Coaching to Core Ideals – Straight Talk and a Straight Walk

By heartwoodgroup

This is another post in the series Coaching to Core Ideals.

The IDEAL LEADER is 1) Visionary, 2) Authentic, 3) Disciplined, 4) Accessible, and 5) a Strategic Learner. See the Coaching to Core Ideals post to get a quick overview and context for the series. We are going to break each sub-topic down over the next few weeks.


  1. Makes tough decisions in a timely manner
  2. Talks straight and moves forward with feedback effectively and courageously
  3. Does not make their problems anyone else’s, they own them and act accordingly

In an earlier post on meaningful dialogue I asked the following questions.

Do you have to go “undercover” as a leader or can you build a culture that fosters, demonstrates, and rewards straight talk?

Why do managers hesitate saying what needs to be said rather than just talking about it?

Straight talk or “telling it straight” is a significant leadership concept that is 1) not practiced consistently and 2) a skill that requires a tremendous amount of emotional maturity. This single concept can be a source of tremendous personal success and business results. We all can espouse that straight talk is great and believe it is the right and principled thing to do. However, practicing it consistently and embedding straight talk as a “way of being” into your own behaviors and organization’s culture is where effective leaders begin to separate from many managers and business owners. Straight talk is a language activity we lose quickly as we become social beings. The opportunity is not so much about acquiring it, but rather to recapture what was lost.

We had it when we were kids and then slowly social norms train us to just stop saying “what is”—because it just might hurt someone’s feelings. Or even more influential is the idea that we may not be liked by another if we said it straight. Little kids are a riot when they use the words and limited language they have to explain the world they see. Many of you may be too young to remember the early TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things by Art Linkletter. He was master at interviewing kids and getting to their straight talk on how they saw things. If you have never watched it (click the link) get ready for some good laughs! It’s refreshing and restorative to see these children just say it from their perspective.

Our family has a few prime examples of straight talk, which I define simply as telling it like you see it. One of our favorite examples is the following—one of grandkids in the family enters the bathroom where elderly grandma is in the bathtub. Grandma says, “Hi”, and the little one looks her naked body up and down real close—then says, “Grandma you are falling apart”. From the mouth of an innocent a 3-4 year old it is a funny story that even grandma would repeat. If grandpa had said it—we are quite sure grandma wouldn’t have thought it funny. It may have even been experienced as very hurtful…even to grandpa!

This story quickly illustrates what really gets in our way in delivering straight talk.  Straight talk is not always valued and especially if the person receiving thinks your intent is different than that of an “innocent” toddler.  It’s all about perspective of the intent of the “speaker” first. The content of the straight talk only is received or considered when the receiver clearly understands your intent. The perspective of the receiver of your motives then becomes the most important part of delivering straight talk or successful feedback. As a leader you must be adding value and straight is born out of a base line commitment to the other person.

When you are coaching a leader to be better at having powerful conversations the key starting point is having them gain clarity for their own commitment to changing things or helping someone change. Once this is discovered you can begin to help them refine their understanding of their own energy and passion to be actively involved in changing outcomes for others and the business. Conveying intent or your “real commitment” to the person you are leading and coaching is not about being polite, it’s about results and effective action. These results are not just about “the business” it is really about “the person” that individual needs to be in order to achieve success. The success they need in their career. The business will thrive if they are clear and sometimes that means changing behaviors and sometimes careers. Regardless, it is about the individual and business aligning the vision, values, and passions in an authentic fashion. True sustainability is only reached when clarity for both the outcomes for system and the individual within the system are brought forward together in the conversation.

If I believe in your commitment to me is genuine (and I have no reason to think otherwise) I can take some very difficult conversation from you. It may be difficult to hear straight talk about the system’s situation and how it impacts you. In turn, it can be equally demystifying to really understand my position within the system as an individual. What has to be said won’t feel good or make me happy-all-warm-inside as a person, but I if know your intent and it is meant to help and not harm me—I have just received a gift that many just will not give me.  I have gotten pure feedback. A rare form or contribution many will experience infrequently if at all in their adult life.

That’s why, as leaders, we need to deliver straight talk with a simple set up. Its pretty simple so here is the set up and it’s worked for me every time (because I deliver it from an authentic commitment to the team or individual).

You open with a question:

“If I knew something that was going to help you be better, more successful, and reach the goals that were most important you—AND—I didn’t tell you because it was really difficult for me to say; what would you think of me or how would it make you feel?”

The answer you will get is usually in some shape or fashion like the following—“not very good…you have let me down…you don’t really care”.  You are now set up to begin giving feedback.

You might begin with something like:

“That’s why I want you to listen to me like someone who cares about your success. So please listen to what I have to say from that point of view that I have something I think will make a difference for you. Then let’s both discuss together.  How’s that sound?”

You must always ask for permission and this is prevalent in many books on tips for giving and receiving feedback. I’ve found little is said about setting up the “listening” for your intent of the feedback. It can make all the difference.

When you ask for feedback you better be prepared to do something about it. NEVER ask for feedback without clearly resolving to be active with it. If even at minimum you thank me and say you are unwilling to change in that area, I know you are making a conscious decision and not blowing me off. You can also build power by thanking others for feedback and then declaring how you will use it and what you want to be held accountable to in context to the change you will make. Feedback really is the “breakfast of champions” and becomes very addictive.  Once you build a relationship that operates at this level of candor you realize how much efficiency and expediency to act it creates.

If straight talk and feedback are so powerful, why do we struggle with creating an environment where it becomes the norm? I think it fundamentally challenges some of our deepest “hard wired” behaviors as a human. We live by default so much of life that we really are blind to our opportunities. To get better is hard work and it challenges our perspective of who we think we are. Our identity resides in others and yet somehow we cling to our own points of view rather than value a clear description of how we really show up outside our own reality. We make others wrong and then we get to be right. And then the real travesty begins. We live by default in a world that maintains our identity, but brings little value to our dreams, aspirations, and authentic self.

I am certified in Crucial Conversations.  It is a fantastic program and I suggest reading the book to clearly understand what a successful leader does that makes them a successful communicator—when it counts. When a business fails or underperforms it hurts a lot people. There are also dire consequences in some professions when crucial conversations don’t happen. People die or get gravely harmed. The program works because it unpacked what successful leaders do when they communicated effectively. I believe in this sound approach. How many times have you participated in a “training program” that was the product of the most recent theory or trendy program. Sound development is often repeated when you define or study where it is successful and then use that model to develop others. You don’t always need extensive training to gain success. You may just need perspective and awareness, so that you can recognize when you should be getting in the game. Too many human beings want the quick fix and the tips or techniques without going deeper into their own role in the dysfunction. The thought is—if we could just train those people the problem would go away, when in fact the straight talk to that business owner is…”It’s not a training problem, your business model is wrong or your culture is not conducive to people contributing their ideas or taking initiative themselves.

Where do you need some straight talk?


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