What do you really want to say to them?

I re-read Animal Farm last week during a lazy few days in the Lake District and enjoyed the elegance, economy and perceptiveness of Orwell’s writing and thinking.  In these post-truth days of alternative facts, polarised politics and inflammatory rhetoric, Animal Farm could not be more relevant or prescient. It seems that truth is often thickly veiled and we would do well to recall Orwell’s contention that “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Just before my holiday I led a workshop on managing conflict with a group of bright young(ish) things at a top international business school. One young man recounted a bruising encounter with his boss that had left him hurt and at a loss about what to do or say when he saw his boss next. He wanted stay with the company but he was beginning to have doubts about his future there.

The workshop provided guidance and a rehearsal space for the difficult conversations that aspiring leaders might choose to have. Often the most difficult are those with people who have authority. Something needs to be said but it needs to be heard too and the balance between directness and respect is crucial.

Telling the truth is a powerful thing to do. And it can be a hard thing to do. The young man struggled, as many of us would do, to strike the right balance and speak plainly. When emotions are strong and the stakes seem high that can be so difficult. We may struggle to find exactly what we want to say. Even when we do find our truth, we may try to defend ourselves or anticipate the other’s response by hiding our message behind fillers, softeners and vagueness.

I, and other observers, listened and helped the young man get to the heart of what happened and his response. We asked about the impact that his boss’s behaviour had had on him. He felt he had been treated unfairly. He was hurt and angry. We asked what he really wanted the boss to understand. He wanted his boss to know that he was committed to the company and felt his previous good work had been discounted. We asked what he wanted to happen in the future. He said he needed to know that his boss trusted his ability and commitment so they could review his performance in a balanced way. These answers helped him shape a few simple, succinct sentences. We then gave him direct feedback on his delivery so that his good intent and resolve came through. He arrived at his simple truth and it was powerful and respectful.

Now, knowing what you want to say is not the same thing as choosing to say it. Despite your best efforts it might not be heard. It might be heard but not sympathetically. It could make things worse. The key check-in question here is “how will I feel if I say nothing?” If saying nothing is tolerable then it is an option. But if you need to speak, then do your very best to make what you say honest, direct and succinct. Hold your nerve by holding on to your belief in your good intent.

Speaking the truth matters for an individual’s confidence and growth. Despite fears to the contrary, direct truth-telling often strengthens a relationship. And it models a way of behaving and communicating that most organisations sorely need. Fewer projects would fail, less resource would be wasted, and more ideas would get the chance to breathe if telling the truth became an organisational habit.

But, be warned, telling the truth may not be a comfortable path to take: once you start, others might reciprocate. And as Gloria Steinem put it (echoing Joe Klass), “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

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