The Courage to Speak Truth
Marisa Guerin, PhD – February 16, 2021
Most days don’t confront us with a high-stakes moment of truth. But if we are doing our jobs as parents, managers, politicians, consultants, citizens or workers, there will be times when being honest is both the right thing to do, and also a risky thing to do. Although this post isn’t focused on politics, Washington DC in the US is an example of a fishbowl in which we can observe just such dynamics – profiles in courage, and in the lack thereof.
Some of us face a truth-telling challenge more often than others, depending on our roles in life. For instance, I imagine that my friends who are attorneys have that experience quite often. I know that it arose regularly in the work that I did before I retired, which was consulting to organizational leaders; there were many days when my conversation with a client walked carefully but deliberately onto sensitive territory.
Neither I nor any of us is perfect, so I know we have all surely failed the “speak truth to power” test on occasion. But on other days, we can rally our courage and take the path that seems right, even if there might be some fallout from it that we’d just as soon avoid.
What makes it more possible to speak the truth with courage?
A grad school professor of mine once advised our class:
“If you want to be a good and successful consultant, keep three things in mind: (1) be good at what you do, (2) keep up your professional network, and (3) live beneath your means.” We looked puzzled – sure, be good at what we do, that’s logical. But why would having a good network and personal financial discipline have anything to do with the consulting work itself?
He went on to say:
“You can’t be a good consultant, a useful consultant, unless you can tell the client the painful truth that may be the nub of the problem. But since your client is paying the bills, he or she could fire you if they get angry with you. What to do? These three reminders help you to manage that dilemma. You will feel less at risk and more willing to speak up if you are confident that you can get another job (because you are good at what you do and because you have a good network) and if you know you can survive until that point (because you live beneath your means).”
To speak a difficult truth is to prove to the client that you can be trusted to say what must be said. If everyone can see the unmentionable “elephant in the room,” a consultant who CAN'T mention it is of little help to them. And here’s the kicker – if you are in fact willing and able to tell the client the hard truths that will help him or her, they are much LESS likely to fire you, since hardly anyone else can be trusted to be straight with people who hold power. Engaging the client honestly and with courage increases the safety in the relationship, paradoxically, because it increases the trust that the truth is being honored.
Forty years later, I can confirm from my own experience that my professor’s advice was sound – not just when I was earning my living as a consultant in private practice, but perhaps even more so earlier in my career when I was employed in the Training and Organization Development Department within a large corporation. It was my job then to provide consulting advice to line managers with much more formal authority than I had. Sometimes I wonder if the independence from the power politics that I had to display to become a trusted advisor became one of the factors that went into my promotion into senior management, before I left to start my own consulting business. I don’t know that for sure, but it’s possible.
You don’t have to be working as a consultant to managers in order to use the essence of this advice. The professor was basically saying to us: live prudently; trust your family, community, and support systems; be thoughtful and well-prepared for your work. When you have done what you can to safeguard your freedom to act with integrity, you will be ready to do so when push comes to shove. There may always be some peril there, but his point was that integrity and honesty are extremely valuable qualities and it is worthwhile cultivating the conditions that make it possible to practice them even when it feels risky.
Now, having raised the point that it is sometimes critical to be able to speak the truth, I feel moved to make the complementary point – that sometimes the path of wisdom or compassion is to keep silence. In this case, I don’t mean silence that is complicity in the face of something unethical or harmful. Rather, I mean that not everything in life requires that true judgment be publicly passed on it.
Maybe it’s only in my line of work that this has happened, but from time to time I come across people who for whatever reason are uncomfortably honest with everyone, about everything. Filters seem to be absent; context is ignored. Feedback is coming, whether it was asked for or not, whether it is going to make any difference or not. They might be offering truth, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
Even worse is speaking the truth to a third party who has nothing to do with the problem. I myself have a tendency to give my opinions fairly freely, but not always kindly. To help me keep my mouth closed, I remind myself of what my father said to me one Sunday morning after I railed for a while about something or other that I found wanting in the Church service. Dad said, “Well, the priest isn’t six feet tall, either.” And he said no more. I was ashamed, realizing from his few, well-chosen words that there is little point and less charity involved in critiquing things that probably aren’t easy to change. Much better to do something helpful, or bear with it, or move on.
The prudential wisdom involved in speaking truth or keeping one’s counsel is a daily practice, pretty much regardless of what life situation you are in. When our roles require that we speak truth in a risky setting, we can hope to have the personal sense of freedom to respond appropriately. When wisdom dictates otherwise, we may choose silence.
I’ve always liked the phrase, attributed to Socrates and used often by Quakers: “Speak only what is kind, true, or necessary.” It’s a very helpful phrase, and I think it bears pondering.