Speak Your Truth

WE often live in the dilemma of sharing what’s on our mind directly and truthfully or mollifying and suppressing what we really think. This, however, is a false dichotomy. We don’t just have to share our truth in a toxic way or suppress it. The other choice is to learn to speak our truth effectively, in a way that doesn’t contribute to fear and dysfunction on a team. There are two maxims for speaking your truth effectively: own your perspective and be respectful:

Own Your Perspective. The first part of speaking effectively in difficult conversations is learning to speak from a place of ownership. This might seem like a simple thing—just say what you mean!—but it goes much deeper than that. When we are truly taking ownership, we speak from a position of knowledge about what’s in our own minds and are clear about what we don’t fully know. And ultimately, there’s only one thing that we can speak directly about: our own perspective. Owning our perspective means that we acknowledge that our points of view and our interpretations are inherently limited. We don’t hold our views as absolute truth because they aren’t.

To understand what we mean, we have to talk about the difference between observation and interpretation. An observation is a statement of fact, verifiable by others. Our interpretation is the meaning that we give that fact. A truly clear-minded and epistemically humble person recognizes that his or her interpretations aren’t inherently true or complete and acknowledges this in conversation. These people also recognize that they will always have more to learn about a situation. People who are misguided or fooling themselves will state their interpretation as fact and cling to it.

Said differently, we tend to live as if the fictions unfolding inside our minds are really facts that are evident for everyone else to see. Clear thinking is not rejecting these fictions but seeing them for what they are—our perspective, not the perspective.

To have effective difficult conversations, therefore, we must learn to separate observation from interpretation. This is harder than it sounds. Let’s have a little quiz. Which of these statements are interpretations and which are observations?

“That meeting went way too long.”
“You made a great point.”
“You’re late, again.”
“We had a very positive quarter with 10 percent growth in sales.”
“You didn’t let me finish my point.”
“The meeting started at five minutes past the hour.”

The last statement is the only observation. Every one of the other statements is an interpretation because they all have assumptions built into them. What does too long mean? What’s a great point? Who’s to say that the 10 percent growth in sales is very positive?

To open a conversation with any of these statements without acknowledging that they are interpretations could lead to trouble. Communicators who take ownership of their perspective use versions of this phrase: “I observed [blank]. From that I interpreted [blank]. Is that accurate?” For example, instead of saying, “That meeting went way too long,” you can say “The meeting ended 20 minutes past schedule. When this happens, I interpret this as meaning that our team isn’t working very efficiently. How do others see it?”

It might feel silly to use this language for something that seems relatively small. But it is vital to build this habit of communication so that in more pressing and stressful situations you don’t revert to a more toxic, interpretation-as-fact style in the midst of an amygdala hijack. Using this language is a powerful way to deliver a message to others without making them wrong. You’re not offering your interpretation as a statement of objective truth; you’re offering your interpretation. Given a dialogue and new information, you could very well change how you see things.

Your interpretation isn’t the end of the conversation—it’s simply the starting point. Own it but hold it lightly. Stay curious, and update your interpretation as you learn more.

Be Respectful. When speaking, we all have a responsibility to package our thoughts in words that can be received easily. If someone asks you what you think about a project and you say, “My interpretation is that it sucks,” you may be honest, but you’re not being respectful. This response would likely trigger an amygdala hijack in the other person, make that person defensive, and completely ruin any chance of productive communication.

To be respectful, we need to share the values and concerns that have led us to the interpretation that we’ve made. In other words, we have to speak to the feelings and identity levels of the conversation. So, instead of saying that the project sucks, share what values are at stake and what concerns you have. You may value the opportunity to provide input on the project and share your thoughts openly, even if they’re not popular opinions. You may value the team and company putting time and resources into successful projects, but don’t want to see the company waste money on failing ones. In terms of concerns, you may be concerned that the team is throwing good money after bad. Or perhaps the team hasn’t applied the lessons learned from the last project that didn’t go so well.

What’s important to keep in mind is that these are your values and your concerns, and they’ve led to your own interpretation. You own them. You’re not projecting a toxic interpretation of events onto other people. You’re simply expressing what’s important to you. And your interpretation is so important that you want to share it, without judgment and blame, with others.

Now, when your boss asks for your opinion, you can tap into your values and concerns and share them: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my views. Making sure this project is successful is important to me, and I think it’s critical that the company makes good use of limited resources. I’m concerned that this project is not on the right track, and we haven’t been able to make use of the lessons learned from the last project on this one.” This statement is honest and respectful. You say what you mean, you don’t make anybody wrong for what has happened, and you create the space for a learning dialogue.

This is what difficult conversations are all about: learning to say what you mean while giving people room to say what they mean. It’s like a jazz musi-cian who learns how to play his own instrument and then makes sure to leave room for the rest of the ensemble to contribute their notes. Let the music begin.

(Excerpt from Unfear: Transform Your Organization to Create Breakthrough Performance and Employee Well-Being by Gaurav Bhatnagar and Mark Minukas, McGraw Hill, November 2021)

* * *Leading ForumGaurav Bhatnagar and Mark Minukas are coauthors of Unfear: Transform Your Organization to Create Breakthrough Performance and Employee Well-Being. Gaurav Bhatnagar is the founder of Co-Creation Partners and has dedicated more than two decades to helping companies thrive and achieve breakthrough performance. Since founding Co-Creation Partners in 2010, he has designed and led programs and workshops for private, public, and social-sector clients across multiple industries, including financial services, basic materials, manufacturing, healthcare, and technology. Prior to founding Co-Creation Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey and Company, most recently as a leader in their Organization Practice in North America. Before McKinsey, he worked in marketing for Pepsi Cola International and Procter & Gamble in Europe, the Middle East, and India. Mark Minukas is the managing partner of Co-Creation Partners. An engineer by training, he began his career as a Navy officer and member of the US Naval Construction Battalion (Sea-bees) and the Navy Dive Community. In 2005, he brought his experience and insights into the performance of engineered systems to McKinsey and Company, where he worked as a consultant and member of the Operations Practice. There, he mastered the technical aspect of organizational transformation and process improvement, as well as the cultural side of transformation. Since leaving McKinsey to join Co-Creation Partners, Mark has worked across multiple industries, including financial services, high tech, biotech manufacturing, IT services, and governmental offices, to deliver both top- and bottom-line improvements and build high-performing operations.

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Why Content Isn’t King

SOME of my executive clients believe, instinctively, that content is king. They maintain that “useful information” is a crucial driver of effective leadership—that their job is primarily to educate and inform their teams with facts and figures.

As a result of this information-centric mindset, these leaders:

Read the content on PowerPoint pages but don’t explain why it matters
Convey data points but not the point of the data
Define and describe a campaign but don’t champion its potential impact
Focus on what they want to say, not on what their team needs to hear

This inclination to inform may come from believing that information is inherently influential, whereas messages of inspiration are shallow and fluffy. But think back to the last time a communication inspired you. Were you inspired by long paragraphs or a memorable point? By content or commitment? By details or dedication? By a book’s table of contents or its blurb?

In each of these examples, the former informs, and the latter inspires.

I’m not saying information isn’t valuable. It is. Information may critically educate and enlighten. It also fills in gaps in understanding and provides essential context and updates. But while information informs, it doesn’t typically inspire.

The Greatest Communicators Pair Knowledge with Inspiration

Executive communication coach and author Laurie Schloff, whose clients include Bain Capital, Fidelity Investments, and Allstate, says that although many of her clients are experts in their fields, their greatest communication successes pair knowledge with inspiration.

“One of my clients tended to focus on facts, research, and statistics about their product’s ingredients, which was interesting to them but overwhelming and boring to their audience of prospective customers,” Laurie told me. “With coaching, these executives shifted the focus of their communications from merely informative descriptions of their product to influential and inspiring messages about the health, well-being, and environmental impact of the product, resulting in a measurable increase in online sales.”

While subject matter experts are qualified to share content, leaders have the official requirement of inspiring a team through clear and succinct expressions of hope, vision, and purpose.

What might pairing information and inspiration look like in your business? Here are a few examples:

“These statistics indicate where we should be focusing our efforts in the fourth quarter.”
The information: Statistics
The inspiration: The impact of the statistics

“These three tactics will drive us toward our goal of becoming a much more diverse and inclusive organization.”
The information: Three tactics
The inspiration: The result of adopting the three tactics

“Understanding how we got started gives us the best clues on where we should go next.”
The information: The history of our organization
The inspiration: The beneficial lessons we can extract from our history

Three Questions to Keep Your Communications on Target

To ensure you’re focusing on inspiration—and not just information—in every communication, ask yourself these three questions:

Is this communication something my audience needs to know, or merely something I want to say? Always consider the needs and expectations of your audience. Your job is to have your point successfully received, not just recited.
Is this communication “need to know” or simply “neat to know”? Scrutinize your point to make sure it isn’t trivial or tangential to your team’s work. Imagine the point as a motivational poster in their offices or cubicles.
Am I emphasizing the “why”—how this point impacts their professional lives? The “why is this important” isn’t your audience’s job to figure out; it’s your job to explicitly convey. Imagine yourself in their shoes to understand how you want them to receive and apply your point.

Ultimately remember that you’re a leader, not simply a subject matter expert. When you focus on inspiration, not just information, you’ll find yourself engaging and inspiring your teams to follow your lead as well as your content.

* * *Leading ForumJoel Schwartzberg is a communications executive, public speaking trainer, and author of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter and The Language of Leadership: How to Engage and Inspire Your Team. Follow him on Twitter @TheJoelTruth

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Digital for Good

RAISING KIDS in the physical world is hard enough to get right, but now there is the added dimension of the digital world. While we spend a good deal of time preparing our kids for success in the physical world, Richard Culatta says, “we have put surprisingly little effort into making sure our kids are prepared to be safe and healthy” in the digital world.

In Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World, Culatta writes that the “events that take place in the virtual world are not ancillary to their lives but are some of the most important elements in them.”

For all the good the virtual world has to offer, it is also filled with wicked problems. Most of them stem from one fundamental flaw: we never took the time to establish the ground rules for meaningful participation. We have spent the last two decades excitedly finding ways to migrate all kinds of experiences to the digital world, but we haven’t stopped to ask how we will preserve our civil society as it also migrates there. For all the good the virtual world has to offer, it is also filled with wicked problems. Most of them stem from one fundamental flaw: we never took the time to establish the ground rules for meaningful participation. We have spent the last two decades excitedly finding ways to migrate all kinds of experiences to the digital world, but we haven’t stopped to ask how we will preserve our civil society as it also migrates there. With no expectation for acceptable behavior and near-complete anonymity, we have created an environment that is optimized for self-destruction.

When we do try to teach our kids, our conversation about online safety is too limited, focusing on not sharing personal information, talking to digital strangers, or posting things they might regret later. We need to broaden the conversation “to articulate a broader, more meaningful vision for the use of tech to enrich our children’s lives.” And when we do have those conversations, we need to take a positive approach—not just a list of don’ts, but positive behaviors our kids can practice doing while in the digital world.

Culatta, who is the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education and the former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, has developed a framework that we should use to guide our approach to teaching digital citizenship:

BalancedBe BalancedBalance isn’t a time conversation. Different digital activities have different values. They are not all passive activities like watching television. “Using screen time as the primary approach for moderating tech use creates the perception that all activities that take place in the digital world are of equal value. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think we can agree that Face Timing with grandma and playing Temple Run are activities with very different value, even though both occur on the same device.” It reinforces binary thinking.

Using screen time as the primary factor for moderating tech takes away our children’s ability to learn to self-regulate. We want our kids to learn to move on to new activities when it is appropriate to do so, not just because a timer runs out.

Change the conversation. Instead of saying you’re addicted to your phone, provide an example of a physical-world activity that isn’t getting enough priority. Culatta provides suggestions to reframe other common conversations like, “You’ve been playing that game too long,” Stop sitting around on the computer all day,” and You need t to interact with real people.” And hold app reviews with your child.

BalancedStay InformedCreate a learning environment and reward curiosity. “With just a bit of modeling, curious learners begin to recognize the digital world as access to a super-powerful learning library, not just an entertainment machine.” Help them see their device as a learning tool.

Help them learn to identify useful information from junk. Emphasize asking better questions, selecting the best sources, and evaluating relevant answers. Helpful questions to ask are, “Can you validate the claims with another source?” “How old is the information?” and “Does the content us hyperbolic, alarmist, or emotional language?”

Wikipedia never claimed to be a reliable source, but instead, it is a starting point to gather basic information for deeper learning journeys.

InclusiveBe InclusiveIn the online world, we can easily engage with more viewpoints and disregard them just as easily. We should seek information and news from various sources to avoid the bubble effect and “counteract the dangerous perception of feeling perpetually in the right.”

Mostly, algorithms “don’t just show us more of our same beliefs, but more extreme versions of those beliefs….It seems as if you are never ‘hard core’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.”

If we don’t prepare young people to understand how to value and respect multiple, opposing viewpoints, they may forfeit one of their greatest learning opportunities and, worse, treat people who hold opposing viewpoints disrespectfully.

Of course, we have to model this in our behavior, even as outspoken individual, organizational, and governmental voices don’t.

EngagedBe EngagedImportant too is to teach our young people that their voices matter, and there are a number of ways they can contribute positively and engage with their community at their knowledge and maturity level.

Indexing projects “allow people worldwide to digitize important historical artifacts to make them searchable and discoverable online. There is an app that connects sighted volunteers to visually impaired people through their mobile devices. “If a blind person needs help with a particular task, say, reading the expiration date on a carton of milk or reading a phone number, they can connect with a sighted person through the app to have it read to them.”

Additionally, they can help strengthen family relationships by connecting, capturing family experiences, and preserving family stories.

Stay AlertStay AlertUsing a web-filtering service on each device is only the starting point. We need to have conversations about what to do when they do encounter something suspicious. “Training our kids that not everyone in virtual spaces is trustworthy, not every place is safe, and our personal data should be safeguarded as key elements of protecting them from online risks.”

Culatta focuses on a positive approach that can be implemented now, even if you feel like the situation has already gotten out of hand. Young people will learn from our example. If we are to teach these positive behaviors to our children, it is assumed that we know them and practice them ourselves. All of this seems strangely helpful for adults to consider as well?!?

Technology has no conscience—that’s our job. The same technologies that can solve our toughest human problems can also divide and destroy us with remarkable efficiency.
Our children will always be digital. Let’s make sure they are also digital for good.

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Trumpet and the French Horn

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION requires that we know how to best communicate with others. In other words, communicate with them the way they want to be communicated to.

Diana Peterson-More shares two ways people like to take in information in her very practical book Consequential Communication in Turbulent Times, direct and indirect.

Communication can be direct and straightforward, which often entails using the “w” words: “What do you think? What would you like me to do? What’s your answer? Why should we do it that way? Why her not me? Why not do it this way?” or “Which direction should we take?”
Alternatively, communication can be indirect yet still fulsome. This often entails using the “h” word: “How might that work? How would you like me to do that?”
The trick is to figure out if the listener will respond better to the direct or the indirect method.

To illustrate this concept, she introduces trumpets and French horns:

For those who like the straightforward style of communication, let’s call them trumpets. The thoughts go straight from the brain to the mouth in an immediate exhale/response. “W” questions typically work with trumpets.
For those who spend time to think before they speak, visualize the French horn. The player exhales and the breath goes around the tubing in a slow exhale/response. For the French horn players, the “w” statements can be intimidating, or at a minimum, off-putting. Try the “how” question.
Trumpeters communicating with French horn players should try to flex their style and adopt a new phraseology. Rather than state, “What do you think about this?” try a different approach: “How might this work?” “How about if we try it this way?” or “Do you have any initial thoughts on this?” Trumpet players will find that the French horn players will likely respond with an opening thought.
Likewise, French horn players who are being questioned by a trumpeter might try to flex their style and state, “My first thought is x; may I get back to you later?” or “Interesting question. I’m thinking of x and reserve the right to change with additional information.” French horn players will realize that the trumpeters are often looking for preliminary thoughts or direction and are willing to allow for change after more study and information.

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