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The Delicate Balance of Constructive Communication

JW Way Fundamental #18: Speak Constructively 
“Address issues in a candid, direct, kind and respectful manner with those involved or affected. Be courageous enough to say what you believe should be said. Ask questions, share ideas, raise issues, and be open to responses. Make constructive suggestions in a way that helps make progress. When possible, speak in person rather than hiding behind e-mail or voicemail.”

This is one of my favorite fundamentals. We communicate with one another – and clients, opposing counsel, and the general public – every day, in some way, shape or form, so we should care about being good at it! It is important to read this fundamental as a whole, however, and not focus on any one phrase over another. 

I try to ask myself these questions when I interact with someone (paraphrasing the fundamental): is what I’m about to say kind/respectful? is what I’m about to say honest? is what I’m about to say moving the ball forward?  If I only asked myself one of these questions or always prioritized one over another, I would not be speaking as constructively as possible, maintaining healthy and professional relationships built on mutual trust, being genuine and authentic, or making as much forward progress as I could be.

If you prioritize being kind and respectful over honesty or progress—think failing to deliver hard news or constructive comments so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings—no one truly benefits in the long run, because nothing gets done or gets done in a better way. We discussed this issue during our Lean In meeting when we learned that failure to deliver constructive feedback to people (especially females) because you want to spare their feelings actually hurts professional development and long-term success. Don’t hold people or progress back because you are focused on sparing someone’s feelings.

Or you may decide to be honest, but disrespectful, in which case any progress that may otherwise be gained from the conversation will be hampered because the message may be lost and/or the relationship may be damaged—think “letting someone know how you really feel” about that maybe-not-so-great decision they recently made, only because it will make you feel better. You may think getting your feelings out made you feel better, but it can cause long-term damage that prevents future constructive discussions and progress because trust is lost. Tempering such honest conversations with kindness and empathy, with an eye toward how to move forward, benefits all parties.

Or you may try to be moving the ball forward, but without kindness or honesty, which may work in the short-term, but most often has devastating long-term consequences. Who wants to feel manipulated or be the receiver of harsh or unreasonable demands solely in the name of progress? If you justify your harsh mannerisms by telling yourself you are simply getting “stuff” done and being productive, you may not have a team left to assist you with any demands, whether they are reasonable or not, in the future. There are so many other fundamentals that help create an environment in which speaking constructively can be a reality, including and certainly not limited to: clarify and manage expectations, listen fully, act with integrity, leave your ego at the door, communicate to be understood, demonstrate respect, don’t be a jerk, practice blameless problem solving, and show heartfelt appreciation. But I think the most important fundamental that enables people to engage in constructive communication is “invest in relationships.” When you have trust, mutual respect, and a bank of positive “credit” to draw from, hard conversations will be much, much, easier.

This fundamental is about balancing: be kind, respectful, genuine, and authentic, and move the ball forward.  My hope is that each of us will always work to hone our ability to speak constructively.

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