Honesty, for Pete’s sake!

My friend Mira has found some success as a Silicon Valley consultant. And, while she’s pretty good at identifying (and not working with) startup executives that will cause her more hassles than her compensation would cover, she recently found herself consciously ignoring those red flags while working with a startup whose company culture was starting to annoy her.

“People would just say or do little things that really don’t bother you in the moment,” she said. “But when they keep happening, and you add them all up, it’s off-putting.”

These minor infractions included snide remarks disguised as jokes, someone becoming heatedly angry at her for an honest mistake, and the CEO demanding results even when the necessary materials had not been provided. So far, Mira had just been ignoring these little cultural collisions. She felt like she already said “no” to this client a lot, when she prevented scope creep, or pointed out that they were drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid. So, she was hesitant to also say “no” to them in terms of their behavior towards her.

Then one day on a check-in call, her client contact, Karl, called her “ridiculous” for pointing out where the company might want to be more thorough before taking action. While the remark was meant in jest, it was also a veiled insult to her intelligence. She told herself to just let it go — that it wasn’t worth getting upset over — but she was hitting her limit of what she could swallow. She decided to try something a little different.

Mira stopped her meeting with Karl and asked if he would be open to some honest feedback. He said yes, so she explained to him how calling her ridiculous made her feel. She shared with him that she knew it was a small thing, but it was not an isolated incident and when you added everything up, it was causing their working relationship to be strained from her perspective. Mira went on to say that she was a professional and certainly wouldn’t let these small things affect her work for the startup, and she asked if Karl would be open to being a bit more courteous.

On the other end of the line, Mira heard silence for a long time. Her stomach started to tighten as she braced herself for Karl’s reaction. Would he lash out? Would he end her contract on the spot? But after about 30 seconds, Karl thanked her for bringing it up. He said he knew it wasn’t an easy thing to do and he respected her for it. He said he would try to do better, but that some of that was just his personality, so he couldn’t promise anything.

Even if Karl didn’t ever change his behavior, now Mira’s concerns were out in the open. If something similar should happen again, it would be easier for her to point it out by way of teasing or other light hearted methods. And if Karl did improve his behavior, perhaps that shift might spill over into other interactions Mira had with the start-up.

So much in life goes unsaid, simply because of our fears. Sometimes we fear how other people will act, or how they will perceive us in the future. Other times, we feel like we should be “stronger” and “bigger” than the issue, and feel shame that we’re not able to shrug it off. And sometimes we fear that naming the thing that’s bothering us will make it more “real” and we’ll be forced to deal with it, instead of avoiding it.

In these situations, honesty can serve like a lighthouse beacon, cutting through the fog of fear and shame and disconnection. People see us in that new light, and they respect us more for it. They know it’s not easy to say some things, so when we do, they admire us for taking the risk.

Of course, not everyone will react positively. We all have our own shadows, and not everyone can handle having a light shone on them. But when your honestly is met with defensiveness or aggression, this response arms you with information you can use to choose whether or not you want to continue having such a person in your life.

Giving voice to something that is bothering you doesn’t always mean that it will change the external situation in your favor, but your internal experience will change dramatically regardless, as you release the pent up energy you’ve been expending holding your feelings back. It is a practice that will help you build self-respect, even as it gives other people the opportunity to see and respect you more.

“Honesty does not always bring a response of love, but it is absolutely essential to it.” — Ray Blanton

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