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)
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter for additional leadership and personal development ideas.