Humans 101

How to Speak Honestly, Even When It’s Hard

A guide to saying the quiet part loud

Illustration: Benjavisa/Getty Images

“Never be afraid of the conversations you’re having. Be afraid of the conversations you’re not having.” — Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

Have you ever struggled with saying what’s really on your mind? We all do. When we’re not being fully honest with others, it’s often because we:

  • Don’t want to be rejected.
  • Don’t want to upset the other person or damage our relationship with them.
  • Don’t want the conversation to get out of control.
  • Don’t know how to raise a difficult issue skillfully.

However, problems occur when you don’t speak honestly:

  • You suffer because you bottle up unexpressed thoughts and feelings, which tend to accumulate and then at some point come pouring out in angry outbursts, like “You always do that” or “You never clean up after yourself.”
  • People wonder what’s going on. They sense you’ve got something to say, but you’re not saying it.
  • If you’re working on a team and holding back what you think are good ideas only because they run counter to the groupthink, you may be unintentionally holding back the team’s success.

The hardest part of speaking honestly is often the entry point — what to say and how to say it. A conversation is likely to go better if it starts well. Here are four strategies that can help you begin those honest conversations, even when you’re unsure how.

1. Recognize when you have a “left-hand column.”

The human brain processes information faster than people speak. We’re thinking a lot, even when we are listening. Most of us have relatively good filters, so we monitor and manage a stream of thoughts and feelings during any conversation.

What’s problematic is when we censor ourselves to the degree where we say one thing but think and feel something entirely different. When we say, “Great, I look forward to speaking with you again soon,” but our inside voice is saying, “I have no interest at all in speaking with you, ever.”

When you don’t say what you think and feel, you leave the most critical part of you out of the conversation — and you know it. You’re suppressing what’s known as the “left-hand column.”

Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, former professors at Harvard and MIT respectively, created a tool designed to improve communication effectiveness called the “left-hand column framework.” In his classes, Argyris would ask students to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. In the left-hand column, they’d jot down what they were thinking during a conversation but did not say. In the right-hand column, they’d write what each person actually said. In most cases, the two columns looked quite different.

In a difficult conversation, our left-hand column is often full of toxic thoughts, feelings, judgments, accusations, assumptions, and criticisms. We don’t ask for a left-hand column; it’s usually a reaction to something upsetting. These unspoken thoughts appear and rise to the surface like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

When you have an unmanaged left-hand column, you may:

  • Say yes to things you don’t want to do, or say you’re okay with something you’re not.
  • Bottle up your feelings and grow resentful.
  • Send mixed messages — you may say one thing but think something else.

Suppressing your left-hand column can cause problems for you internally, but it can lead to others:

  • Everyone knows when someone is not entirely truthful with them — we pick up on their tone of voice and body language. So, when you have a left-hand column, people sense it.
  • We know that blurting out our left-hand column in its raw, toxic form is unacceptable — we’ll feel bad about saying something rude, and we will badly damage the relationship. But if you keep that left-hand column to yourself for long enough, you may eventually say something you regret.

So we have a four-pronged dilemma — a quadrilemma. Your left-hand column is toxic; it just showed up. You’re damned if you say it, you’re damned if you don’t say it, and others have a sense of what you are thinking anyway.

It’s hard to speak honestly and respectfully if you don’t clean it up; here’s how to do it.

2. Detoxify your left-hand column.

You can detoxify the left-hand column by uncovering your essential truth and saying it honestly and respectfully. Begin by realizing that a left-hand column shows up because something you care about is at risk. Ask yourself:

  • What do I care about that’s at risk?
  • What’s bothering me?

Here’s an example: Being on time for meetings is important to me. I value my time and the time of others. If someone is repeatedly late for an appointment, I become irritated, and my left-hand column gets loaded up with things like, “They’re late again. What’s wrong with them? Idiot. Don’t they have any concern for others?”

When I answered the questions above, I discovered I felt disrespected because I interpret someone who often shows up late and doesn’t let me know as being inconsiderate of me and my time. Here’s how I could communicate this honestly and respectfully:

“I have a concern. We’ve discussed the importance of punctuality before; we’re both busy. We agreed to meet at 3 p.m. You arrived at 3:15 and didn’t let me know you were running late. I feel disrespected. I know it’s not your intention to do so. Tell me what happened?”

Just because I do this doesn’t mean the problem is solved. I’ve still got to deal with the response. But, at least, I didn’t suppress my irritation. I brought it up honestly and respectfully, which is the most important thing.

The key points here are:

  • The left-hand column is full of valuable information and contains your essential truth. It needs to be detoxified to be helpful.
  • Detoxify your left-hand column by determining what you care about that’s at risk.
  • Express yourself honestly and respectfully. Use phrases like “I have a concern…,” “My experience is…” or My opinion is…” to open up the conversation.

3. Have a learning mindset.

A learning mindset is based on the assumption that one’s view of the world is essentially incomplete. For this reason, those with a learning mindset are open to the ideas and perspectives of others. A person with a learning mindset realizes their subjective experience may differ from others. They respect and value others’ opinions.

On the other hand, those with a closed mindset believe their view of the world is the only possible reality. A closed mindset makes us not as open to others’ ideas. We seek to look good at all costs and want to prove others wrong.

It’s much easier to speak honestly when you have a learning mindset. Your objective in speaking is not to convince others but to inform, share, and create dialogue. You don’t have to have everything figured out before speaking. You have the right to offer an opinion, make a suggestion, or propose a potential solution.

Here are three ways to speak using a learning mindset:

  • Distinguish between your opinions and the observable facts, using phrases such as: “In my view…” “The way that I see this…”
  • Expose your views (even if incomplete) and remain open to challenges from others: “I am thinking out loud here…” “I haven’t figured this out completely yet…”
  • Listen to others’ thoughts and opinions genuinely try to understand why they think, act, or feel like they do.“I am curious to understand why…” “Why do you say this?”

When you have a learning mindset, it’s easier to speak honestly because you’re simply sharing your experiences or opinions.

4. Have a kitchen conversation.

Imagine for a moment that I’ve invited you to dinner at my home at 7 p.m. this Saturday. You show up just as I’m putting everything out on the dining room table. We enjoy a brief cocktail, and then we eat. You love the cauliflower chickpea curry with lemon basmati rice and zucchini flatbread I made and ask, “How did you do that?”

I smile and say, “Ah, so you would like to have a kitchen conversation.” You nod your head and I say, “Let’s do this all over again, you come next week at 5 p.m., and I’ll show you how I make everything.”

A dining room conversation is like presenting a fully cooked dinner. A kitchen conversation shows and explains how the dinner was cooked.

Conversations and relationships break down when people don’t disclose the reasoning behind an idea, proposal, critique, or suggestion. It’s one thing to tell someone the project they're working on wouldn’t work (dining room conversation). It’s another thing to explain why you think so (kitchen conversation).

Explaining why is a “kitchen” conversation — you pull back the curtain, you define the facts, data, and rationale as you see them. You explain your logic and reasoning. You do this not to prove you are right but to encourage dialogue and so others can reach their conclusions.

And the process goes both ways. When someone states their opinion without backing it up with facts or reasoning, inquiring about how they arrived at their conclusion asks for a “kitchen” conversation. It demonstrates your openness and willingness to learn and understand another perspective.

Here are some other ways you can use the “kitchen” conversation technique:

  • If someone doesn’t explain their reasoning, politely ask them. “I understand you believe ‘x’ is the correct way to proceed on the project. Help me understand why you think so?”
  • When you have an idea that you believe is essential to bring up but you aren’t sure how exactly how to do it, you can say, “Look, I have an idea here. I think it’s got potential, and here’s why. I want to bring it up for discussion.”

A “kitchen conversation” makes speaking honestly easier because you explain your thought process, your interpretation of the facts, and your point of view. You share not just what you think but why you think the way you do.

The next time you hesitate to speak honestly, remember these four strategies:

  • Recognize when you have a left-hand column.
  • Detoxify it by asking what you care about that’s at risk.
  • Tap into a learning mindset.
  • Have a “kitchen” conversation.

There are times, of course, when it’s best to say nothing.

And, there are times when speaking honestly is the right thing to do.

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10 years as a monk, 49 years meditating, 30 years in the shark-infested waters of corporate America | Connect with me on Linked In- https://www.linkedin.com/in/

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