Unpacking Being Real (Authenticity for Leaders) Lesson #2
Name the Ugly, Scary, and Hard
We do not like to talk about the hard stuff. The unsavory, the complex, the things that might hurt, sting, offend, make messy, or confuse. It makes sense. For nearly a century, management practice has scrubbed feelings out of the workplace as if they are dirty. But Bravespace workplaces are built upon the recognition that feelings are essential elements work that we must work through together.
What does this mean for leaders? As always, leaders have to go first. For many of you this may make your palms sweat. What? I have to talk about my feelings? But I don’t like talking about the hard stuff anymore than my employees. Well, get used to it. Although there are many barriers to hard talk at work (fear, perfectionism, rugged individualism, shame, fear of recrimination, positional authority, and more) we simply must find a way. With compassion, care, and empathy. Where to start?
It can hard to find the words for what is hard to talk about, so I recommend first become more
conscious of the way our body is feeling. When the stakes get high, many of us notice an elevated pulse rate,
sweaty palms, a slight flush, or a churning of our gut. These are physical indicators that emotions are at stake
and that there is something hard to talk about in front of us. Ask yourself, what emotion may be going on for
me? Anxiety? Fear? Sadness? Discomfort? Empathy? If I can name the complex bundle of emotions present
in me, it will help me tune into and validate the feelings of the other person.
Next, know that you will always be more successful in hard conversations if you speak from your perspective,
using “I” statements, rather than starting with “you” statements where we tell another person what they did or
how they felt, as if we know. So, for example, “I noticed that when you made that presentation to the
leadership team last week, I was craving more detail and explanation.” Rather than “Your presentation lacked
Thirdly, remember to leave space for the person to whom you are talking to think and to feel. We do not have
to compulsively fill every second of available talk time in a hard conversation. Letting the emotions and dialogue breathe a bit facilitates curiosity, listening, and impact.
Finally, remember that when you are talking about something hard (for you or the other person) empathy is
the key to whether they feel seen by you or invisible. Empathy is feeling with someone, and in order to
express it honestly, we must truly take on their perspective, and validate and name the emotions at play
(surely, we have felt something similar even if we have not done that exact thing!)
Empathy does not include problem-solving unless we are asked to help, so stop short of jumping down the
rabbit hole of “let’s fix this.” Doing so sends the message that they are incapable of fixing it without our heroic
help. Yuck. When we talk about the ugly, hard, and messy things at work (which almost always have to do with
feelings) we get better at it each and every time, which diminishes our fear and anxiety for the next time we
are called to step in to emotionally laden conversations.
Emotions at work are simply another source of data, and they matter hugely with regards to what happens
between us. Our capacity as leaders to talk about hard things greatly enhances our authentic. It means that
when we are celebrating wins, giving positive appreciation and feedback, and partnering in other ways, we
are even more believable, and most importantly, trusted, because we went first for the hard stuff.