“Tell It Like it Is!”
“Don’t Fudge the Details!”
“Shoot from the Hip!”
These clichés encourage “straight talk”, valuing honesty, tact and transparency over mean-spirited or misleading language. As leaders in high tech product design and development — a challenging and problem-fraught field — it can often be tempting to tell it like it sort of is. Or just fudge one or two little details to put off letting colleagues know a project is falling behind, or informing a client that the battery life of that product may not be as long as they’d like it to be. No one likes bad news. But bad surprises are even worse… especially when the recipient suspects you of having left them in the dark intentionally. And whether that recipient is a client, colleague or outside resource, trust, the most critical ingredient of any great relationship, is in peril and quite possibly damaged irreparably.
Straight talk is a policy, or more accurately a core value that is easy to espouse, but a lot tougher to actually put into practice effectively and consistently. At IPS our business is selling complex, customized product design services; inviting and sustaining relationships with new clients is challenging. An associate once said, “In the services businesses, it’s a lot easier to TELL a client that you want their business than it is to ACT like you want it once you have it.” The whole “easier said than done” thing is true –especially when a client wants changes that will result in a price increase and/or push out the final delivery date. This goes for internal relationships as well… we all want to offer and receive support from our coworkers, but good intentions mean nothing if we don’t practice communicating with others the way we ourselves would want to be communicated with in a crisis.
Here’s tips on how to employ straight talk in tough situations – whether with a client, colleague, or business partner:
- Plan your communication ahead of time
Give yourself enough time to think about how you’re going to phrase a message that may be difficult for the listener to hear. Plan the “bad news” language in advance of any project or schedule deadlines so your team and clients are forewarned.
- Whenever possible, speak face to face or over the phone rather than using email.
Email is a tricky form of communication and is actually dangerous if composed when in a state of stress. Breathe. If you’ve received a disturbing message, take a break before responding if you can. If you must write while some thoughts are fresh on your mind, go ahead. But be sure to wait and bounce your messaging off a co-worker or supervisor — or at least edit very carefully before clicking “send”.
- Use a script
Sit down and write down the words that you would want to hear if the news were being delivered to you (even though you don’t ever like hearing disappointing info!). Whether writing an email, talking on the phone or sitting directly across from someone, having notes in front of you will enable you to remember the precise language you want to use and cover important points aimed at mitigating the problem to de-fuse the situation.
- Deliver difficult news in a timely fashion.
Even though you’d really rather not have that awkward conversation, take care of addressing tough issues promptly so all stakeholders can absorb the true nature of the problem and have the necessary information to join in formulating solutions.
- Ask for help from a colleague.
Some folks are better at dealing with sticky situations than others. If you have a trusted colleague or associate who has that great way with words, don’t hesitate to ask for some assistance in developing your message plan. Such coaching may also help you address future issues with greater ease.