Collaboration – Why is the truth so damn hard to say?

mouth of trutIn his timeless book The Five Dysfunctions of Team Patrick Lencioni writes: “When people are completely truthful with one another, an amazing dynamic is created.”

So why then is it so damn hard to be truthful with each other?

Let’s start by attempting to have a shared meaning of “Truth”

Truth = Awareness + Honesty + Openness Click To Tweet

Truth is most often used to mean: being in accord with fact or reality.

Yet in a collaborative work relationship, what you and I each see as fact or reality is often not aligned. This lack of alignment can be due to many many reasons. You and I look at a situation thru different lenses. Lenses ground, shaped, and polished by our own experiences. Fogged by the ghosts of the past.

We think that we are looking at the same thing, when in fact we more often than not aren’t even close.

Subjective Truth

What if we take “truth” to be subjective: my truth, and your truth, and let go of any stingy clinging to “fact” – that i need to convince you my truth is The Truth. Would that be a better place to start?

What would happen if you and I are both willing to share what is going on inside of our heads, our hearts, and our guts? Would we be able to collaborate in a more powerful way as Lencioni promises? Or will we just get ourselves into trouble by being too truthful?

Trust – A catalyst for truth

A necessary condition for me to be truthful is trust. Without the existence of trust in a relationship, I am more likely to put my energy into self-preservation than collaboration.

Trust for me is a compound made up of four elements:

  • Likability
  • Reliability
  • Consistency
  • Responsiveness

The actual composition varies situationally, but take one element away completely, and the trust reaction between you and me will be at risk. If all four elements are there, some even only in trace amounts, I’ll be likely to share some or all of my truth, as well as to at least try to see things through your eyes.

When people are completely truthful with one another, an amazing dynamic is created. Click To Tweet

Adding More Depth

Where might I start when I step toward telling the truth? Sharing my own experiences? A simple formula:

Truth = Awareness + Honesty + Openness

A powerful method from Radical Collaboration is to tell my “first truth” first. My first truth is a concoction of:

  1. My thoughts
  2. “Facts” as I see them, acknowledging the full possibility that “I am wrong” – perhaps i’d be better off seeing them as assumptions. “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.” A Chinese proverb
  3. My feelings
  4. My physical sensations
  5. My intuition
  6. My intentions
  7. My desires

Here are some examples of first truths. Each links to my own experiences, my emotions, and the messaging is simple:

  • I’m feeling pretty confused about this issue; I’m not quite sure what I think about it.
  • I’m feeling really nervous when I’m with you, because I want to impress you.
  • I am afraid that I will look incompetent around you, so its hard for me to come directly to you when I have a problem.

While the formula is simple, in reality telling my first truth first can be challenging particularly when communicating asynchronously or remotely:

  • My tone of voice accounts for ~40% of meaning. Given a text only connection, or a crappy audio connection, much of my meaning can be lost
  • Body language / facial expressions account for ~50% of meaning. Using slack and half of my expressive potential is lost. Even with zoom or hangouts, you’ll see my face only. Not my fists clenched, or my arms crossed tight across my chest.
  • Content (the words, written or spoken) accounts for ~10 % of communicated meaning. Think of your slack communication. How often is what you intended to “say” misinterpreted.

Absent tone or body language, it is possible to make your words count, it’s just a bit more work. By both sides of the conversation. The sender and the receiver. I’ve found over-providing context helps.

On the Receiving End?

Hearing another speak openly, honestly, even when it is not “about you” can be tough. A colleague who observed a team exchange said: “As an anxious, introverted, non-confrontational Canadian, the pillow fight was very difficult to watch. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to participate.”

There is no shortage of behaviors that contribute to undermining effective listening when on the receiving end. For a list of the top dirty dozen, see “Column A” below.

Fortunately for each, there’s an effective turn around in behavior, or antidotes to toxicity, that will help create a safe environment and allow the speaker to feel understood. There are more choices than just keeping one’s mouth shut… but for me, that’s often a good start! See Column “B.”

Column A:
Undermining Behaviors

Column B:
Deliberate Choices

Preparing your response before you hear what the speaker has to say or finish reading the entire thread/email Hear what the speaker has to say before preparing your response. Really stay curious.
Failing to summarize and feedback for understanding. Continually summarize and offer feed back in your search for understanding.
Not paying attention to the person as well as the words. Pay attention to the person as well as the words.
Asking too many questions. Ask questions judiciously. And lead with: who, what, when , where, how, tell me more…. Avoid “Why” – which is so often interpreted as judgmental.
Multitasking or pretending to listen. Don’t multitask or pretend to listen.
Mind reading. Avoid “mind reading” or jumping ahead
Prematurely judging the speaker’s message through tone of voice or body language that implies “You are wrong.” Beware of prematurely judging the speaker’s message through your tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language that implies “You are wrong.”
Toppers, or doing the speaker one better. Avoid topping or doing the speaker one better.
Inability to deal with silence. Be comfortable with silence.
Denying uncomfortable or difficult emotions. Acknowledge uncomfortable or difficult emotions.
Giving advice.  Give advice judiciously. Like when it’s asked for 🙂
Failing to acknowledge when a conversation is going off track. Acknowledge when a conversation is going off track.

Building a Bridge

Using the patterns in Column B you have the best chance of seeing things thru the eyes of the other person.

What happens when you listen, you understand and you still don’t agree?

Again, you have more choices than you think. Start by deliberately acknowledging the validity of the other’s viewpoint given their assumptions and beliefs:

  • “OK, yes, I can see why from your viewpoint you would think that. Your request/position is more understandable to me now.”

And then make the differences visible. (Remember “Everybody is right, but only partially.”) See if you can exchange roles:

  • “I’d like to explain my viewpoint to you. It’s different from yours. I hope that once you understand where I’m coming from, then we can work together to find a solution that works for both of us.”

Accepting Full Responsibility

So what happens when one or both in the exchange come to the understand that not everybody was right. In fact, they were “wrong?” (shocking, especially if I’m the wrong one…)

Don’t blow up the bridge!

  • Look at the initial failure as an opportunity for learning and growth. Search for understanding of where you went off track initially.
  • Take responsibility for managing your resulting mood, attitude, and behavior. Don’t stomp off spouting irony, defensiveness, or blame.
  • Do a little dance to celebrate – your neocortex was victorious over your reptilian complex and your basal ganglia, that part of your brain that is so damn sure it always knows just what to do…

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