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Courageous Conversations: The Importance Of Telling The Truth Fast

True story – I once had to tell an employee who reported to me to clean his dirty fingernails before working with our patients. I agonized for days about what to say and I secretly resented that this well-educated adult had put me in such an awkward situation.

Twenty years later, thinking back on the situation still makes me a little uncomfortable. But the Asset-Based Thinking tools I’ve developed since then make me much more confident that I could minimize the awkwardness if I had to do it again.

Very few leaders enjoy giving negative feedback. Even though we know that it’s necessary, that it’s part of the job, and that the awkwardness eventually evaporates, we still avoid it. We encountered this problem so many times in our work with business leaders at The Cramer Institute that my partner Judy Dubin developed a tool called Courageous Conversations to help leaders be candid, straightforward, and encouraging in these sensitive situations. Here’s how it goes:

Appreciate The Person And What They Have To Offer

Before you have the conversation, the first step is to take the time to think specifically about what you appreciate about the person. Dig deep to find the assets. Try to find at least five. Speculate if you have to. This moves you into a more balanced point of view and enables you to be more curious than critical. Remember, curiosity generates trust and goodwill; it is the foundation for positive collaboration.

Tell The Truth Fast

Think about how you can clearly and concisely express your concerns so that your positive intentions shine through. Here are four steps you can take to ensure your words are coming from an optimistic and inspirational place:

1. State your intention up front and frame it in a positive way

  • Here’s what I hope will happen going forward.
  • These are my intentions for our future relationship.

2. Describe what happened in a neutral and precise manner

Be specific and factual. Avoid blaming statements like, “You always…” or “You never…”

  • I noticed you came in late three times last week and twice this week.
  • There was a serious data error in the board report that made it look like we didn’t achieve our quarterly goal.

3. Explain the consequences of the person’s action.

This is your experience, so use “I” statements. Tell the whole truth — your reasoning, your assumptions, your worries.

  • I wasn’t able to rely on you to help me with issues that came up first thing in the morning.
  • I got a lot of flak for the board report error and now I feel like I need to double-check your work before anyone else sees it.

4. State your positive vision for the future.

Describe what you believe could be the best possible future. Ask the person what their version of the best outcome is.

    • I truly value your input and I hope that we can have more early-morning collaborations from now on.
    • I hope that our future work together builds the trust that will allow me to grow your role and hand off more high-level responsibilities to you.

Remember, conversations that begin well are more likely to end well and they set the stage for stronger relationships and better outcomes. And the ability to have Courageous Conversations is a mark of truly effective leadership.

What is the most courageous workplace conversation you have had to have? How did you deal with it?

Dr. Kathy Cramer

Kathryn D. Cramer, PH.D.
Founder and Managing Partner, The Cramer Institute