Two things that are important to me are being honest and treating everyone with dignity. However, some situations make it difficult to do both at the same time. It is possible, though. It takes effort, creativity, and a bit of trust, but it gets easier with practice.

When I talk about being honest, I actually mean being candid. Candor means both being honest and also communicating in good faith. Many fantasy authors have written about characters who never lie but are also fundamentally dishonest. Candor eliminates this loophole. I push myself to communicate everything that feels important, even if it’s uncomfortable or to my own disadvantage.

Why would I do this? Honestly, I don’t know. I learned about candor from a business book, and the idea of it resonated so strongly with me that I decided to make it part of what I am. It has been a difficult road, but it has also been good for me. Saying the difficult can sting in the moment, but it builds trust over time. Trust is very important when working in a team. It’s helped bring attention to problems. It’s also helped me to strengthen the important friendships in my life.

Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.
– John Lennon

Being honest is hardest when emotions are involved. Sometimes I am worried about hurting feelings, or sometimes I am frustrated or upset with the way things have gone. In these moments it is easier, and in our culture sometimes even expected, that we say something polite and positive even if we feel otherwise. Even if it’s well-intentioned, this approach diminishes trust and allows problems to fester. Even worse, these hard feelings can amplify the longer we keep them unvoiced.

Blurting out our first thoughts is not a winning strategy either. Care needs to be taken to make sure what we say is honest, but also polite.

The way I do this is to re-frame my opinion so that I see the situation in a constructive way. I’m not pretending that I feel that way, I convince myself to feel that way. This is essential to being candid and professional at the same time. If this sounds hard, you’re right, it is. But I believe it is absolutely worth the effort.

Here are some questions I can ask myself to find another opinion:

  • Am I misunderstanding the intentions of the other person?
  • Is the other person pushing beyond their comfort zone?
  • Is the failure a result of a system that allows mistakes to go undiscovered?
  • Is it possible the other person has personal circumstances that are influencing their capacity?
  • Are my feelings a result of my own personal baggage?

With practice, this gets faster and easier, but sometimes it’s harder. Stepping away for a bit can help. Talking about it with someone else can help. Or sometimes I need to consider the source of the feelings and what that says about me. There are also ways to express being upset or disappointed sincerely that are less offensive.

Sometimes feedback is best given privately. I had a boss who often said, “Give praise in public and criticism in private.” I think this is good advice for the most part. People can get defensive and upset if they feel like they’re being shamed. That will not improve the working environment. If you are giving feedback, make it as constructive as you can. Focus on actions that happened and their consequences, giving concrete examples whenever you can. Generalizations and judgements about the other person should be avoided. A lot has been written on this subject by people who are much better at it than me. If you are in a management position, I highly recommend taking the time to study and practice these skills.

There are times when feedback goes sideways and tempers can come out. This is a good time to take a break; 30 minutes for the nervous system to calm down is great. Make sure to talk in private, and talk in person if you can. It isn’t fun when things get to this point, but it can happen when people care about what they’re working on. It isn’t fun, but it is a good sign.

If things go really wrong, make the effort to apologize once the dust has settled, and try to move through it. Repair also builds trust and improves relationships, so even if you get it wrong sometimes, don’t lose hope.

There are unfortunate times when being honest isn’t possible. I try very hard not to keep things secret just because it’s easier, but sometimes there is no choice. One example that comes to mind is hiring and firing decisions. These situations can be hard, but they are unavoidable when you get to a certain level of influence in an organization.

Operating this way at work and in life has been difficult, but it has also been very freeing. I don’t have to carry the baggage of the truths I haven’t shared, and I attract the kind of people who want honest feedback. It has helped surface more problems and make my life and my work better. I have no intention of changing.