How To Easily Have Candid Conversations

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

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I’ve had the opportunity to work with several leaders on having candid conversations and their overall leadership skills. One of the trends that I have noticed is there’s a tendency for leaders to put off having crucial conversations with people that are critical to organizational success.

Examples include:

  • Team members are operating as “lone rangers” instead of being part of the team
  • Employees improve their productivity for a couple of weeks and then backslide
  • Managers are not on the same page and send mixed messages
  • People are at odds with each other, and it is affecting productivity.
  • Unproductive employees are not contributing to daily objectives

If you are experiencing some of these common workplace situations, it can be very frustrating. You really don’t understand why these situations continue to occur. And on top of that, many times, these unproductive situations have been going on for years!

As a result, you stay below the radar and focus on trying to get your work done.

A Vicious Cycle

I was raised to avoid these uncomfortable and awkward situations with people in the workplace. I used to think, “Well, if I’m not a manager or directly involved, why should I speak up and try to make a difference?” This approach was not productive for me and certainly didn’t help others.

When people are being ineffective, it causes a downward spiral. An unproductive situation creates a vicious cycle that is very difficult to get out of and doesn’t get better with time. It gets worse.

The most common outcome of letting unproductive situations go results in the most talented people leaving the organization. Or, a person that is involved in an unproductive situation gets terminated because he or she was not developed or directly coached. In both cases, each outcome is very costly to the organization.

Viscious Cyale without Candid Conversations

Why do People Shy Away from Speaking Up?

The most common response I hear is people are afraid they will hurt someone’s feelings if they “tell it like it is.” The tendency among people in the workplace is to say, “Well, that is just John,” or “There isn’t anything I can do about the situation.”

Here’s another one, “If I tell my boss what I really feel, I will receive a repercussion. It won’t be worth bringing it up!”

In some cases, repercussions are real, but the majority are imagined. In reality, we choose to ignore situations that are affecting productivity because we want to avoid difficult conversations.

As a result of avoiding a needed conversation on the premise that things will get worse, we actually cause situations to worsen. This, in essence, is the definition of self-defeating behavior – the very thing we are avoiding is what we create.

Candid Conversations the Best Course of Action

The old saying, “honesty is the best policy,” applies to difficult situations. I am reminded of an exercise where you ask people this question: “If I was unhappy with your work, would you rather me come tell you directly or tell your boss?” Of course, people always respond with, “I would want you to come to tell me if I wasn’t doing my job.”

Why? Because direct communication builds trust and is the right thing to do. Not necessarily easy, but the right thing to do.

Have the Courage to be Candid

Each of us can make a breakthrough with people by being more candid. Candor is a communication skill where you speak openly, honestly, and directly about a situation with the intent to help.

By being candid with people, you are surfacing a situation in a fair, frank, firm, and friendly manner. Candor is a highly effective leadership skill to master. Add candor to your leadership toolbox, and you will find that being more candid is quite rewarding.

Serious Candid Conversation

Candor is Not Being Abrasive

Have you experienced some people that are so direct they are abrasive? Yes, any strength overused can become a weakness. An individual that effectively communicates with candor is an individual that comes across as clear and approachable.

Let’s use the four F’s (fair, frank, firm, and friendly) to remember how to package an effective, candid conversation.


Being fair means that you have removed any personal bias of the situation, and you are going direct with the subject matter based on evidence, not emotions.


When you speak frankly, you are communicating the situation at hand and how it is affecting productivity. Being frank means you are confident in bringing the situation to the forefront so the people involved may communicate, come up with solutions, and take action.


A firm communicator is one that doesn’t change his point of view based on people reacting or resisting his ideas. You will be tested by others to see if they can sway your perspective. Be firm and communicate the truth with the intent to help others.


A friendly communicator is one that has a pleasant and inspiring approach. Your body language communicates to others that you are at ease; you are interested in making things better and confident the people involved are interested in collectively solving an unproductive situation.

Do You Put Off Candid Conversations?

If you have ideas about candid conversations that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Success course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Mark Graybill says:

    Very good article Mary Kay. Not speaking up, AKA self-censorship is indeed a common pattern I’ve seen in some form or another at every organization I’ve consulted at. People may just feel the resistance within them and then consume conscious energy rationalizing why they feel they shouldn’t speak up. Probably one of the most obvious markers of the self-censorship dysfunction I’ve seen is with new members. Newbies often have less “credit” to dissent.

    I have seen this phenomenon in situations where critical thinking should be driving everyone’s thoughts – even in medical device engineering and patient care settings. On the flipside, one of the techniques I’ve seen is to ask questions that elicit the kind of answers one might have otherwise shared in dissent. The success indicator for this technique is when the group or author of the idea questions their own idea much like how a direct crucial conversation might ensue.

    As far as loosing talented people, such has been my observation as well – more pronounced in large organizations with a “thick” and implicit cultural heritage. I’ve once witnessed a new member of an organization who was a 30+ year veteran of the field but was marginalized by those with half the experience because all their experience was at that organization. Probably the organizations I’ve seen this phenomenon the most are those that reward tenure rather than productivity.

    One of my favorite books of all times is Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall. He introduces his book by sharing the puzzle of social morality that confronting him in his fieldwork. He captures the essence of the social pressures in the corporation – the moment by moment implicit rules people play by – where “politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion” become the real determinants of who succeeds and who fails.

    Enslavement to these implicit rules can be so instinctive to the human organism that when in context where a crucial conversation should happen we self-censor but know out of context even in advance that we should speak up. I believe these implicit rules are important determinants due to the fact they operate beneath our awareness, executing in neural structures evolved for a different environment and raising emotional alarms we have to spin up rationale for. They are largely incompatible with the conscious endeavors of corporate operations.

    Thus, knowing and then donning our own internal social system, I believe, is important groundwork leaders must accomplish.

  • Mark Graybill says:

    I’d prefer not to be the only one commenting but there is one more (brief) thought regarding why people might be afraid to speak up. It is along similar lines as what you mention about fear of retaliation. But before I do I think it is important to understand that the inner pressure may actually be far more primal.

    As an example, one state law journal lays out in an article why lawsuits against a major corporation in its small home town rarely result in the plaintiff’s favor.

    Research behind the article suggests the chances employees of this organization or their families end up on the jury are pretty high, and the article speculates further that many won’t vote against their company regardless of the facts. This can extend beyond fear into a more implicit instinct of increasing perceived belonging through loyalty.

    If such superstition can hold sway over employees off campus in a setting where duty to the law and to justice should trump loyalty, what sort of superstition may hold sway on campus? And we expect people to speak up against the group when it is far easier to give into the tendency to transfer accountability from oneself to the group? I’d place my bet with the probability on average silence and transfer is the game people play.

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