of who your advocates can be, who your allies are in that situation. Cuz not everyone, you don’t have the relationship with everyone to have that courageous conversation and to, start being mindful of that too strategically.


Cotton: Yeah. And we get in trouble because we start saying, that shouldn’t be, it’s not fair. You’re right. It shouldn’t be and it’s not fair. Okay. Now, because that’s what it is. So one of the things with courageous conversations is to have that courageous conversation again. With who First? With yourself first. . And so without judgment, here’s just what it is. Here’s what this is, how this is cold, this is hot. This is black, this is white, this is in, this is out. There’s no judgment about. I can see the curtain behind you. I see that plant behind you. Those are just the “IS’S” of life.


Let’s not destroy that. We’re not creating a fantasy world. This is the third dimensional planet that we’re on. This is the reality that we’re in. Okay, now what can you do to take care of and honor and respect yourself as well as everybody?


Brown: So that leads me to my next question because in your webinar you talked about, following up courageous conversations with actions that make a relatable and sustainable difference. Can you offer some tips for how to follow through with meaningful action after having a courageous conversation?


Cotton: Yeah. Thank you. So first of all, how do you know what is meaningful to other people?


Brown: Good question. Yeah.


Cotton: How do you know? Or are you just a legend in your own mind trying to figure that out? So this is where the “fixers” and the “saviors” come from. I’m doing air quotes for people who can’t see this. The intention is wonderful. I’m coming from this great place, but it doesn’t quite connect. Because it’s what I thought somebody needed, not what they really needed. And so it either misses the mark or it’s only, again, putting bandaid on gang green.


It’s a temporary and immediate, but not a sustainable fix. And this is why people are so exhausted. Many times people say they don’t wanna talk with me about it. And I’m like, Okay. And so why do you think that is? And people are willing to talk. But even the most introverted, a persons will communicate with you if they believe that something is going to come from the energy that they’re putting into communicating with you.


But, this is just a waste of time. This is just a check the box, something that you did. So you can say, I did it, but it doesn’t connect. So go back and examine what is your motivation? Where is it coming from? And if you are really invested in the other person, guess what? You gotta talk with that person.


Let them know your intention. This can be a little scary and so people are afraid to admit their vulnerability. A lot of people are afraid to admit to somebody. “I don’t have all the answers.” Cause you were taught, you have to have all the answers. Somewhere in your life you were taught, you are not successful, you’re not a good person, you’re not a good leader, you’re not a good team player unless you have all… Stop it right now. That’s why we need one another. I have no problem being, I call it transparent, not vulnerable, because I don’t feel any risk in letting people know I don’t have a clue. Help me understand. I want to do something that’s impactful for you that is gonna help you. I need to know what that is, and then when I know what that is, what I, you, and we can do in order to make that come about.


And if it doesn’t, the ideal is impossible because of different reasons, because of systemic things or whatever it is. Policy, procedural things, practice things. Whatever the reason that we cannot achieve that ideal goal, then what can we do next that will address it so that you’ll feel better while the answer is still “no.”


Brown: Right.


Cotton: Be real.


Brown: Yes. Like, you know, And if you haven’t asked people what they want, what their difference, If you’re just assuming that, you haven’t really understood and you haven’t had that kind of the important follow up conversation about. Action would be meaningful and sustainable and relatable to another individual.


Cotton: Yeah. And have a discussion. Ask that question. But when they tell you what they need and you begin to discuss now, what can we do to meet that need?


Ask them how do, how is that gonna work? What do you believe that’s the impact that’s gonna have? Because sometimes people are just thinking, I don’t know what to do. I know what we need to stop, but I don’t know what we need to start. Or, I know what we need to start, but I don’t know what we need to stop.


And you really have to look at both sides of that. What needs to stop, what needs to be replaced by. What needs to be continued? What needs to be started for the very first time, and what is the impact? So this is not just, oh, thank you so much for telling me what you need. Now let’s go about getting it. We have to look strategically at what can sabotage, what can get in the way? Who do we need? What is gonna be the immediate short, medium, and long-term impacts. Are we working strategies to meet all those things. It’s not just I need to lose a hundred pounds and so I’m gonna go to sleep tonight. Have one little biscuit or something, or little gummy and I’m gonna wake up tomorrow. A hundred pound…. No, but you gotta be one pound at a time. Come on now. So that’s it.


Brown: Yeah. So just reminding everyone, it is a process and it’s got a little bit of trial and error and it’s, one, one step at a time, but at least people will feel better if they’re moving towards something.


Cotton: That’s right.


Brown: That, that’s meaningful.


Cotton: That’s right. And acknowledge when people are frustrated because the longer you have been or the more intensely you have felt disrespected or whatever, the negative thing. The more you’re gonna want immediate attention. And sometimes that doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you have to trust and work the process And so acknowledge though, don’t tell people they’re wrong for wanting. This is what people do and that’s why non no judgment is so important. You are wrong. What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t think that we need the strategy because I’m in too much pain to be strategic.


Cotton: And so acknowledge that if I know I’m heard and I’m understood, that will go a long way. I will get into a different level or gear of patients once I know somebody is there that’s working. They have the power, authority and privilege to do it, and I let me be part of that solution.


Brown: Gloria, in your experience, what are the negative consequences of avoiding a courageous conversation or for not figuring out what the appropriate follow up action is after a conversation?


Cotton: Yeah, so I’m remembering a movie. I don’t know what it was, but a line was from, it was, "They don’t die, they multiply."


Brown: Ah.


Cotton: And that’s what happens when we don’t have those courageous conversations, when we don’t address, when we put our head in the sand. Wishing, wishing and hoping, and thinking and praying that somebody else is gonna deal with it.


Yes, It’ll just magically go away. No, and this is why I say I love confrontation. I don’t love a confrontation. No, that’s different interaction, but to confront something while it’s small, let’s do that where there’s smoke, let’s, it doesn’t have to be a raging fire. Let’s address it where there’s smoke. Wait a moment.


Somebody is noticing there’s smoke. They told me about it. This is why we have smoke alarms. So your house doesn’t have to burn down before you are aware that something needs attention. So let’s do that. Let’s have our own internal smoke alarm. And let’s invite other people. Let us know when things are working well, when they’re not incrementally, even if you suspect that something can be better or you suspect that something is on its way to being worse, let’s talk about it.

Cotton: And thank you with gratitude. Thank you. I’ll make time to do that cause this is important. If you don’t do that again, it just gets bigger, more things. Now people start having judgment in there. The reason you didn’t address it was because I told you about it and then you don’t like me because of something. And people start filling in the blanks with why they have been rejected before. They will say, This is why most often when people don’t listen to me or they don’t care about me, or they don’t welcome me most often, this has been the reason. If I don’t know, then I will fill in that blank. And that is a worse horror story than Stephen King could ever write.


Brown: Right. And I love that analogy of having that conversation when there’s smoke.


Cotton: Yes.


Brown: Because it’s so much easier to do something. The stakes aren’t so high, your lives aren’t in danger, you’re not gonna ruin everything, that’s right. So I love that. I just start being the smoke detector okay, something’s not quite right.


Cotton: So there it. Yeah. Yeah. Wow. Make it safe for people to come to you. Though I might mention this, there are several things that on a global perspective, when I’ve been privileged to work with leaders around the world, there are several things that all of them say, no matter what the business is, no matter what country it is. And one of the things is I have an open door policy. . Now I’m an HR queen, so I know about policy, I write policy, I love the law, all of that. But you know what? If you have an open door policy, but you don’t have an open door, practice. It serves no purpose. It serves no purpose, except you feel better in your mind that you can say, I’m a legend. In my own mind, I have an open door policy, but baby, nobody’s coming through your door. You have a closed door practice. Oh, some people are coming. You have a crack door practice? Okay. So you have to look at that. Yeah. And then when people come through your. Or you come out of your door and people, cuz people can be nervous when they see you. Oh my God, I got a text from somebody. I got a phone call, I gotta meet with so and and people are terrified. You need to work on building a relationship where trust and safety. Are real. Yeah. . Yeah.


Brown: I love that. Trust and safety. Gloria, we have time for three final questions. I know it’s gone so fast, the first it has, Do you have habits or practices that you feel have contributed to your success?


Cotton: A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question as I do now, and I’ve been working in diversity, equity, and inclusion for more than 30 years. We continue to grow and that’s a delicious thing about diversity is that you’re always growing, you’re always having the opportunity to learn about yourself and others.


One of the things that I have learned is I, one, I am a type A, get it done, do it, delegated or dump it fast person. And so now with all the talk about agility, I understand that is my primary language, but we need to slow down. We need to be more analytical. Those of us who results is the driving thing. I love you and absolutely results has have got to be achieved, but you know what?


We need to be more analytical before we move. We need to give more thought, asking those why questions. Getting more perspectives in involving testing those things as we’ve been talking about today, before we begin to just take, put all of our resources behind this one thing and think we’re going down that trail.


It could be the wrong trail just because we were going, we got to it first. . So I have learned to ask questions to get other people’s opinion. To float things by people, even if I think I know, and many times I do, but the worst thing that can happen is they confirm you’re right? The best thing is that you can learn there are other things or there’s something different, and so really just ask more questions and slow down and hear other people’s voices.


Brown: Oh, I love that. Gloria, what would your advice be to up and coming leaders in addition to slow down and ask more questions? . . .


Cotton: Realize you’re not in this by yourself, and isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that wonderful. Look to see who are the people you’re surrounding yourself with, and realize that even for those people, and you need to expand your network of people. But even for the people that you’re beginning with that are in your network, that are in your closest circle. You don’t know everything that they have. You don’t know about all their resources. Many times we look at people, they do one thing that’s that’s it. Your pigeon holed into that thing. That thing. I go to you for that. But what else? I have so many other gifts or interests or things, opportunities to grow. So look at people. Really get to know people. Allow them to get to know you. Building those relationships, there’s no limit to what it, the yield can be. One, you build not only knowledge about one another, but you build trust and understanding, and then when you mess up, and you will, because you’re a human being, when you say the wrong thing, when you do the wrong thing, when you disappoint somebody. They will give you grace and allow you to be a human being instead of some automaton or something, some alien creature that’s always got it right. I’m having my team create a t-shirt that says I’m perfect in my imperfection. Realize we are all human doing, most of us trying to do our best, but we cannot achieve that alone.


So that interdependence, not codependence, that interdependence can be a beautiful, wonderful thing if you are all feeling safe. If you’re all feeling what at inQuest we say is included, when you feel welcome, valued, respected, heard as a human being and for yourself as a profession. A professional what you are contributing, and I’ve added two other things.


After the public execution of Mr. George Floyd, I added two welcome value, respected, heard that I am understood. Not only do you hear me, but you understand me as a human being, what my needs are, and then you support me in the way I need to be supported. If you will invest your time. It’s not a sacrifice, if you will invest your time going on treasure hunts instead of scavenger hunts. If you will develop and demonstrate that growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset, if you will do the things that we’ve talked about. Connect with people, asking them for their help. Be human with them, then they will feel safer to be human with you.


Brown: Yeah. And that is such amazing advice because it goes full circle to creating an atmosphere where you can have courageous conversations when there is smoke.


And because people will feel comfortable and supported and safe. Gloria, this is our final question. Do you have a favorite saying, quote or motto?


Cotton: Wow. A favorite. That’s really hard, though.


Brown: I know. It can be more than one. If that’s hard to narrow down.


Cotton: I’ve said some of those things. And you have too. Because in our conversation we just, and it I just wanna say this too, on the podcast. It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you to connect with you. So thank you so much.


Brown: Oh, I feel the same way. Thank you.


Cotton: One of the things that lately, and I wrote some things down because you did me the service of letting me know some of the things you were gonna ask. So I thought, Oh my God, what is this?


Cotton: Cause I really don’t know what I’m gonna say many times. So here’s here, Just quickly lean into discomfort with respectful curiosity and without judgment. We’ve said that before, and thank you for repeating it, but that cannot be said enough. Lean into your discomfort, lean into your uncertainty, lean into your fears with respectful curiosity and without judgment and with gratitude for what you can know. You know what? Even if you cannot connect with someone, someone else, experientially connect with them as a human being. Connect with them as a human being because so much will come from that safety that they may feel and that you will feel to use your privilege to help others who don’t have that and then they will share their privilege, which is just resources.


Cotton: They’ll share their privilege with you cuz everybody needs everybody. And then don’t allow anything. You cannot influence or control to control or influence you.


Brown: Oh, I love that. Oh, that is great. And then also, I just wanna add to the listeners, we did a pre-meeting, Gloria and I, and we were just talking about this question and Gloria said she comes up with these quotes all the time.


She said, “Oh, I’m just flying today. And I came up with this quote,” and she said, What came to my mind is “I don’t have to diminish who I am to uplift you.” And I wrote it down and I have shared that Gloria. Several people just since we talked last week. I love that. And I love just all these reminders.


Gloria, thank you so much for making this time to do this podcast. I have had so many ‘aha’ moments from our conversation. I love the idea of leaning into fear or discomfort with respectful curiosity, non-judgment, and gratitude. I love the idea of having a conversation with yourself first as to why are you feeling the fear, what you know, what is the root and without, again, without judgment.


I believe that learning to acknowledge, name, better understand your own fear is such a great internal resource to cultivate. Thank you for reminding us, of the importance that we are all interdependent, that nobody is, a one person show that we all need to come together.


We need to talk to each other. We need to get clarity on what. Other people may need what and work together. Your suggestions for how to move from conversations to meaning at full action are wonderful of that incremental change of going toward a vision that supports everyone, that provides safety and security for everyone, and that includes everyone.


I encourage you all to check out glorious podcasts, The Delicious Truth. It is a fantastic resource with ideas and tools you can use to make a positive difference in your life. I’ve listened to several episodes already and they are just wonderful. Just, some challenging topics, but boy, you really go into a lot of depth, and I really appreciate all you know that you and your guests have done on that podcast. And thank you all for making time to listen to this Menttium Matters podcast episode. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with friends and coworkers. We look forward to having you all tune in to our next episode.