• Vanessa Anstee

How to do truth telling without being perceived as critical

Most people come to coaching because on some level they want to be seen and witnessed. They want their coach to help them clarify what they want, process where they are and call them forth towards their vision.

What they don’t want are platitudes. They don’t want to be puffed up or given vanilla feedback. Many senior executives are already surrounded by people who are afraid to tell them what they notice for fear it might be career limiting.

But how do you say what you see without it appearing critical?

This isn’t just a challenge for coaches, it’s also a challenge for every manager and leader in an organisation. They can’t afford to avoid truth telling because it creates cultures where no-one is really calling anything out. These cultures feel like walking on eggshells and there’s far too much energy wasted on building fake harmony.

On the other hand, they can’t afford to be the critic and take on a parental role where the focus is more on pointing out mistakes than it is on building relationship and creating learning. These cultures feel like nothing is good enough and people give away their power, defer and submit under extreme task focus.

When managers and leaders become truth tellers, they speak the truth with love. They are clear on their intentions and hold the other person in unconditional positive regard. They build relationships that have sufficient psychological safety to allow for curiosity and sense making.

So, how do you do truth telling with love?

Let’s put this into practice with a client. Let’s call him Mark. Mark was really troubled because he couldn’t understand why a member of his team had reacted so defensively to his feedback. The intention for the conversation was to support this person in their development but the unintentional impact had resulted in a complaint about Mark’s management style.

Mark was really confused about how things had turned out the way they did and he wanted to learn so that he could improve in his ability to give feedback. When he repeated the conversation in exactly the way he had delivered it to me it was suddenly crystal clear. His tone was one of a critical parent. Instead of telling him what I heard, I asked him to listen back as I copied exactly what he had said, in the way that he had said it. On hearing the same words and tone back, he burst out laughing. He got it in an instant. He sounded like his mother would have spoken to him.

Having understood that his tone was causing disturbance in the way the feedback was received, he then wanted to know how to do it differently. We talked about the set up for the conversation, specifically permission and relationship building. I reminded him of our first conversation where he became my client and how we had spent time designing our relationship together. I had been direct with him about how there would be times when he would want to fire me because I pressed a nerve. We had agreed how we would be together if that happened. We had thought through the atmosphere we wanted to create together and for the sake of what. We had spent time investing in laying the foundations for straight talking and I had shared with him my style as a coach. I had spoken of my directness and that sometimes my insight or reflection might unintentionally create what I call an “ouch” moment for him. We had agreed that he would flag any of those moments and we would talk about it without it being personal to either of us.

We then practiced saying the same feedback with different tones. We playfully explored what a curious tone might sound like, what a kind tone would be and the difference between that and a critical tone. We didn’t change the words but what became obvious was the attitude and intention behind the words was paramount. Mark admitted that deep down he had felt a resentment towards the event that had happened which had highlighted the need for feedback. He hadn't cleared that in his own mind and was reacting from its' impact.

Today on world kindness day, I am reminded of Brene Brown’s quote, “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” If you are committed to doing truth telling with kindness, here are my top four tips.

1. Get super clear on your intention for the conversation. If there’s any part of you that is reacting to something - don’t act. Instead take a breather and get curious with yourself about what’s going on for you first.

2. When you are ready to have the conversation, spend time talking about the atmosphere you both want to create. Invest in the relationship first and check that the other person is open to the conversation and identify what's important for both of you.

3. Focus on the intention and the alignment between your agenda and theirs. Name it clearly and cleanly with them.

4. If you sense the conversation has gone awry, don't leave it and hope for the best. Share what you notice with curiosity and an open heart. For example, "I said something and I saw it had an impact that I didn't intend. What just happened and can we talk about that?"

It may well be that you do all of these tips and someone still perceives your truth telling as critical and that's ok - it's their business how they respond. The important thing is that you are clear. Clear that your intention is kind. Clear that they are open to receiving your truth. Clear that you have invested enough into building the relationship that you can work through any misunderstanding.