How to have Honest Conversations

The release of the book Radical Candor has raised up the idea of brutal honesty, after years of this concept being seen as too harsh.  Can I really be honest with my team?  What does it mean to be “radically candid?”

As author Kim Scott points out, many of us have been raised with the teaching “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and yet suddenly as people managers and leaders, it is our job to say things that are not on the face of it, “nice.”  And so we avoid being honest with people because it is not the kind thing to do.

What if we have that wrong and the kind thing to do is to help people improve?

There is universal understanding of the benefit of feedback and helping people grow, avoiding poor performance etc, yet the pain involved in having honest conversations seems to stop most of us from even trying.  In another great book called “Insight,” Tasha Eurich shares research on self-awareness and how difficult it can be for us to develop this skill.

Of course feedback and honest conversations are critical to self-awareness.  I am not going to know my label is sticking out the back of my jacket unless someone tells me.  I need feedback on my presentation style to know how to improve.

Yet worryingly, the research shows what we probably already know is true: not only will most people avoid telling someone an uncomfortable truth, most of us will actually lie and tell someone everything is fine to avoid confrontation, hurting feelings or feeling like a nasty person.

For anyone who has been trained in coaching or leading people, the concept of a support and challenge graph or finding the balance between encouraging and being direct, will not be new.  In fact as with all the best ideas, this common sense is sadly not so often used in practice.

Scott’s Care Personally and Challenge Directly is just as straightforward and gives a visual for us to be considering in conversations.

To be both caring and direct allows us to give specific and useful feedback to colleagues.

This avoids us being obnoxious (giving feedback without really caring about the person), or perhaps more common, falling into ruinous empathy, where we only say nice things because we do not want to hurt the other person’s feelings.

Consider a recent conversation you had with someone and where on this graph you may have been operating from.  What would it have looked like for you to move more towards high care and high challenge?  Likewise, think about a time when you have been radically candid.  What helped you do that?  How could you recreate that success?

You might well know most of this already, so what is it that will really help you make a change to your behaviour?  What will actually drive you to be more honest in conversations?  We find the two practical steps make the biggest difference:

Script it.

The scariest thing is to find yourself in one of these conversations with the intention of being honest, only to find you can’t put what you need to say into words.  And yes, as we frequently get asked, this even applies to body odour.

Script what you want to say so that you are prepared for the conversation and make sure the words feel natural to you.  “I’m sorry to bring this up and you will probably feel as uncomfortable about this as I do.  I’ve noticed you have a strong body odour and some days it is so strong I have to open the window.  Is it something you’re aware of?”

That approach is really quite different to, “look there’s no easy way to say this, you smell bad.  I wanted to tell you because I always hope that people will tell me if there is anything about me that needs changing or improving.”  And yet depending on the way you usually speak, one probably feels more ‘you’ than the other.

Prepare what you will say in words that feel appropriate to you and make sure you keep it short.  A long speech will switch people off, so say what you need to say and then ask a question or wait for a response.

Share your thoughts on being honest with other people. 

Scott suggests getting your team to read the Radical Candor book so that you can discuss the ideas together.  Some managers have even tried having the visual with them in conversations and explaining their intention.

Here is an example we heard on a workshop from a manager who tried it out: “I’m going to try out radical candor here because I believe you could be a good people manager and I want to help you get better.  The way you speak to team members when you are under pressure is not ok.  I have heard you in the office saying things like you don’t care about other people’s priorities, your work is most important.  What impact do you think that has on the team?”

Because the team understand the positive intention, there is of course some of the usual defensiveness, but this can be more quickly turned towards constructive solution-building as they recognise the manager is just trying to help.

The book is a good read and gives practical tips to help you use the ideas, if you click on the image below you’ll be whisked away to a place you can buy the book.  And if we’re being radically candid about it, should you buy the book from there – we’ll make 10p