Learning to be more honest with others
I saw a comedy recently that reminded me of something serious. The movie, “Late Night” starring Emma Thompson, is a story of a comic who is about to be replaced because her show has become stale. Why? Because she was no longer being herself, but instead was trying to please others. She didn't take any risks. Over time, her ratings declined.
In real life, honesty, authenticity, and direct communication can be undervalued, especially in our Northwest culture. How often do friends and co-workers tell you exactly what they think? More often than not, our local culture values indirect communication. Better not to say anything, than to offend. The result—silence.
I grew up in the northeastern United States, in New York City, which has just the opposite viewpoint. I rarely worried that others would sugarcoat their feedback. Sometimes, I felt they went to the opposite extreme, which could be uncomfortable. But I knew where I stood and never wondered what someone really thought.
It’s hard to be ourselves when we want to fit in and gain the approval of others. At work, we don’t want our “show” to be canceled or to be replaced by someone else. When I first moved to the Northwest 27 years ago, I learned quickly that keeping my opinions to myself can be wise.
But I often wondered—is silence good to help grow and evolve? Does it nurture healthy relationships? Is it healthy for me?
How often do you share your real feelings with friends or family members? More frequently, we vent to a third party about our true emotions. We feel better in the short run, but nothing changes. We’re talking to the wrong person.
So how can we be more authentic and still feel safe?
How you say something is often more important than what you say. When you’re angry or frustrated, whatever you’re thinking is liable to come out in a negative way. Most of us react to non-verbal cues—facial expression, tone of voice, and body language even before we hear the words. Our nervous system is hardwired to react to potential threats with the “fight or flight” response. Our heart starts to pound, our muscles tense, and we go on the defense (flight) or offense (fight). The result is rarely positive. Let these physical sensations subside before delivering your message. Wait until you are feeling calmer, think about what you want to say, and communicate your feelings when you’re less emotional. It’s more likely that your message will be heard.
Timing is important. Find a time to share your thoughts when your co-worker, friend, or partner is really available. Important conversations on the fly rarely go over well.
Speak from your heart. Earning respect from others is more important than agreement. When we speak from our heart, we will communicate our sincerity and our integrity, even if our message is controversial. Take a risk. Some time ago, a senior executive asked a group of managers how they were feeling. There was silence in the room. I took a deep breath and decided to speak up. I was nervous—but I didn’t let my anxiety stop me from calmly and respectfully sharing my feelings. It opened the door for others to speak from their hearts and resulted in a productive and valuable conversation.
Sharing your feelings, especially if they aren’t positive, is challenging. But when done with kindness, sincerity, and respect, it can promote better communication. We tell our young children to “use their words”—so should we as adults.