Skip to main content
The Power of Candor

How & Why All of Us Compromise Candor

I think it is vital for our own ability to help people solve problems and solve problems in our lives, for our own psychological wellbeing and the psychological wellbeing of other people and our own ability to help others and ourselves cultivate deeply meaningful relationships, which are so vital to living a vibrant life, to unlock the power of candor and to cultivate our ability to not only express the truth of what we think, but also to help other people do the same. And you can see that there’s a big assumption I’m making. The big assumption I’m making is that there’s a gap in people’s ability to do this.

Now maybe you might be thinking “That’s true. Not me, but that’s true of other people.” Susan for some reason just pointed at Michael, and Michael was thinking, “Right back at you, Susan.” And so what’s the evidence? I’ll just give you a few things. I submit to you as a first data point the state of our country. I’m not sure if you knew, but we had midterms this week. Yes, spoiler alert, and each side is accusing the other side of being the biggest threat to democracy since the Civil War. If that isn’t evidence that we struggle to reconcile our competing versions of the truth, I don’t know what is.

Number two, the amount of books written on conversations. Somebody name one, please. Difficult Conversations. Fierce Conversations.

Critical Conversations.

Critical… Anything else?

You Just Don’t Understand Me.

You Just Don’t Understand Me. That’s great.

Crucial Conversations.

Crucial Conversations, Courageous Conversations. Gosh, I’m going to write one too. This is awful, but I’ve resisted it and I’ll explain why later. Bob Keegan wrote How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. Actually, a really good book that got no recognition probably just because of bad marketing, but fine. If you add up all those books, it’s like hundreds of millions of copies have been sold so clearly there is a longing in humanity to kind of sort this problem out.

The third data point I have for you are these personal case studies, documented conversations that easily over 30,000 leaders have submitted to me and my colleagues where we got to see what they actually said and what other people actually said and what they thought and felt and didn’t say and wish they would’ve said. You’re going to do this exercise soon, by the way, if you haven’t done one in your life already. And in every single instance, there is something that the person who wrote this, who shared this with us, is doing, which is preventing them from effectively expressing the truth of what they think. Sometimes they’re not saying it at all, and equally helping other people do the same. And they seem to be largely unaware of it. And we all seem to fall into the same traps, seemingly for the same reasons, regardless of who we are and what our upbringings are.

And so the big question then I think becomes, so why does this gap exist? And one of my key messages is, it’s not our principles. It’s not that you don’t know a lot. Look how many books you guys know. What the research shows, initially from Argyris, and then how my team and I have revalidated it is, it’s our programming, not our principles. And let me do a quick test of this assertion. So principles, how many of you think it’s a good idea when you’re having an important conversation to be curious? Show of hands. Keep your hands up. Okay, put them down. How many of you think it’s important to, sometimes it requires courage to express the truth of what you think? Great. How about approaching these conversations with a collaborative mindset? People don’t disagree with these things. And how about compassion, particularly when somebody sees things differently than you do?

How many agree with compassion support? Yeah. So there’s a quick poll and most people around the world will say these things are vital for conversations. How many of you, by the way, know who Chris Argyris is or heard of him before? Less and less these days, but fine. So let me give my quick PSA for somebody I think who’s been really important to the field. So Chris, let’s see. He was a professor at the graduate school at education at Harvard, where I studied at the Kennedy School of Government, where I taught, at the law school and the business school.

I’m feeling an urge for candor right now. Why not tell us? You know, got to adapt to surprises in this life. Let’s see. He also wrote 30 books, 150 articles, and received 14 honorary doctorates for his massive contributions to multiple social science and organizational science fields. So I kind of call him the Einstein of the social sciences. And what he discovered is at any time we feel threatened, and I don’t mean threatened with a capital T, just even mildly threatened like our reputation, feels like it might be under threat, precious relationships or things we really want to achieve, that an unconscious overprotective program gets activated in us and blocks us from acting according to our good principles for how we should interact with one another in these conversations. And he discovered four dimensions that while we might believe in curiosity and we do, we could also be, I don’t know, a little controlling in our interactions with others. While we believe in courage, we also might default to keeping things too comfortable for other people and ourselves. While we believe in collaboration, we’re also competitive by nature.

How many of you like to lose? So that could kind of hijack us, I’m sure you’re familiar with that term, in conversations where we want to be right and not wrong. This one is a little harder for me to swallow, but I have seen the enemy and he is me. Condemnation. While I definitely espouse being compassionate, sometimes when I hear something that I don’t like, I disagree with, I think they’re behaving badly, my internal dialogue isn’t very kind. And so this is what we discovered. We’re rolling with it. Make sense? And what we’ve seen, so Chris studied 15,000, we studied at least another 30,000 and 45,000 cases regardless of company, culture, and country, one or more of these dimensions got in people’s way of behaving according to stuff with their right, having the transformative impact they wanted to have on other people, and made them almost completely blind to the fact that it was operating in them.

Chris, for those of you who know his work, he called it model one. I’m not using that term because nobody’s going to remember it. So the name of the game here. If you buy this notion that this programming maybe it gets in your way, you don’t have to buy it at all. The key to transcending it is you first have to recognize its pull and the degree to which it’s operating you and kind of messing with you.

Leave a Reply