Six Reasons Straight Talk Is Harder Than It Appears

By Thomas J. Lee

A few days ago in this space we explored ten “talk traps,” or conventions of communication that leaders often fall into.

Some of them can work in the right place and the right time, but don't work in the wrong place or the wrong time. Others are ill-advised all the time. Each of them poses its own challenge, and all of them can be tricky.

The talk traps are Small Talk, Sunny Talk, Scare Talk, Sweet Talk (or Smooth Talk), Smart Talk, Simple Talk, Song and Dance Talk, Slick Talk, Snarky Talk (or Surly Talk), and Self Talk. As a bonus we pointed to an eleventh, too: Snarl Talk. (Just click BLOG on the menu and then scroll down to see the post.)

By far the best overall approach to communication in business is Straight Talk: just speaking the truth—gently and respectfully, of course—and letting the chips fall where they fall. But even it is difficult, and occasionally it, too, can backfire.

I can think of six reasons why Straight Talk is often difficult.

First, it isn’t always clear what the "truth" is. Everyone knows that truth includes objective fact, which is relatively easy to grasp. Less commonly understood is that it can also include subjective belief, such as the perception of intent, or one’s judgment of someone, or the importance of a value, or “the voice of experience,” to name a few. People commonly use the words “true” and “truth” to describe both objective fact and subjective belief. You hear it every day, and not only from certain politicians.

Second, it isn’t always easy to agree on even the factual. The facts you see often depend on what you’re looking for, on what you are prepared to see, and on what you have seen before. Someone else may see an entirely different reality and be convinced it is accurate and complete. Where you stand often depends on where you sit and on who you perceive yourself to be. Like it or not, your identity—who you are as a matter of your education, culture, age, gender, religion and more—is a powerful determinant of the reality you see.

Third, the facts can be very unpleasant, to the point that you may not want to face them. Probably all of us have something or someone in our life that we are avoiding. Unfortunately, ignoring or neglecting these simmering problems just lets them fester. Eventually, they are bound to explode. The facts can also be slippery. Factual reality can change with time. What was objectively true yesterday may or may not be today.

Fourth, not all facts have an equal claim on your judgment. The facts that you think mitigate your own decisions and behavior are usually, and systematically, ignored by others, and vice versa. It is an unfortunate aspect of human nature that people can excuse themselves for a mortal sin but rush to condemn others for every venal sin imaginable.

Fifth, the facts can force you to confront your own vulnerabilities: perhaps a professional competency that you should have mastered, or a relational skill that has proved elusive, or a loose command over your own time and resources that threatens to undercut your effectiveness. In those situations, it is tempting to look the other way, isn't it?

Sixth, the facts can challenge and bring into question the values you claim, and even undermine your integrity as a leader. No leader exercises such total and abject control over an organization that it fully lives up to the leader’s aspirations. But when the organization falls short, everyone looks to the leader for an explanation or accountability. For the leader, those moments are not enjoyable.

Not only can Straight Talk pose difficulty, but it can backfire. In our next post, we’ll explore some of the ways it backfires.