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Techniques That Will Help You Speak Truth to Power

In recent posts, we’ve discussed the difficulty of approaching your management with critical feedback even if you’re full of compassion for their difficult situation and have chosen the most propitious time, place, and circumstances possible.

But sometimes the situation is such that everyone else has stepped back a pace and, suddenly, there you are, forced to step forward and speak out.

Tips for Positioning

It’s hard to choose the best approach to “wake someone up” to a reality that they appear not to recognize or alert them to specifics that aren’t terrible but could definitely be improved — if only they were willing to learn some new facts or accept some advice that might not be what they expect. And the “right way” is so amazingly individual — and bloody complicated. No wonder so many people hate dealing with anyone who has any kind of authority, power, or control over them!

  • This can’t be about you! No matter what you’ve heard about making “I” statements and talking about what is important to you, this is probably not the time or place to focus on yourself. With many supervisors, managers, and even senior executives, once you talk about how you feel and what you want, their perception of your self-interest will cause a switch to flip in their heads. They won’t be listening by the time you get around to explaining why your point of view makes sense or why your recommendation will actually work better.
  • What’s best for them? Ask yourself what will benefit your managers — or, if they take a broader perspective, what will benefit the department or the company. Do you know what their big goals are? Which principles are important to them? Don’t be in the position of violating any of those things — gear your remarks toward their being able to accomplish the things you know they want and need to.
  • Be sure you’re there to help, not to punish or teach a lesson. You need to keep them open and firmly on your side — not thinking about how to defend themselves, attack you, or ease you out the door.
  • Don’t ask if they’ve got a minute. You know you’re going to take longer than that, and mismanaging their expectations is never effective. You’re better off if they think that what you have to say is a bigger deal than you think it is, and then let them be relieved to find out that it’s actually something smaller, rather than creating the reverse situation.

Sample Opening Statements

These openings have worked with various kinds of people in very different settings. Keep in mind that there’s no magic incantation that works with everyone — and also make sure you still sound like a version of yourself. Memorizing a formula that’s out of character can make you feel more awkward and self-conscious. It’s generally best to begin with the individual’s name, and to use it from time to time during the conversation as a way to prompt them to refocus again.

  • Please put on your seatbelt. There are a couple of things that I think it’s important to share with you/that I think you need to know.
  • I don’t usually bring you this kind of information and it’s a little hard for me to tell you this, so please be patient while I’m explaining it.
  • I know you’re concerned about/committed to/working on topic X, and I have some thoughts for you that are related to what you were asking (or that might give you a new perspective).
  • Please help me give you what you’ve asked for by hearing me out.
  • I have something to tell you, and I know that you’ll appreciate my telling you once you’ve heard about it. (Yes, this sounds a little dramatic and cryptic, but sometimes you just need a way to get started!)
  • I need to consult with you because what you’re trying to accomplish is too crucial to allow the current situation to continue. (Insert more descriptive nouns as appropriate.)
  • Please keep an open mind about this, because some new input might create just the impact you said you wanted. (Or: This new information might be a real wakeup call.)

Be prepared to follow up your opening with evidence and recommendations, not just your concerns, worries, or preferences.

Are there other openings that you’ve used successfully? Or any that have blown up on you? Perhaps we could tweak them.

Onward and upward,

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2 thoughts on “Techniques That Will Help You Speak Truth to Power

  1. Liz, I think this post elucidates some of just how difficult this process can be. I can remember being in my boss’ office for the ‘annual review’, realizing this is the first time we have been in her office with the door shut, and the whole conversation was focused on my performance. As a young professional this was a daunting task to say the least. Finding ways to communicate with our boss or now that I am the ‘boss’ and finding structured ways to communicate with the people who work with me to discuss their performance can also be challenging. I have chosen to do my best, all throughout the year, to communicate often about what they do well, and what areas of development are important to focus on. I and it are certainly very much still a work in progress, however, posts like this really help me think through strategies that could be helpful to my professional communication. Thanks for the knowledge!

  2. Matt, you’re so right that the whole area of feedback or “constructive criticism” is challenging and often quite threatening — whatever side of the desk one happens to be on. Even people of good will misunderstand each other all the time. Part of the difficulty is that the giver doesn’t have the receiver’s vantage point, so there will always be different perceptions of the situation. There’s value to building up a sort of credit balance of positive interaction over time so that when feedback is given — even if it’s about “development” instead of “mistakes” — there’s a bit of cushion available to mitigate any negative reactions. Thanks so much for your introspective comment.

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