How leaders can share the truth and share hope when communicating at tough times

By Heather Campbell

It’s been a big week in the UK as – drum roll – John Lewis launched its 2022 Christmas Advert! A hotly anticipated annual event for all Christmas fans, and analysis of which is the subject of many column inches in national newspapers, this year’s ad has been praised for getting the right tone. It’s avoided the more saccharine messages that are particularly popular at the festive season, and emphasises ‘giving back’ rather than simply ‘giving’.

It’s important to avoid some of the more schmaltzy messaging this year because – well – no-one needs reminded that 2022 hasn’t been the most positive of years on the global stage.

Less widely trumpeted, but for me more powerful, was a line I heard on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ : ‘It can be very hard to communicate truthfully while also communicating hope; it can be very hard to communicate hopefully, while also communicating truth’.

When times are tough truth and hope can, indeed, appear incompatible.

Getting the right tone, communicating truthfully and communicating hope are three things that business leaders have to do every day. It’s easy to see how these apply with the big corporate messages, but they are also essential in our everyday interactions. Whether it’s giving feedback about unsatisfactory performance, telling someone they haven’t got that much-coveted promotion, or advising a hard-pressed manager that a recruitment freeze has just come into effect…they all matter.

So, given that tough messages are an inevitable part of the leader’s role, how can you get this difficult balance right?

When you build your message, start with being truthful

Not surprising, but something that leaders struggle with time after time and so end up soft-soaping and rose-tinting what they have to say. Some leaders (whisper it) even pretend that the difficult decision hasn’t been taken and try to put it across that they’re asking teams for their input, all the while knowing that nothing will change the ultimate outcome.

Another popular ploy is to ask a question in the hope that the other person will say the difficult thing for you – ever started a feedback conversation with ‘How do you think you handled the meeting/conversation/presentation?’ – knowing that you weren’t happy with what the other person did and that you need them to recognise this?

Avoid such tactics. Start with the truth. Be clear about what you have to say and say it.

Rather than giving hope, give purpose, control and choice

When you’ve shared a difficult message, it’s tempting to add on some well-meaning, but ultimately empty, statements designed to raise the person’s spirit again. We want to ‘give hope’ and I firmly support the idea that we need to leave people feeling positive about the way forward rather than leaving them in a negative place. Research backs this up too: hope is essential for emotional and physical health.

But hope doesn’t come from empty statements. It comes from a sense of purpose, from having a direction. It comes from having a sense of control and agency in our own lives. It comes from a sense that we have options.

So, to help people feel hopeful, help them to work out options and what actions they can take to move forward – these will give a sense of direction, and a sense of direction brings a sense of purpose. Avoid platitudes.

Being clear and direct doesn’t mean being cold or aggressive

When I’m coaching leaders on sharing a message, they often recoil from being clear and direct about what they have to say (admittedly, this may be more prevalent in a British culture than in some others). Instead, there’s a preference to talk around the subject in the belief that people will get the message. In trying to be clear and direct, they often adopt a tone that is cold, even verging on aggressive. And cold or aggressive are rarely the right tone for any leader to adopt.

Being clear and direct simply means saying what you want to say in as few words as possible so that it is as easy as possible for others to understand. You can be clear and direct, while still being warm, human and caring. The secret here is, when it comes to actually sharing your message, focus on the individual rather than on your message. Remember that the other person is an adult with responsibilities, fears and dreams. They deserve to be treated with respect and consideration.

Whether you’re engaged in ‘business as usual’ conversations this week, or you have to share some bigger stuff, keep these three points in mind and you’ll find it easier to communicate truth and hope in the right tone as well.

And, as always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

P.S. I didn’t hear all of the ‘Thought for the Day’ I’ve quoted (Thursday 10th November) and I can’t yet find it published anywhere on the internet, so thank-you to the presenter and apologies for not being able to attribute this quote appropriately and, indeed, for misquoting the precise words. You did, however, give me a phrase that will stick for many years to come.

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