7 Essential Ingredients for Honest Conversations
Obviously, there are actually only two truly essential ingredients for an honest conversation:
- Have a conversation.
- Be honest.
But being honest is a bit complicated, isn’t it? If your experience is anything like mine, simply telling the truth can be a daunting task, potentially fraught with misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and strong reactions. You want more than to simply be honest. You want your honest conversation to work. But “7 Essential Ingredients for Honest Conversations that Promote Positive Change Without Destroying Morale and Relationships” is way too long of a title.
Over the past few years, job dissatisfaction among employees has hit all-time highs and employee disengagement ratios have nosedived to their lowest point in almost a decade. These trends, combined with a relatively competitive labor market, can lead to “quiet quitting,” high attrition rates, and low morale. It’s not pretty.
Faced with the threat of losing talent, many employers have taken a reactive stance by becoming overly accommodating, lowering expectations, and even turning a blind eye to performance issues. However, as you probably already know because you’re likely living some version of this yourself, reacting this way backfires. Consistently ignoring unmet expectations breeds resentment and a lack of clear communication creates uncertainty. Avoiding difficult conversations isn’t doing your team members any favors. Without direct feedback and accountability, you stunt growth, demoralize the individual, and eventually destroy your company culture. Also not pretty.
Honesty, though, builds trust. And that leads to a more positive work environment and increased engagement.
Unfortunately, while the need for candid communication has never been greater, our collective ability to navigate those interactions successfully has never been worse. You know what else declined dramatically in the past few years? Basic social and communication skills. Having a straightforward conversation is harder today than it used to be.
But never fear! There are things you can do to help make your honest conversation go more smoothly. I can’t guarantee your staff member won’t walk out on you, but if you include these ingredients your chances of having a positive, constructive conversation dramatically improve.
1. High Expectations
Studies show that high expectations lead to greater levels of success. When you’re giving negative feedback or holding someone accountable, approach the conversation with confidence—confidence in the other person. This doesn’t mean you expect perfection or set unreasonable goals. The high expectations you communicate aren’t in the outcome, but in the person. As Steve Jobs said, give criticism to others “in a way that does not call into question your confidence in their abilities.”
The more difficult the conversation, the more space you need between the issue and the relationship. Keep those two things separate! Your relationship is personal; your discussion of the issue shouldn’t be. Focus on facts, on the behavior, and on its impact to you and your team. Leave motives, personality, character, and identity OUT. When discussing the issue, use Authoritative Voice Pattern, a visual aid, and third person.
Manage your emotions. You need to be the rock that the conversation is founded on. Whether you tend toward fight (anger) or flight (anxiety) in stressful situations, be the grown-up. Feel your emotions. Express them appropriately, if needed. But don’t let them tip you off balance.
The more authority or power you are perceived to have, the more threatening your emotional outbursts will feel to others. Even a slightly raised voice or eyebrow can send a powerful message, so tone it down.
On top of that, you need to stay stable in the face of the other person’s emotions. They get angry, you stay calm. They start crying, you stay calm. You can handle it. Here’s how: Breathe. Stay present (grounded) in your body. Release tension.
Be explicit. Specific, precise, unambiguous. As absolutely clear as possible. I know it’s hard. It can be incredibly frustrating to have to spell things out—things that you think should be obvious! “Do I really have to tell people to get to work on time? To update me on their project’s status? To change out of their pj’s??” Apparently. Keep in mind that everything you know has been learned. At one point in your life, you didn’t know how to use a toilet. Aren’t you glad someone trained you how to do that? If you feel that clarity should be unnecessary, you will bring your frustration and awkwardness to the conversation. Instead, consider clarity a gift. As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” Which brings me to…
Don’t be nice. In other words, don’t put on a pleasant façade and sweep the painful truth under the rug. Instead, approach your honest conversation with generosity and compassion. It’s fear that keeps you hiding behind “nice” or hammering others with “the brutal truth.” Be brave enough to be both honest and kind.
I specifically suggest kindness instead of empathy. You need the capacity for empathy—sharing in another’s emotions—to have meaningful relationships and to be a good leader. But, as author Kim Scott points out, the highly emotional nature of empathy can be overwhelming and debilitating. It can make you feel helpless. Kindness, on the other hand, incites action. Take compassionate action.
Before your conversation, ask yourself, “How do I want to be?” Calm? Firm? Warm? Open? Serious? Then ask, “How can I communicate that nonverbally?” Consider your posture and body language, voice tone, and facial expressions. When you have a lot on your mind, it’s easy to relegate nonverbal communication to autopilot, but emotions amplify nonverbal communication. Typically, difficult conversations go better if you can keep your body calm and still while using open body language.
End on a positive note. Discuss next steps. Offer support. Reaffirm your confidence in and appreciation for the other. The whole point of being honest is so that tomorrow will go better. Paint that picture.
As a global community, we are still reeling from the social, economic, and political effects of 2020. Strong emotions can easily be triggered. But we desperately need open, honest conversations. Avoiding them does not build anyone up. Be honest. Be honest in a way others can accept. It’s the only way forward.