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Let’s Make it Clear - a message from Sally Kirkright, CEO AccessEAP


Last year I had the pleasure of seeing research professor and social worker Brene Brown when she came to Australia. Her ‘Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.’ approach really resonated and made me think about those all-important but difficult conversations that we all need to have at some point.

Being clear and assertive, in a way that enables you to state your needs or deliver constructive feedback, without attacking or offending the other person can be challenging and confronting, thus often it’s easier to avoid these kinds of conversations. Unfortunately, avoidance doesn’t mean the issue goes away, to use the metaphor of sweeping something under the rug, we end up with a very lumpy rug, that people start tripping over. Related to this is the fear of offending others or hurting their feelings. In a challenging conversation, it’s easy to err on the side of a white lie. How do we weigh up the conflicting ideas of not hurting someone’s feelings with a desire, to be honest?

Unfortunately, the outcome of avoiding or “softening” the issue can drag out the pain, and similarly, we can do more harm than good if we are not clear in our meaning. Sparing someone’s feelings by not saying what we mean leaves the situation unresolved. If we want someone to do something different but don’t clearly state what our needs are, resentment will build when there is no change. We risk veering into passive-aggressive communication styles if we dance around expressing our needs and then become frustrated when our underlying (unspoken!) intent is not acted upon.

I can’t help thinking about the Band-Aid analogy. If a difficult conversation needs to happen, doing it promptly and expressing the situation clearly is, in the long term, less painful than dancing at the edges. If you need to tell an employee that they are underperforming on a task, bring it to their attention sooner rather than later: if you delay, they can reasonably ask why this is suddenly a problem. You waste time and emotional energy for both if you have to back-track and say that the behaviour has been an issue for some time. A reasonable question from the employee could be ‘Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you thought there was a problem?’ Trying to explain that you didn’t want to hurt their feelings is unlikely to help if they are already upset. Saying you hoped that the situation would resolve itself can lead them to ask how they are expected to resolve a situation when they didn’t even know it was a situation. Fair call! And all because you thought you were being kind.

Similarly, your manager might ask you to take on a new project that the organisation has just been given. Hoping that you can accommodate it into your workload – because you want to be seen as pulling your weight, accepting challenges, a team player etc. – can backfire down the track if it turns out you didn’t have the time to fit it in after all. Having to go back to your boss and explain that the new project has fallen over could have been avoided if the less comfortable conversation (‘Sorry, I really can’t fit that in on top of my current workload’) had happened rather than hoping you would somehow make it work.

Being calm in these potentially challenging conversations is key to getting the message across effectively. If you are initiating the conversation, make notes beforehand about what you want to say, your motivations for it and think about the ways in which the person might ask for clarification.

If you find yourself being asked about something that you don’t agree with or just are not sure how it sits with you, it’s OK to ask if you can have some time to think about it before responding.

Gathering your thoughts allows you to address a situation clearly. Stating your case from a position of knowledge, calmly and with respect for the person you are engaging with, gives the best result for all concerned.

For more information and tips on having courageous conversations see our article here.


Sally Kirkright, CEO AccessEAP


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