Recall your last sleepless night? Chances are it involved some form of unresolved conflict and whirling thoughts about unspoken, pent up feelings. If you can relate, this doesn't make you wimpy, it makes you human.
We are not only creatures of habit; we are creatures of harmony. We seek a state of equilibrium in life, not just in the balance of our time, our finances, or our familiar routines, but also in the wellbeing of our relationships.
As consultants, when we are called into an organization, we have found, without exception, a direct link between the absence of honest, substantive communication and the presence of suffering morale and operational inefficiency.
While low morale may be a soft indicator of unresolved conflict in the workplace, the bottom-line financial results always speak for themselves about the destructive effect of a "go along to get along" culture.
Winston Churchill once said, "Courage is rightly considered the foremost of the virtues because upon it, all others depend." Last month, we talked about the need for courageous leaders who will step up to the challenge of creating and sustaining an organizational guiding principle of Straight Talk.
Straight Talk is the practice of initiating dialogue on a sensitive topic in a constructive and direct manner. Topics such as contrasting opinions, underperformance, missed expectations, toxic work environment issues, or other behavioral observations. This is speaking up to own the issue and helping others to do the same.
Courage is the common denominator of true leaders. However, courage without forethought and preparation is just another way to describe stupidity. So before you embark on a new Straight Talk way of life, keep in mind that your journey must begin on the inside. It must start with you.
There are 4 checkpoints involved in preparation for Straight Talk:
- Check yourself
- Check the conditions
- Check the content
- Check your Touchstone
Think of the person whose feedback you value the most. What is it about them that makes them such a trusted source? If you're like most people, it's a combination of trustworthy factors such as a history of reliability, familiarity balanced with objectivity, honesty balanced with empathy, and credibility tempered with humility. Being a trusted source really boils down to attitude and intentions.
So before expecting others to receive and respond to your Straight Talk in the way you desire, it's imperative to understand that your attitude will be transparent to them no matter how hard you try to act the part.
If you give feedback intended to manipulate, punish or just to make yourself feel better they will see through it and (secretly or not so secretly) pin the blame on you instead of taking ownership of the issue.
Check your intentions and your attitude against the following must-haves for creating a safe zone for Straight Talk:
They must believe you care.
They must believe you are credible.
They must believe you are fair.
They must believe you are self-aware.
They must believe you are honest.
They must believe you trust them.
They must believe you believe in them.
If you're unsure about even one of these, don't back out of the conversation but instead pause and start listening before you begin talking. Ask more questions. Watch with an eye to understand rather than fix. Build your credibility as a good listener; once you do, Straight Talk will pay off in greater dividends than you could ever imagine.
Check the Conditions
As with most of life, timing is everything. People with a good sense of timing are in tune with their audience as well as their surroundings. As you consider Straight Talk opportunities, ask yourself a few questions to consider how environmental conditions might have played into the situation:
- Who besides this person should be sharing ownership of this issue?
- What led up to the event or behavior?
- Are there contributing factors outside of work you may not be aware of?
- What aspects of the company culture may have contributed to this issue?
- What aspects of your behavior may have contributed to this issue?
- How do the team dynamics factor into the problem?
- Has this person had the benefit of all necessary resources or information in order to have prevented the problem and/or met expectations?
Check the Content
Odds are you wouldn't show up for a public speaking engagement without having spent considerable time preparing your thoughts and mentally rehearsing every possible scenario. Having an important message is pointless if you can't land the delivery.
While Straight Talk is distinctly more personal and spoken from the heart, it requires much the same level of attention and forethought. When we speak on the fly, we risk losing the message in the mess of our delivery. Not to mention the damage we could inflict to our credibility as a trusted source of information.
Before seizing a Straight Talk opportunity, there is great advantage to writing down your thoughts. Sort them into main topics with specific examples, and eliminate anything that is superfluous. Oftentimes our frustration leads us to laundry list everything someone has done to annoy us - instead boil it down to the major one or two issues.
Imagine how the person is likely to respond considering what you know about his or her communication and conflict style. Play devils advocate and plan for any resistance. Tip - the best (and most irrefutable) response to resistance is to resort to asking more questions. Hard to find a point of contention with someone who is open minded to hearing and understanding your side of the story. Doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean you have to be open to their perspective.
Check your Touchstone
It is impossible to develop self-awareness in isolation. It is also impossible to build social awareness and empathy in isolation. Every great Straight Talker has a trusted ally, a Touchstone, to help them stay objective and clear headed, especially in the face of personal pet peeves or triggers.
When you sense the need for a Straight Talk, after you have checked yourself, the conditions, and the content, go to the person you trust to be objective (perhaps the one who came to mind before) and run your case by them.
Tell them what you know about the person, the issue, the players, and the environment in which it happened and ask them to role play with you. You may find you're the one in need of some Straight Talk. Or you may find the issue has more underlying issues than meets the eye. Checking with a Touchstone builds self-awareness, empathy, and active listening skills.
Be careful of waiting to become comfortable with Straight Talk, because the time will never come. Yet with the right process, practice, and courageous determination, you can stand up, speak up, own up and master the secrets of Straight Talk.