Successfully Discussing Difficult Subjects Builds Psychological Safety in Teams

June 21, 2022 Craig Weber

Psychological safety is a hot topic, and for good reason. Only 26% of people feel psychologically safe at work.

Psychological safety is “being able to show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career. It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

You can’t buy it on Amazon. It’s not like ordering a pizza. So how do people create it so that their team can be more effective?

One skill-based way to create psychological safety is with Conversational Capacity®—the ability to engage in constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects in challenging circumstances and across tough boundaries. The better we get at this discipline, the more psychological safety we create. The result is better teamwork.

Put another way, if psychological safety is an enabling condition for effective teamwork, conversational capacity is the enabling competence.

Another way to describe conversational capacity is with the concept of the sweet spot in a conversation or meeting, where candor and curiosity are in balance. This is a good place to work when we’re dealing with an important decision or difficult issue. When candid, we speak in very open, forthright, and direct ways. When curious, we’re also open-minded, intellectually humble, and eager to learn. It is the ability to balance candor and curiosity under pressure that determines our own conversational capacity and that of our teams.

To build the capacity to stay in this sweet spot, there are three domains of practice: awareness, mindset, and skill set. Here’s how to build it in your team.


Conversational capacity demands that we are cognizant of the emotional reactions that knock us off balance. This depends on our ability to catch ourselves when we are being triggered so we can choose to behave more intentionally.

The good news is that this awareness is something we can cultivate. The goal is to catch it, name it, and tame it when an emotional reaction threatens our balance in a tough conversation. For example, let’s say you get angry in a meeting. You’re self-aware enough to notice your feeling, name the emotional reaction (research shows that labeling an emotional reaction reduces its power), and understand its cause. Then you can proceed in a productive manner.


If we want to be committed to learning, it implies that we are willing to explore a range of perspectives and lean into what people are sharing. It helps us make smart choices, which includes placing a premium on exploring and integrating a variety of perspectives to expand and improve our thinking. We don’t learn much by talking to people who agree with us. We learn from people who see things differently.

High conversational capacity is more than appreciating diversity. It’s about leveraging diverse perspectives to expand and improve our thinking. With this goal, we don’t just tolerate different or conflicting points of view—we seek them out. We lean into difference. That's where the learning is most likely to occur.

For a team with high conversational capacity, differences are a strength. They spark more learning and progress. For a team with low conversational capacity, divergent perspectives are a weakness. They spark conflict and dysfunction.

I sometimes describe conversational capacity as a conversational martial art. Our opponent in this martial art is not other people, the issue, or the context; it’s our ego. And if we want to stay nondefensive and purposeful under pressure, we must learn to take our ego to the mat. When a team of people builds their capacity to remain purpose driven—even in challenging circumstances—they create more psychological safety. Why? Because everyone sees genuine value in contrasting, conflicting, and different perspectives, which makes it much safer to raise them.

Skill Sets

A mindset is only as useful as our ability to put it into action. So the discipline includes a skill set—specific, well-defined behaviors—for balancing candor and curiosity under pressure.

This is from my book Conversational Capacity:

You do this by clearly putting forward your concern, explaining the reasoning behind it, and then, wary of your blind spots, checking with others to explore what you may be missing. (Perhaps you’re misunderstanding what the team is considering, for instance, or maybe you’re unaware of information that might change your perspective.) If a colleague responds by downplaying your concern, rather than getting defensive, ask them questions to better understand how they are seeing the issue. Despite the weight of the decision and your intentional conflicts, you’re a model of collaborative learning: simultaneously candid and curious.

This is what a difficult conversation in the sweet spot looks like. We’re working hard to candidly express how we see things but we’re working just as hard to curiously explore how others are looking at the same issue. We’re neither arguing nor shutting down, because we’re less concerned about being right or comfortable and more focused on what counts: working with our team to generate a better understanding of the issue at hand so we can make the best choice possible.

Feeling Safer with Conversational Capacity

Conversational capacity both requires and increases our intellectual humility. We treat our own perspectives as hypotheses rather than truth. Holding our views more hypothetically promotes greater cognitive flexibility—when we’re not so attached to our current perspective, it is easier to adjust or change it. We actively lean into difference for just that purpose. If you have a background in engineering, for example, you might seek out and explore the views of someone with a different functional lens like finance, operations, or human resources. How do they look at the issue or decision? And how might that shape or change how you are thinking about it? We’re not obligated to agree with differing ideas but we do work hard to learn from them.

Perhaps the best thing about conversational capacity is that it’s a skill you can take with you. It’s a competence that serves you well in every area of life. Better still, it doesn't depend on the environment. You can be in a psychologically safe or hostile environment, and either way you are better prepared to engage in balanced, constructive dialogue. In this way, a person with high conversational capacity takes a degree of psychological safety with them wherever they go because they’re not dependent on circumstances for their ability to balance candor and curiosity when it counts.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about Craig Weber’s thinking on the relationship between communication skills and psychological safety via this LinkedIn post, Conversational Capacity® and Psychological Safety.

About the Author

Craig Weber

Craig Weber is the author of the best-selling book, "Conversational Capacity: The Secret To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On" (McGraw-Hill, 2013) and the sequel, "Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference" (McGraw-Hill, 2019).

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