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Being a Skillful Truth-Teller

Be a Truth-Teller. Speak up. Challenge the Status Quo. Blurt. Disrupt. If you see something, say something.

The Emperor’s New Clothes story has been around for almost 200 years. We love stories of the person who dared to speak up. Why is it rare to see people doing it?

I call it “saying the thing,” it’s the thing that needs to be said, the thing everyone is thinking. There is value in calling it out. Once someone says it out loud, it can finally be dealt with.

Let’s start by discussing the value of saying the thing, and then we’ll learn how to do it effectively.

Why should you say the thing?

Speaking the truth can be risky. Why not just stay quiet and go along?

· Invisible weakness. People, teams, and organizations all have weaknesses that they are unaware of. Revealing and acknowledging those weaknesses can open up new possibilities.

· Shared Understanding. It might be what everyone is thinking, but it might be seen only by a few or seen differently. Calling it out allows the group to create a shared understanding.

· Pave the way for action. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin You can help the group acknowledge the truth, preparing them to take action.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [people] to do nothing,” John Stuart Mill (but oft misattributed to Edmund Burke)

You might not be dealing with something evil, but the point is that if no one says anything, nothing can change. And by saying nothing, you are complicit in whatever happens next. Say something.

How to say the thing?

You may have been born with the courage to speak the truth. But courage is only half of the equation. The other half is tact. If you drop truth bombs without diplomacy and tact, no one can hear you. And if no one hears you, you squander your opportunity to make a difference. You may also limit your ability to be heard in the future.

How can we deliver the message so it can be heard? Here are some ways to try.

· Start with love. You're already doomed if you’re “saying the thing” to look smart. (I say this from experience.) Before you speak, find a place in your heart where this truth can come from a place of love.

· Avoid judgment. Keep your judgment out, and simply state your observations. “I am noticing a lot of tension around this topic.” We all have judgments and biases; it’s ok if one slips out; just clarify that it’s your opinion, not fact.

· Avoid labeling. Name what you see without generalizing or categorizing. In my work, people often say, “That’s Agile” or “That’s not Agile.” This labeling leads to a fruitless discussion on whether something is Agile. Try simply stating what you see that led you to that conclusion. Ex. “there seems to be a lot of upfront planning.”

· Keep it short. You don’t need to go on and on. They heard you. Going on too long sounds like ranting.

· Don’t solve. Let the observation sit with the person or group. You don’t need to solve it. When you follow your observation with a solution, the two become inextricably linked. Those who disagree with your solution will also likely dismiss the observation.

· Ask a question. Instead of pointing out a contradiction, you might ask, “How do these two things work together?”

· Hold your statement loosely. Check-in and see if your statement resonates. It might not, in which case, be like Elsa and let it go.

Being able to effectively “say the thing” is a valuable skill. Work to ensure that your skill and diplomacy stay one step ahead of your courage.

Try this

Next time you’re in a meeting and see something that seems misaligned, try calling it out by starting with the phrase “I’m noticing…” Start with something small. Note people’s reactions. Reflect on what you noticed and what the reactions were. What might have contributed to the impact or lack of impact?

Being a Skillful Truth-Teller

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