A Culture of Candor: The Wei-Chi of Conversation

culture of candor

People are longing for trustworthy leaders.  

Leaders who are passionate with a depth and consistency of commitment to achieve their vision.  Leaders who are wise and thoughtful; and through continuous learning reflect upon and grow from their mistakes.  Leaders who are generous with their time, money, praise and support.  Leaders who are courageous and address setbacks with poise, dignity and calm.

Yes, people want trustworthy leaders; and in that, leaders who will communicate honestly.

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In a time when knowledge and technology are at the heart of business, organizations face change and rising complexity at a scale, intensity and speed never experienced before.  Add to that highly competitive markets, fragmented roles, blurred boundaries, dominant leadership practices, and structures that continue to support “command and control”; it’s no wonder that many of us feel so lost and have a reduced sense of community.  

We need to renew trust in our institutions.  As Warren Bennis states in his article, What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor, unfortunately that won’t happen until leaders learn how to authentically communicate.  

“We won’t be able to rebuild trust in institutions until leaders learn how to communicate honestly – and create organizations where that’s the norm”  
∞ Warren Bennis

Human tendency is to tell people what they want to hear – more accurately, what we think they want to hear.  In a society where we are conditioned to think twice about being straightforward with people, we fear being candid and direct.  We “dance around” an issue because of the fear we hold about pleasing people or the guilt that may come from saying “No”.  And let’s face it.  There is risk in expressing truth.  We don’t want to hurt others’ feelings.  We don’t want to feel rejected…or get divorced…or lose the business prospect…or get fired.  We are conditioned to believe that if we are honest and candid, we will make people angry, sad and afraid.  That we have something to lose — especially during difficult conversations – those times when we need to express something that may not be easy for another to hear.

I would offer that in being honest with yourself and others, you actually have very little to lose and so much more to gain.  And while risk – perceived or otherwise — is most often involved, with that danger comes opportunity.  In short, difficult conversations create a critical moment for crisis to become harmony.

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My very dear friend and colleague, Jacky Voncken, last year introduced me to a term she uses when referring to difficult discussions.  That term is: “Courageous Conversation”.  Linking courageous conversations to my work with Bohmian Dialogue, Jacky’s expression continually reminds me of what I believe David Bohm envisioned with Dialogue – bringing people together through authentic communication.

This past week has indeed been a most courageous week.  I found myself in three separate conversations where I was required to be the bearer of “bad news” or share information that I knew would be hard for the recipient to hear.  Most of us don’t like this role.  We don’t like to disappoint – even when the right thing to do is to say “no” instead of “yes”.  But as I reflect on these past few days, what occurs to me is that had I decided to not have even one of those courageous conversations, not only would I not be living within integrity; I would be damaging my credibility and relationships with people I care about.  To say “yes” when you know you should have said “no” means that in telling another what you think she wants to hear, you have pushed down your own feelings and opinions.  This creates a lie than you then must live into, which can only lead to one thing: Resentment.  Because if you are not being honest; you are not being you.

mr-rogers and culture of candorDifficult conversations can lead to upheaval or unity. The mere fact that we label a conversation we don’t want to have as “difficult” speaks to how we feel about these sorts of conversations.  They are challenging.  They are difficult.  They are threatening.  And they are dangerous.  Using a term like “Courageous Conversation” can be helpful, as it shifts the energy from challenging to accepting.  From difficult to helpful.   From threatening to harmless.  From dangerous to opportunistic.  It reminds us that in those moments when we want to fight, run away, or hide, we can accept fear’s invitation to courage and instead explore the tension and discover new options.

As I consider this, I can’t help but think of the Wei-Chi.  The Wei-Chi is Chinese for crisis; however the more literal translation is “from danger comes opportunity.”  When you speak from integrity, it is true that you will often times be met with disparity.  But like the Wei-Chi, from that incongruence comes understanding.

David Bohm’s view about opposition was that “deep contradiction can only be transcended through the dialectical movement towards synthesis”.  In other words, a moment of divergence has with it the opportunity to create coherence if you have the courage to hold the tension long enough to let something new emerge.

Theodore Steinway said it most beautifully:  “In one of our concert grand pianos, 243 taut strings exert a pull of 40,000 pounds on an iron frame.  It is proof that out of great tension may come great harmony.”

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