What if we said exactly what we thought all the time? Can you imagine it? You find yourself part way through a meeting that is going nowhere and you stand up, pack up your stuff and say, “I am very frustrated by the lack of progress in this meeting so I’m going to leave before you start asking people to own tasks as I really don’t want to commit myself.”


Sure, there might be some downsides. Catching people unaware with a deeply honest response where there would usually be a carefully worded answer wrapped in correctness doesn’t always go down well. But when delivered in the right way, there are some definite benefits to raw honesty. There are certain situations where it can foster progress, remove blockages and potentially strengthen relationships too.


I’m not suggesting that people are usually dishonest, I’m simply saying that for many people they have become accustomed to ‘couching’ how they respond to people and staying on the conservative side so as not to upset their co-workers.  For some it is the flip side. We’ve all been in meetings where one person has gone to the ‘raw honesty place’ with no notice. Instead of creating a space for shared honesty it often has the opposite effect and causes others to withdraw in discomfort.


In most workplaces it is not realistic to think everyone is going to conduct themselves with raw honesty all the time, it takes a heightened level of focus and engagement to maintain what I like to call ‘productive honesty’. There are particular times and activities where shared, productive honesty is most valuable. Some of these times are when a project has hit a block and the team are struggling to find a way forward, when you have a new group of people trying to find their feet together, or when you have an all-mighty deliverable with a looming deadline and it’s going to take some crazy collaboration and elbow grease to get you over the line.


Clarity is a must!

Firstly, it takes a common understanding of the ‘rules of play’ to make a safe space for ‘productive honesty’ to occur. As Monica from Friends would say, ‘rules help control the fun.’ Making a safe space is the critical part and this comes with everyone in the safe space understanding what to expect and what is expected of them.


Make it clear to all participating that you are invoking ‘productive honesty’ for the particular meeting or conversation. Remove any ambiguity, and clearly discuss the ‘rules of play’ so everyone is on the same page. You may want to adapt your own set of rules that suit your working environment but I suggest the following as a starting place:


  1. Everyone should express what they are thinking and feeling – and they should label it as such, ‘right now I am feeling frustrated because…’ Get it all out on the table.
  2. If someone gives you direct feedback on how your behaviour is impacting them, it must be taken on-board and considered with a simple ‘I hear you’. No excuses no firing back, just look them in the eye and say ‘I hear you’.
  3. One conversation at a time with no side chatter, but everyone needs to contribute. It doesn’t work if you have a couple of people actively participating and a bunch of fence sitters. Each person should be called on to contribute their two cents.
  4. Anyone can call it if the conversation goes off topic – sometimes it is helpful to have a symbol for this such as raising your hand. It helps to keep focused on the purpose of the conversation and what you are all there to achieve.


Bring your best selves

Everyone must be willing to be patient, respectful and brave. The personal values and beliefs aren’t always going to align across everyone in the conversation, in fact if they did you probably wouldn’t need to be creating a space for productive honesty. But you do need a little common ground in terms of how you are each going to behave. If you are all on the same page that patience, respect and bravery are needed, you can hold each other to account. Role model and encourage others to ‘lean in’ and take a ‘yes and’ mindset instead of a ‘no, instead’ one.


It’s doing as much as it is saying

Use a flip chart or whiteboard to centre the conversation, this brings clarity to what is being covered, it also allows the drawing to absorb some of the emotion instead of firing heat-seeking missiles back and forth at each other. It helps to share the pen amongst the group so everyone is not only contributing verbally but they are physically making their mark on the conversation too, it means everyone has skin in the game.


Look at how the group are positioned in relation to each other – physically make an even playing field. Don’t have someone sitting outside the circle, it will seem like they aren’t committed to the conversation and that erodes some of the trust. These sorts of symbols are critical to making a safe space.


Over time you can get less formal and structured about how you set up your safe space with ‘rules of play’. People get used to it and they know what to expect. Familiarity can also generate complacency though so be aware of the signs and call it out loud if you see it. To get you started you might want to put the ‘rules of play’ in a visible place in the workplace so they can be quickly referred to whenever someone invokes ‘productive honesty’.



Want to receive my posts directly into your inbox each week? Then hit the subscribe button!