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Telling Your Truth – Effectively

Telling Your Truth – Effectively

We don’t tell the truth anywhere near enough in our culture.  (That was the gist of my last post.)  And yet sometimes, telling the truth does more harm than good.

If you’re speaking your truth, how do you know if you’re doing harm?  Three questions to ask yourself:

  1. What’s your underlying intention:  is it ultimately to be helpful?  Or simply critical?
  2. How ready is the recipient to hear your message?
  3. Given who you know your audience to be, is the way you’re about to tell your truth likely to open them to possibility, or shut them down?

Every communication has two components, as inseparable as the two sides of a coin.  Component 1:  the intention of the sender.  Component 2:  the interpretation of the recipient.

Neither of these two pieces is the “real” message.  It’s the synergy between the two that defines the communication.  It’s mistaken and useless – even narcissistic – to say, “I said it right; he just heard it wrong.”  (Or, “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”)  The purpose of communicating is not to be right.  The purpose is to be effective.

And the measure of a message’s effectiveness is simple:  “Did she hear what I meant, in the spirit I intended?

Reality isn’t the same for everyone. Each of us looks at the world through a unique set of filters – made up of experiences, values, styles, fears, aspirations, and woundedness.  How you frame a message and how the other hears it are both dependent on these filters.

Most of us shy away from speaking our truth precisely because of all this complexity.  It’s too easy to be misheard.  It’s too easy to engage someone’s anger, defensiveness, or fear when your truth doesn’t align with theirs.

But the leader takes the risk of speaking her truth, finding ways to do so constructively.   Why?  Because speaking the truth challenges complacency, embraces diversity, invites creativity, and elevates the conversation to a higher level.  Speaking the truth engages possibility.

And doing so constructively is all about being sensitive to how your audience will hear it.  If what they hear is not what you meant, your communication has failed.


  • Next time you’re anticipating a challenging conversation – where you need to speak a difficult truth – take a few minutes to ask yourself the three questions above.  Based on your reflections, plan and even rehearse how you will deliver your message.
  • “The truth” is easier to tell when the tone of the conversation is one of curiosity, compassion, nonjudgment, and openness.  For an in-depth and compelling look at how to create these conditions, check out the nonprofit Center for Ethical Leadership’s model, Gracious Space.
  • Read Fierce Conversations— simply one of the best books on leadership I know.  It brilliantly compels you, as a leader, to speak your truth.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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