A fellow consultant recently said she sat through a public meeting full of nonsense. She didn’t raise her hand and point out the misguided assumptions. She wanted to leave but stayed. As we spoke she pondered why she neither left nor spoke up.
Without fuss, we agreed it would have been easy enough to say what was on her mind, or just exit because it wasn’t worth her time. She didn’t need to be concerned if others disagreed or didn’t understand her point of view.
That got me thinking about a slew of recent stories I heard from friends and colleagues alike — people telling me they didn’t say what they actually thought. “Why?” I asked.
I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
It might backlash.
He’s not ready to hear it.
I’ve said too much already.
The list goes on.
What’s threaded through these reasons is an imagined future. One in which words might result in an undesirable outcome, for oneself or others. Truth avoidance, therefore, is a preemptive measure.
I’m certainly far from perfect at truth telling. I can go too far, and sometime I come up short. But I am a happier person when I say what I mean and mean what I say. Life always feels better that way. In addition, I believe diplomacy is valuable, timing matters and in many instances kindness can be more important than truth.
But I’m struck by how frequently people drift from saying what they mean without knowing that’s what is happening. We’re a culture that seems to treat truth as a potential threat or an affront.
By contrast, the fictional soccer player Jan Maas on Ted Lasso says what he thinks. The show’s joke is he’s Dutch and can’t help it — a lighthearted contrast to the English way. Regardless of why he’s that way, I find his character refreshing. He’d rather cut to the chase than make nice. Consequently, when he speaks it often speeds up the plot.
I’m fortunate to have many people in my life who tell it to me straight. The good, the bad and the ugly. I may not like hearing it, but the ring of truth is hands down invigorating every time.
When we’re clear on where we stand with one another, real possibilities have a way of being revealed. Choices are clearer and cleaner. We have a better chance of knowing where we can go, and a better chance of getting there.
Truth for truth’s sake.
It’s a beautiful thing, and a powerful way to move through life.
How about you?
If you want to gauge the degree to which you value truth — in action, not theory — here’s a simple exercise.
- Pick a day.
- Jot down the names of everyone you spoke with.
- Next to each name write a percentage. Estimate how much of the conversation included an omission, distortion or shading small or large truths because you wanted to sidestep discomfort or avoid an adverse reaction. Then add a few notes…
- What exactly did you leave out?
- What did you think the risk would be? Was your in-the-moment assessment accurate?
- In terms of your own sense of integrity, what’s the cost?
- Next time, would you choose to be forthright instead of holding back?
The point isn’t to blurt everything that goes through our minds; that would be a recipe for disaster. Rather, begin to observe where we might be deceiving ourselves, not just others. Make an assessment of real, not imagined, risk. Then, make a more conscious choice next time.
And if the risks and costs are legitimately too high — after all, you might get fired if you tell the wrong type of boss something they don’t want to hear — you have a different question to grapple with: Is it worth it to stick around anywhere that doesn’t value truth and honesty?
Kira Higgs ’81 is a structural consultant and a member of Robert Fritz’s instructing team for business leaders, coaches and consultants. Kira’s company, Straight Talk Strategy, guides business, government and NGO leaders in strategy development. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where she also meditates and distance cycles. In 2023 she produced a ten-episode podcast: The Void Project. The original version of this article appeared in her newsletter. You can follow Kira on her website, LinkedIn and Instagram.