The wisest leaders I know draw from a great many sources to inform their decision-making and push them outside of their comfort zone, or learning edges. In my experience, a learning edge for many leaders is striking the right balance between empathy and candor.
I advise my clients and mentees to approach a sensitive or human resource related issue without fear of simple honesty. Frankness is not part of our culture. We are taught and rewarded for being positive, and keeping negative thoughts to ourselves. How many times have we heard, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?”
Being honest doesn’t have to be impolite or cruel, and when done well, can be one of the most constructive acts of kindness between two people. A good leader or mentor has figured out how to navigate this.
As an advisor, my role is not to tell people their ideas are good or bad, but to thoroughly explore them, and lead people toward good decision-making and the best chance for success. I strive to strike a balance between cheerleader and realist. Over time, I developed a technique, borrowed from a variety of sources, that is transferable to most intrapersonal situations.
It combines a bit of appreciative inquiry with some tips from Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, who wrote the book, “Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration.” Acknowledge and appreciate the person and their work. Use their own ideas as a launch pad for further exploration. Reframe concerns as a challenge. The goal is not to stifle enthusiasm but to create the most likely situation for active listening.
In most cases, people would rather talk about their successes than think about their faults or failures. Starting a conversation from a place of appreciation sets the stage for leaders, managers, and those in a position to provide feedback, to approach difficult topics or introduce issues in a way that is more likely to be heard.
So, the next time you have to have to have a difficult conversation and need to be honest, consider these three steps:
- Begin with appreciate inquiry. This will not only open the ears and mind of the person you’re speaking with, but give you the opportunity to understand and recognize their skills and achievements.
- Next, avoid the word “but” and to a lesser extent, “however” and turn your concerns into a question instead. Pose them as a challenge, if possible, and connect them to the person’s skills, ideas or past success.
- Finally, make it a goal to ignite and inspire the person with whom you’re having a dialogue. Allow them see the potential in themselves, or the situation that you see, and provide an opportunity for them to live up to it.
People are not as fragile as we assume. Helpful, empathic feedback that can truly help others grow and develop is better for any organization, and should be part of the toolkit of an effective leader or manager.