It’s a Practice, a Skill and an Essential Discipline for Successful Leaders
The final segment in this Discipline of Leadership series features a topic I’ve brought up before, but it’s SO VERY CRITICAL to effective leadership that I’ve decided to touch on it again. In an article posted last fall I went deep into “straight talk” within the context of Active Influence. If you haven’t read it yet, click on https://www.heartwoodgroup.com/archives/2110 — it’s worth a few minutes of your time. The following excerpt gives you an idea of the core premise:
Having leaders who are coached to be straight-talking and compassionate is a significant element in the success of a business start-up or in sustaining an enterprise over time.
Straight Talk Is A Practice That Becomes a Learned Skill
It’s coming back to practice again! I covered the need for successful leaders to “practice continuously” in Part 2 of this series The Discipline of Leadership – Part 2: Focus & Practice. For almost everyone, delivering straight talk and feedback effectively is a skill that can be honed. It requires knowledge, forethought, effort and skill. Here’s a quick recap of the basic guidelines for giving both:
- Always ask for permission – you need a set-up before you begin
- Be timely – don’t put off having a difficult conversation because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable
- Make clear requests and articulate direction – have clarity of content before you engage
- Speak in simple, meaningful words – don’t sugarcoat or mask
- Understand there will be learning for both parties. This is a two-way communication — you will be speaking and listening
- Stay centered in the value it will create and not any perceived pain it might cause
The Success of Straight Talk Relies on the Receiver Understanding Your Intent
No matter how well-researched and well-practiced you are, if the receiver questions your commitment, authenticity or motives you won’t get the results you’re after. The ultimate purpose of straight talk to add value and lay a pathway for effective action. It’s wasted effort (or much worse) if it doesn’t come across as intended. Remember that people can tolerate and benefit from some very difficult conversation from you, IF they believe you are genuinely committed to them.
. . .if the receiver questions your commitment, authenticity or motives you won’t get the results you’re after.
The receiver’s perspective is the single most important piece of effective straight talk. So important that if you can’t get this right, don’t do it. You can do more damage than good. Offer grounded assessments or clear speculations. OPINIONS have no place in feedback or straight talk. Opinions are ungrounded assessments based on feelings, hearsay, and your own “crap.” I’ve seen feedback givers get dressed down by receivers because they got caught up in the story from somebody and none of the information was true. It turned out to be someone’s interpretation (which comes back to their listening skills, by the way).
The receiver’s perspective is the single most important piece of effective straight talk.
A better approach would have been to tell someone that you received some information and you wanted them to hear it and process. That is way different than assuming it was something they needed to act upon. That’s why you should rarely get put in a position to deliver someone else’s straight talk. EVEN if it is your boss. Always best to facilitate that exchange. Once you take on that responsibility you have become an enabler for both parties. Stay out of the middle at all costs.
Feedback — Creating Awareness With Others
Feedback is different in my opinion. Feedback is just what it is. You don’t need to make your own interpretations. Just deliver what you have seen and heard and let it land. Let the hearer decide if it is worth consideration, true, or something to be ignored. This is not gossip, it’s being committed to creating awareness with others. And allowing them to be proactive in their development and relationships. Feedback retained or put off now may be the end of a career later. Usually it’s more difficult to say it than to hear it. Don’t make it about you.
Feedback is just what it is. . .Just deliver what you have seen and heard and let it land.
Straight talk is something that shows up in deepened, trusted relationships. These relationships are bounded and grounded in commitment. There’s risk in saying or doing something that doesn’t feel good so that you can help someone else. Straight talk needs to be valued and encouraged by you. It’s hard for people to really tell you straight. They want to soften the blow. They think it’s about your feelings, but it’s not. It’s how speaking to you makes them feel. In that moment we become more committed to our own feelings than the relationship.
It’s hard for people to really tell you straight. They want to soften the blow.
Part of the practice of giving and hearing straight talk is managing our emotions. I talked about this a few posts back in the context of Emotional intelligence and using it to actively influence outcomes. All these skills or perspectives I’m covering here are a part of this practice. Telling it straight is a lost attribute as much as an acquired skill. Kids do it as soon as they can language. They describe things as they see them. Then our parents and our culture train us out of it. In many ways giving straight talk is recapturing something we lost long ago. We were taught to be polite at the expense of telling it like it is.
In many ways giving straight talk is recapturing something we lost long ago.
You Give – and You Receive!
As I mentioned earlier, communications is a two-way street. At times you will be in the position of receiver. Here are some brief pointers on how to receive this gift with grace:
- Don’t ask for feedback unless you’re willing to accept and most importantly, ACT on it
- Say thanks when you receive feedback; then indicate how you’ll use it and how you’ll be accountable for it
- If you can’t/won’t accept feedback offered, simply thank the person and say you’re unwilling to change at this time. (It’s honest, but be careful. Even the worst feedback may have even the smallest thread of insight for you.) Make sure it’s not about the giver versus the content
At this stage of your career, how would you rate your mastery of straight talk? Do the self-assessment below and see where you stand.
- How do you prepare for a conversation involving straight talk? How do you determine when to have it?
- Do you ask for permission before you make an inquiry or offer direct feedback to a peer or subordinate?
- In what situations do you deviate from that practice? Why?
- In important conversations, what practice do you follow to ensure you effectively communicate “Why, How, and What” in simple, yet meaningful ways?
- Is the risk of “telling it like it is” more than you are willing accept? Why?
If your gut tells you that you need work in this area, or you’ve received feedback indicating you need to improve this skill, reach out to a colleague or coach for help. Or, you can always reach out to us for more information. Not a lot has been written about Straight Talk as a subject matter so it’s hard to teach yourself how to do it. I have access to a network of coaches around the world that could be a great source of support if you feel you need it. Masterful coaches make straight talk one of their main tools in the coaching toolbox.
A Disciplined Leader
This wraps up my 3-part series on The Discipline of Leadership. If you:
- Make a habit of keeping your commitments
- Maintain intense focus on the right things and practice fundamentals continuously
- Master the skill of delivering effective straight talk
you will become (and remain) a powerful and disciplined leader, and an ACTIVE INFLUENCER of the success of your business and those around you.