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How to Not Be a Dick: Radical Candour through Transparency, Curiosity and Compassion



Manifest's group special operations director, Helen Kenny, on three communication principles for those convos that make you sweat

How to Not Be a Dick: Radical Candour through Transparency, Curiosity and Compassion

Every day of our lives we’re having hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions whether through Whatsapp, email, Slack, Zoom, memes or the forgotten classic… face to face. We’re constantly navigating these myriad interactions which are packed with implicit and explicit meaning as we build narratives about ourselves, those around us and the world at large.

Luckily, the vast majority of these communications serve to inform or engage in a positive or neutral (sometimes banal) way, whether it is briefing a team member, sending a Love Island meme to your mate or figuring out who is going to pick up milk on the way home.

However, we all know some conversations are more challenging, and it is typically where the people involved are not coming to it from a shared or agreed perspective. Whether it is receiving negative feedback from a colleague or breaking up with your latest squeeze, some communications are just more emotionally loaded. We might approach or react to these more challenging conversations in any number of ways. We might be defensive or passive-aggressive, assuming our perspective is undoubtedly correct. Alternatively, you might fall into the avoidance camp, shying away from communicating your perspective to save face and not to ‘rock the boat’. Sometimes you’ll adopt a combination — come in hard, apologise, back down, repeat…. ending up frustrated that you didn’t fully communicate your point of view. Throw in the additional dimension of differing levels of seniority in the workplace and you can have yourself quite the emotional cocktail.

Being able to approach these more challenging conversations in a positive way becomes even more important when you’re working with global teams and clients. What might seem overly direct or brusk in one region might be completely acceptable in another, and vice versa — a reticence to ‘say it like it is’ due to social norms of politeness could be frustrating to those used to a more direct tone.

So, we wanted to adopt an approach to communications that could help overcome some of these challenges and give our team the tools to approach a conversation that might have you sweating a little.

Adapted (and unashamedly bastardised) from the values of a Mutual Learning mindset depicted in Roger Schwarz’s great book ‘Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your team get unstuck to get results’, we introduced three core principles of ‘radical candour’ to help our team communicate in a more open and collaborative way, reaching a positive resolution to any type of conversation.

Those principles are:

Transparency: This includes sharing all the relevant information with that person, including your thoughts, feelings and interests — where are you at, and what you want the resolution of the conversation to be. This requires a bit of self-reflection and a fair whack of vulnerability — even opening a conversation with ‘I’m a little bit nervous about this conversation.’ It’s a level of vulnerability many of us would shy away from, but by sharing how you are really feeling instantly sets a different tone to the conversation.

Curiosity: It is very easy to enter into a challenging conversation making assumptions about the other person’s motivations or mindset, often in a judgemental or self-interested way. But if you come at it with curiosity, seeking answers and actually listening to their responses you remove that assumption (and your own ego) and level the playing field. Asking open questions means you are less likely to project your own (perhaps incorrect) narrative and sweep away the other person’s perspective.

Compassion: Underpinning both of the above has to be compassion. No one comes into their workplace with the intention of being a dick. But sometimes, for any number of reasons, we find ourselves being a bit of a dick. Everyone’s got their shit. Coming to challenging conversations with compassion means you are being empathetic to that person’s individual feelings, context, and circumstances.

By adopting these three principles concurrently, you will be more open, equal and progressive in your communications.

We recently did a workshop testing this approach at our annual Manifestival, giving groups scenarios to adopt these values to, before role-playing to the whole global team. In addition to a few laughs, it demonstrated how approaching these challenging conversations through this lens can radically alter the experience and outcome of conversations.

It’s something we’re all trying to adopt now. It’s early days and it is very much a work in progress. Does it feel weird sometimes? Yes. You’re overriding some deeply embedded social practices and definitely need to leave your ego at the door. Does it work? Also yes. Prepping and framing challenging conversations in this way can feel a bit unnatural at first, but adopting the principles will help you be more authentic in conversations where the stakes are high. Like anything, it’s a muscle to use and strengthen until it becomes second nature.

So if you are fretting about a challenging convo with a client, team member or friend, try these three principles of radical candour to help ensure you can reach a positive conclusion.

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Manifest, Wed, 22 Feb 2023 12:15:56 GMT