Many of us find it hard to be honest with our colleagues even when it’s in everyone’s best interests, so here are some tips for minimising the difficulties of saying what needs to be said.
Barriers to speaking honestly
First of all, recognise what is holding you back from being honest with someone. There can be many reasons but three stand out, often as a heart-sapping conglomerate: fear, embarrassment and lack of skill.
What is there to be afraid of? Plenty. Behind the fear of upsetting someone lie the consequences of that, which could be measured in anger, in tears or in damage to your relationship with the person. We might be afraid of how we'd deal with any of that, so we avoid such a risk by not being truthful.
Embarrassment is on the spectrum of shame and some cultures are particularly sensitive to the need to save face. We don't want someone to feel bad about their shortcomings and we want to be kind, so we proffer hints and we 'beat about the bush'. I once performed extremely badly in a panel interview and I wince even now to recall my mistakes. The recruiter said to me after only that the panel had been "under-whelmed", but as an Englishwoman, I knew he was trying to say that it had been an appalling failure.
Our lack of skill or confidence in speaking honestly also holds us back. Mis-understandings can arise and we might expose our own weaknesses. "The truth is rarely pure and never simple" wrote Oscar Wilde in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, so of course it is not always easy to “speak your truth”.
Tips to speak more honestly
- Recognise the culture and the context for the conversation. How you say something to a millennial colleague wouldn't work for a baby-boomer one perhaps. Be aware of the power dynamic too, and tailor your approach accordingly.
- Rehearse clear, simple statements without elaborate preamble. The rehearsal lets you hone the statements and practice saying them at the right pace and in the tone that you want to achieve. One of my clients went from stating "I'm fed-up that my potential is always overlooked" to "I am keen to show you how much more I am capable of".
- You can use a framework to help you build clear messages. eg. XYZ: "When you say/do X, I feel Y, because Z". This ensures that you own the feelings but helps explain why they come about.
- Another approach to feedback is to describe without judgement what you observed, then draw out the impact or implications of that. This approach helps the other person to become more aware of what their behaviour means to others, or to the business. Since we are always interested in the perceptions that others hold of us, if my behaviour negatively impacts on those perceptions, it can be a powerful motivator for me to change.
- The skill of acknowledgement comes in handy to support more honest communication. It shows that you have listened and without either agreeing or arguing, lets you put forward a different point of view. (see my blog on Q&A&A)
- We tend to judge others by their behaviour while we judge ourselves by our intentions. To increase the HQ (Honesty Quotient) of a conversation, be open about your intentions and ask about the other person’s. All of us fall short in the gap between intention and action, so you can afford to be compassionate.
- Pluck up your courage to be honest. However well prepared you are, you need to accept that there could still be some risk in speaking the truth so, if it matters, you must be courageous.
- Check how you are feeling before you go into the conversation. Delay it if you’re feeling like a child, a victim, a saboteur, a critic, a judge or a nanny (and there are many other unresourceful states so you probably can identify your own favourites). Instead, seek to be in an adult frame of mind, feeling objective, rational and caringly humane.
Benefits of speaking honestly
In case you’re not yet convinced you can do this, think about what you’ll gain by trying. There could be meaningful rewards for you, the other person and the organisation. From what I’ve seen with my clients, two benefits stand out: change becomes possible only when there is honest communication, and your honesty will have an influence that can contribute to a healthy organisational culture. You will feel empowered, and more of what you want will happen if you adopt the best policy.