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Speaking Your Truth

“What will people think of me?”

Rosa’s main coaching goal was to become more assertive.

Her boss, her teammates and her direct reports all wanted her to manage more boldly, share her wisdom sooner, and speak up when she saw things going awry. But Rosa was very uncomfortable asserting herself.

She was well aware that this hesitant part of herself caused her to miss opportunities. She often wished she could be more assertive, but, she said, as many coaching clients do, “This is the way I’ve always been.”

Our early coaching conversations explored whether Rosa’s quiet, non-confrontational nature was hard-wired like her vision or her hearing. She decided that it wasn’t, that with conscious effort she would be able to show up differently.

When I asked what stopped her, she said, “I worry what people will think of me.” Then she laughed ruefully. “Worrying what people will think of me keeps me from speaking up. But people would think better of me if I spoke up!” She shook her head at the irony.

“They’ll never change!”

One day she mentioned a situation I thought would be a terrific, low-risk opportunity for her to practice her assertion skills.

Rosa told me about two team members who had a love-hate relationship with each other. She said, “They’re in each other’s offices with the doors closed all the time.

Half the time they’re giggling like they’re at a junior high school sleepover. The other half they’re shouting at each other like they’re going to draw blood.

“Everyone can hear them,” Rosa said. “It’s disruptive and distracting. I think they should stop it.”

Although I felt pretty certain I knew how she’d answer, I asked, “What have you told them?”

“Nothing!” she said, as if I’d suggested she put her finger in a socket. “I’m their peer, not their boss. It’s not my place to tell them anything.”

“But you think their behavior is disruptive and distracting. Maybe this is an opportunity for you to speak up.”

She furrowed her brow and answered slowly. “Well, maybe. But I can’t tell them what to do. That doesn’t feel right!”

Prepping Year-End Performance Reviews“I’m not suggesting you tell them what to do, Rosa. I’m suggesting you tell them how you experience them—which you say is ‘disruptive’ and ‘distracting’.”

“Even if I do, Tom, they’re not going to change.”

“It’s not about what they will or won’t do, Rosa. It’s about you speaking up when you feel something isn’t right.”

When she didn’t reply, I told her I’d like to share a story with her. She said to go ahead.

Constant failure

A senior executive named Greg once asked me to help him prepare a presentation he was certain would be controversial.

During a break, I remarked that he seemed amazingly calm considering he was about to set off an explosion in his division. He laughed and agreed that, yes, these sorts of situations were not terribly difficult for him. “I don’t treat them lightly,” he said, “but they don’t frighten me, either.”

I asked where his sense of surety came from. After a pause, he said quietly, “It was a tough lesson.”

He leaned against the wall, looked down at the bottle of water in his hands and began to speak.

“When I was twenty-four, I married a woman named Betsy. I loved everything about her. What I didn’t know was that she was an addict. I don’t think she knew it either. But even if she had told me, I’d have married her anyway because I adored her.” He paused and shook his head sadly. “I had no idea what I was walking into.

“Watching her addiction was horrible, but the torture I put myself through was worse. Every time she got sick, I was sure it was because of something I had done. I was always second-guessing myself. Should I call her? Would that set her off or make her happy? If I cooked dinner, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? It was awful because she kept getting sicker and sicker, and I thought it was my job to keep her healthy. I was a failure every day of my life.

“Finally, she was in yet another residential treatment program. When I was allowed to visit her after a couple weeks, I bought a bouquet of her favorite flowers, put on her favorite sweater, and went to visit her.

“When she came in the room, she flew into a rage. She snatched the flowers and beat me with them. I mean, really beat me. She was whacking me and screaming and the flowers were flying everywhere. I fell on the floor and clasped my hands over my head. And do you know the only thought I had? ‘I must’ve brought the wrong flowers!’

“Isn’t that incredible? I thought I had caused her reaction. The height of egotism, right?

“So once again, I felt like a failure. Luckily, her therapist was a gifted woman. She’d seen the whole thing and she came to me later and put her arm around me and said, ‘You didn’t deserve that.’ And I started crying. And then she said, ‘Greg, it’s time for you to live your life. Betsy will survive her addiction or she won’t. But either way it won’t be because of anything you do. She can’t control her own addiction. What makes you think you can? Since you can’t, you might as well live the life you want.’

“That was the beginning of my living the life I wanted to live, no matter what people might think.”

He smiled and came back to the present day. “Ever since, I’ve made the decision that I’ll show up and do what I do no matter what other people might think. So if my division rises up in revolt over this rollout, I’ll survive that. And if the CEO fires me because of this decision, I’ll survive that. But I can’t control any of that, so I’m going to show up and do what I do one-hundred percent no matter what people think of me.”

A shameful business

Shortly after I told Rosa that story, I told it to another client.

Derrick sold code that got embedded in his customers’ computer chips. One customer was going bankrupt so they had disabled Derrick’s company’s code. But enabled or not, the code was on the chip, so Derrick’s company was suing the failing chipmaker.

“This is bad business!” Derrick said with real passion. “Oh, yeah, sure, I know our chief counsel will sue anybody over intellectual property, and that’s probably a good thing for us. But this is the wrong thing to do. We’re just making a dying company die faster. It makes me ashamed!”

“Who’ve you talked to about this?” I asked.

Derrick stopped abruptly. “What do you mean?” he asked, as if I’d just spoken in tongues.

“I mean have you talked with the chief counsel? Or your boss?”

“The chief counsel doesn’t want to hear from me,” he said. “And unless it has to do with posting numbers, my boss doesn’t want to hear about stuff like this.”

I continued pressing Derrick, trying to discover what was really stopping him from telling his story to people who might be able to affect the outcome. The bottom line: he didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker or a complainer. And so, in order to control what people might think of him, he was withholding his truth. Derrick was not going to speak up.

That’s when I told him Greg’s story.

The 5% solution

When I finished, Derrick responded in much the same way Rosa had. He said he admired Greg but wasn’t certain he had the same fortitude.

I answered him the same way I’d answered Rosa. “I don’t think Greg changed overnight. He was a young man when all that happened. And by the time I met him he was in his fifties. That sort of development happens over time. My question to you would be this: if you could speak your truth just five percent more tomorrow, what would you do differently?”

If you are trying to develop some part of yourself—and I hope you are!—the “five percent” question can be freeing. Asking yourself what a five percent difference would look like releases you from having to “fix” the whole problem all at once.

Rosa and I rehearsed a script for her to talk to her teammates. And she did. And Derrick got a meeting with the chief counsel. I’d love to tell you that both of them—or even one of them!—got the results they wanted. Sadly, they didn’t.

But they did have a new experience of themselves. They began to feel what it was like to speak their truth regardless of what other people might or might not think of them.

Am I advocating that you ignore the norms in your workplace? Of course not. Am I suggesting you speak your truth with no regard to the possible consequences? Absolutely not. After all, the entire reason these Executive Coaching Tips exist is so that other people will perceive you the way you want to be perceived. That means you need to be aware of your impact.

But, if you flinch from speaking your truth only because you worry about the opinions of others, then, yes, I strongly advocate you find your voice and speak up. How else can you display The Look & Sound of Leadership™?

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