Handle the Truth

teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversation they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that is what keeps many of us stuck.                                                                         —–Susan Scott, in Fierce Conversations

As long as I can remember, I have always been struck by the lack of honesty in conversations. It seems futile to me. Why talk, why relate if you won’t be honest with each other? People walk around constructing fictional stories about what is happening. Instead of putting ourselves out there, we place our mannequin selves in the world to talk with others’ less than life-size dolls. A young man tells his soon to be ex-girlfriend, “It’s not you, it’s me.”A boss tells the employee, “You didn’t get the promotion because the other candidate was just more qualified.” And a woman tells the waiter “Everything is fine.” It’s fiction; it’s deceit, and it’s destructive to people and relationships. It prohibits us from living the honest, connected lives we all yearn for. It blocks growth in organizations.

On occasion, the audience buys your fictional story. More often than not, deep down he/she knows that it’s a tale, and another insipid story is constructed. The story says “I can’t trust what people say, people don’t believe in me enough to be honest with me, there is something wrong with me, I can’t get a fair shake.” And in return they give you more fiction. Reality is lost. Mistrust is gained.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, you can’t always be honest with people. It’s often better to shade the truth or leave things undisclosed.”  To that, I say two things:

  1. You have obviously been told a lot of stories – and told a few yourself.
  2. How’s that working for you?

Six years after hiring a narcissistic, insecure manager who wreaked havoc on the company, a vice president asked an exiting employee for advice: “What do I do with this manager? She berates me and is despised all over the company. I was hoping her peers would deal with her.After six years, one-hundred percent turnover, and immeasurable damage to the organization, the VP was still unwilling to have an honest conversation with herself, with the manager, and with numerous people throughout the organization.One year later the manager was fired. Why? What took so long?The longer the tale, the harder it is to look up to face reality.

Handle the Truth

Who can forget how the infuriated Colonel Jessep pompously screams “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” at Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in the movie, A Few Good Men. I believe this line resonates with so many of us not only because it is Kaffee’s triumphant moment, but also because at some level we believe it. People simply can’t handle the truth.

You must handle the truth – that is the truth. It would seem obvious but it seems not be.Top-selling books, Good to Great, Fierce Conversations, and Integrity all feature facing the truth as a central component of personal and business success.Why does it need to be said?Because it is a habit that is so uncommon in our world, that’s why.

A few weeks ago I attended a training program. During the first evening of training, one facilitator dominated the dialogue. He talked over his counterpart and crowded out any room for participant engagement.My initial reaction was to withdraw and, honestly, to dislike the man.Despite myself, I resolved to speak truth. The next morning before class I caught-up with the facilitator and gave him some straight feedback. Guess what he did.He handled the truth; no he embraced it and thanked me for caring about him!There in that conversation, a relationship was reborn.I left it liking him and him liking me. The rest of the workshop went very well.I, and about twenty other people, re-engaged in the workshop because we handled the truth.That conversation cost me nothing, salvaged the $18,000 expense for the course, and is producing a tremendous return on the investment.

Now, as I sit here recounting this story, I feel incredibly gratified because that is what I do for a living. I help people have honest truthful conversations with themselves, with their teams, and with their stakeholders and customers.As a result, they can make effective decisions and move forward together honestly and productively.

That is pretty cool.


4 thoughts on “Handle the Truth

  1. Dark Dave

    Agreed! There is real power in speaking what is true and not mincing words. To the conflict avoiders, it is scary. But speaking truth doesn’t need to be obnoxious – truth can be presented with humility and grace. And if we consistently balance confrontational truth with genuine encouragement, our words and relationships will be more effective.

  2. Rod

    Ah yes, I agree, but these are dangerous times. I dealt with an insufferable GM for over 3 years; it was clear our basic POVs did not mesh. One of the take-aways I had from that relationship is there is no way you are going to win out over the boss, no matter how right you (think you) may be. So make your plan to get out. I took a huge pay cut but am much happier in a healthier organization. That was back when times were fat though.
    And then there’s the fear of litigation. Everyone wants a big, easy payout – so find a way to sue, sue, and sue. I worked in HR for nearly two decades and left the field primarily because I was tired of adults acting like spoiled children, working hard to find a way not to…work hard. Scream discrimination. Threaten to run to the shop steward. After years of that I believe that many good professionals are too tired to fight the minutia. Now they focus on what they can immedialty control and make the best of it.
    Years ago The Eagles sang that “every form of refuge has its price”, and its still true today. If you are fortunate enough to be employed in these troubled times, perhaps you are willing to hide (from) the truth to continue being able to pay the mortgage.
    Yes a clean conscious makes it easier to sleep. But right now I think many are willing to trade a clear conscious, visits to the food bank, and you, your wife and kids living with your parents for a somewhat troubled conscious, full stomach and your own roof over your head.

  3. Michael Boyes Post author


    There is no doubt that you are describing the reality of many people out there. I know I have heard those sentiments from many people. Few people choose to leave those insufferable bosses out of fear that they won’t be able to find another good position or the belief that they have no choice but to endure it. Those who do leave, I have found, land in much happier fullfilling places – just like you.

    That brings up two questions for me:
    1) What keeps people feeling stuck or trapped in their “unbearable jobs?” I am not convinced that it is the responsibility of family and mortgage alone that keeps people there. Instead, I think it has a whole lot more to do with our own “stuff” that we are not willing to face. So, people need to be ready to have honest conversations with themselves as well if they want live more fully.
    2) Employees are certainly in a vulnerable position in regards to speaking truth to tyranical bosses. What about the tyrants boss and peers. What keeps them silent?

  4. Paul X. English

    It is very telling to discern the difference in how the truth is handled in high performance team settings versus mediocre organizations. Invariably, the differentiator is as simple as seeing who calls the non-performers to task: peers, or is it left to managerial intervention which may or may not ever come. The book “Crucial Conversation Tools for talking when the stakes are high” is a great resource to get into the granularity of the necessity and conduct of honest conversations. I highly recommend it.

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