Courageous conversations: How to speak your truth

women having a conversation
Article provided by Sarah Rozenthuler, author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations: 7 Strategies for Talking About What Matters, published by Watkins

Having a challenging conversation involves taking a risk.

Research reported in The Psychologist (April 2005) reveals that we express our inner thoughts and feelings only two per cent of the time in everyday conversations. Opening up, sharing how we feel and speaking our truth is a high-leverage move.

This can, however, make us feel uncomfortable. Because we’re afraid to rock the boat, cause unpleasantness or damage a relationship, we often avoid talking about what matters most.

Speaking our truth, however, does not in itself damage a relationship. Furthermore, the risks of staying silent are sometimes greater than the risks of speaking out. When I’ve been on the receiving end of another person saying “what’s so” – sensitively, skillfully and succinctly – it has improved the relationship. The air was cleared, trust increased and the exchange was energising. True – there may have been some discomfort but this was short-lived.

What is essential is how we speak our truth. A Big Conversation stands or falls by the degree to which we are able to give voice to our observations, thoughts and feelings clearly, compassionately and completely.

To step into the next chapter of our life or career sometimes demands a Big Conversation. Whether it’s with our boss, partner or a member of our family, talking transparently can be tough. Having some tools to help us through the truth-sharing process can make all the difference.

Speak your truth OFT’N

Imagine you have a demanding new boss and an ever-increasing workload. As you look ahead, all you can see are your days getting longer and longer. If you don’t speak out, there is a risk that your work-life balance will get even worse, your resentment will fester and your personal life will suffer, as well as your performance at work. The question is: How do you speak your mind while continuing to have a productive working relationship?

To help you to stay on track when you need to speak your truth, keep in mind the four-letter acronym OFT’N. I developed this aide-memoire inspired by Marshall’s Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication and Cliff Barry’s Shadow Work®.

This simple tool can help you to prepare and sequence what you have to say when there’s a risk of someone getting triggered. You or them! A real-life example follows this high-level outline:

  • O is for observations. Begin by sharing your perception of “what’s so”. Leave to one side your judgments, opinions and assertions. Focus on the facts. Start with what you can both agree is the reality of the situation.
  • F is for feelings. Share what you’re experiencing. Express your happiness, sadness, anger, envy, shame, fear or other emotion using simple “I” statements, such as “I’m frustrated.” Avoid false “I feel”s such as “I feel that you’re not being fair.”
  • T is for thinking. Reveal how you perceive the situation. Speak of “what’s working” and “what’s not working”. Avoid talking in terms of “right” and “wrong”. Own what you say, as in “I think what’s not working here is …”.
  • N is for needs. Request what you need. Take responsibility for what you want to be different. Your need could be for acknowledgement, appreciation or a more practical change. State your need without making heavy work of it.

Following this structure will make you more focused and less emotional. Write down the actual words you could say, starting with your observations. A Big Conversation becomes much more manageable once you’ve found some of the actual words you might use.

A practical example

One client I coached faced exactly this challenge. As his work-life balance worsened and stress level increased, the need for a Big Conversation with his boss become more and more critical. In our coaching work, we focused on both the words to say and how to say them. Getting the tone right minimises the likelihood that the other person gets defensive and shuts the conversation down. This is what he came up with:

  • “Over the last three months, my workload has increased significantly so I often stay in the office until past 7pm. Last week, I had to finish off the proposal for the new client, which took me until 10pm two nights in a row.” (Observations expressed as neutrally as possible)
  • “As a result of all the extra work I’ve been doing, I’m feeling frustrated at having to stay late so often. I’m annoyed at the way work is cutting into my evenings and stopping me from doing my marathon training. I’m sad that I’m spending so little time with my family while our son’s so young.” (Feelings expressed as authentically as possible)
  • “It’s great that the business is doing so well and that we’ve got so many potential new clients. What I think isn’t working, however, is that you’re not being realistic when you estimate how long a project will take. The jobs often take longer than you budget for, which makes scheduling difficult and means I often have to stay late to meet the deadlines.” (Thinking expressed as openly as possible)
  • “What I’d like is to be involved in the scheduling decisions for proposals to new clients. I suggest we have a conversation every Monday morning to discuss the project pipeline and our top priorities. If you think you’ll need me to stay late into the evening, I’d like to be told at least 24 hours before so I can plan for this and let my family know.” (Needs expressed as clearly as possible)

While there are no guarantees a conversation will proceed along the lines you’ve prepared, you maximize the likelihood of a positive outcome by thinking through what you will say – and how you will say it. Getting the “atmospherics” of the conversation right is key. When we speak with neutrality, authenticity, openness and clarity, we will have no regrets about standing in our truth.

Sarah RozenthulerAbout the author

Sarah Rozenthuler is a chartered psychologist, leadership consultant and pioneer of purpose-led leadership. She has over 15 years international experience consulting to many different organizations including BP, Spencer Stuart, Standard Chartered Bank, IUCN and the World Bank as well as numerous SMEs and not-for-profit organisations, including Choice Support and Booktrust.

Sarah works with CEOs and leaders who want to create positive change by having the conversations that matter most. Increasingly these conversations are all about purpose. She founded Bridgework Consulting Ltd in 2007 to enable leaders to engage and energize their people around great work, with the intention of transforming organisations to become a force for good in the world.


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