Say What Needs to Be Said! Interview

Emotional courage is an essential work skill. Here’s how to burnish yours.

“Emotional courage enables us to do what we know, what we believe or what we think needs to be done,” says Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, a New York-based global management consulting firm that advises CEOs and their leadership teams. The author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done spoke to Life Reimagined about the concept of emotional courage and its role in the workplace.

What is emotional courage?

“It’s the difference between knowing what to do and doing it. It’s the leap we have to take when we see a need, have a desire or notice an opportunity, but there’s some emotional barrier preventing us from following through on it. Maybe it’s embarrassing to speak up for some reason. Maybe there’s an elephant in the room, but it’s countercultural to voice it.”

Can you give us an example?

“Let me give you a personal instance before relating it to business: the first time you say, ‘I love you’ to someone. In a relationship there’s that moment when you want to tell someone how you really feel. And that always seems like a risk because you don’t know how the sentiment will be received. You don’t know if you will be rejected.

“Almost every boardroom has an elephant in it. Every time people sit around a corporate table, there’s something they don’t talk about. It might be related to how a particular division is struggling. Or maybe there’s an issue with how the leader is addressing team members. There can be any number of concerns that we don’t mention, and it’s difficult to gather the courage to be the first person to bring them up.”

But why is emotional courage so important in the workplace?

“It’s critical in business because the greatest forward leaps happen when we can tackle the topics and the issues that no one else is willing to address. People are generally able to succeed at work, but there’s always the question of, ‘How can I get better?’ But to get better—if you really want to move the needle—usually requires doing something a bit more radical. And by definition, doing something more radical takes emotional courage.”

What might be a negative consequence of not practicing emotional courage at work?

“Stagnation. The biggest downside is that nothing happens. The status quo remains. Everything stays the same.”

How is emotional courage any different than being honest, or just saying what’s on your mind?

“Actually, sometimes emotional courage is about listening. Sometimes you have to let someone else say something that’s very, very difficult to hear. And the urge to be defensive, the impulse to negate the speaker or to find fault in what he is saying, is very strong and powerful because we try to protect ourselves. It takes tremendous emotional courage to just sit and listen to what someone is saying when they disagree with you or are criticizing you.”

How can people display emotional courage without seeming rude, especially in an office environment where professionalism is so important?

“Emotional courage is a skill that goes hand-in-hand with another one: communication. If you’re a poor communicator, having emotional courage can backfire because you’ll just blurt things out that have negative effects and actually end up hurting relationships or people. Knowing how to communicate powerfully and effectively makes a big difference.”

So a person should be a good communicator before practicing emotional courage?

“Yes, or he should practice communicating while trying out emotional courage. I’ve started a leadership school, Leadership Week, and it is very much about practicing emotional courage in a way that moves you forward and doesn’t move you backward. It actually helps leverage the skill of communication to effectively practice emotional courage.”

How can people cultivate emotional courage in their daily lives?

“The whole point of emotional courage is that it’s not a theoretical or conceptual idea—it’s a practical act. So you could develop it by taking smaller steps. If you feel uncomfortable giving someone a compliment, but you do it, then that becomes a feat. Or maybe offering feedback makes you feel uneasy, but you try it little by little. The only way to develop your emotional courage is to use it. It’s a muscle that needs flexing. As you build the muscle in regular life, you will gain the confidence to implement it in workplace scenarios.”

Interviewer: Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

Originally published at: Life Reimagined for Work


  1. ? … “burnish” or burlesque

  2. Pamela Luckey says:

    Emotional Courage-yes, that is what my daughter needed a few days ago when she attempted to leave the abusive man she has lived with for 6 years. She knew what to do but emotionally she didn’t have the courage to do it. :(

    1. Ann Terry says:

      can I suggest another perspective Pamela that may be useful? living with abuse takes incredible emotional courage every day. May a be a first step for your daughter is for her to see how amazing courageous she already is? She has developed so much expertise about risk assessment and risk management to name but a few skills. Leaving an abusive relationship can be dangerous as the abuser will typically up the anti at that point. when she is ready to change some specialist advice can be useful. Its challenging for you to see what is going on and how great that you continue to be there for her.

  3. nitin jain says:

    Emotional Courage & good communication make an essential combination.

    I remember instances from the past, when I practiced emotional courage but with not-so-good manner of communicating then some of my peers felt offended. I think I am doing better now!


  4. Megha says:

    I really enjoy reading your articles, I am also doing a bit of a blogging for my org which focuses on individual development than organisational, but every now and then I take inspiration from your blogs, I admire the way they are written.

  5. olufeko temitope says:

    Emotional courage is all i need all this while.
    I am always scared whenever there is need for me to talk
    in any gathering i.e official or social.
    Now i know that doing things more radical tackles emotional barriers.

    good write up

  6. Pranav Jain says:

    I was actually motivated after reading this post on Emotional Courage. I managed to muster Emotional Courage and discuss issues at my work-place with management team- issues related to 2 senior people and how their work-styles was creating unbearable work environment. Things have started to change once I discussed the issues no holds barred with the management. Thanks Peter. I also learnt a lot from your book- 18 Minutes and have been able to implement some of the ideas and have benefited greatly.

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