We all know them – those folks who pride themselves on “telling it like it is” and “not beating around the bush.” They are in our families, social circles, and at work. These folks value authenticity and transparency, and believe that sugar-coating responses winds up obfuscating the truth and leads to misunderstandings and unproductive dialogue. They say “I believe people need to hear the truth, and if they can’t handle it, that’s their problem. The world needs those of us who are willing to put it out there and be honest and clear. Imagine how much better off we’d be if more people were willing to speak their minds instead of playing games!”
Those are noble values. I certainly believe that sugar-coating responses and refusing to offer opposing points of view can lead to sub-optimal results (see How to Know if Your Team is High-Functioning). But too often, this premium placed on being direct and clear is used as an excuse for being rude and abusive. As a result, that “direct” style you are so proud of can ironically wind up sabotaging the productive dialogue you’re shooting for in the first place!
Why? Because people have feelings. And when you hurt those feelings, people get triggered. When you trigger someone else into feeling hurt, bullied, abused, disrespected, etc., chances are they are going to oppose your point-of-view out of principle, even if it’s a good idea. This makes your life tougher and your dialogues worse.
So how do you accomplish the benefits of “telling it like it is” without being rude to other people? It starts first with caring about style. Recognize that your opposition or point-of-view could be heard much more effectively by the other party if you spent the extra effort to worry about how you’re delivering your message. After all, it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what the other person hears. So being careful to say things in a way the other person can hear is usually worth the effort.
Specifically, I would follow the style tips below.
- First, balance advocacy and inquiry. Too often, we skew heavily in the “advocacy” mode and never stop to ask the other person a question. But Chris Argyris taught us that there’s real power in demonstrating genuine curiosity into the opposing point-of-view before you launch into attacking it. Likewise, there’s value in asking if you’re missing anything after you lay out your own point-of-view. Sprinkling inquiry into your interactions can change them from being perceived as arguments with a rude bully to discussions with a collaborative colleague.
- Second, restrict your opposition to the ideas and not the person voicing those ideas. If someone says something you disagree with, discuss the idea and fall short of discussing why the person who voiced the idea is dumb, selfish, mad, or evil. Sounds obvious, but I’m shocked at how often people don’t realize their argument has shifted from the idea to the person!
- Finally, don’t lead through hierarchy and authority. Lead through influence. No more “do what I say because I’m more experienced and qualified than you.” Instead, build relationships with your coworkers, learn their motivations, and speak to those motivations when you’re trying to influence them. Care about their buy-in and not just their agreement to execute your orders. And for god’s sake consider their points-of-view with an open mind!
If you want more tips on how to achieve “speaking the truth” while still being polite and cordial to your colleagues, there’s one more fool-proof way to get specific tactical tips on how to adjust your style: Ask your colleagues for feedback! There’s nothing wrong with an after-action review that asks “Hey, I know we disagreed on that last decision. How did you feel about the style I employed? Did you feel heard? Anything I could do to be a more effective collaborator in the future?” Nothing dismantles the impression that you’re an abusive jerk than asking for feedback like that!
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!