He who dares not offend cannot be honest

From Incite 18: building better relationships

We all know that good romantic relationships require trust and emotional honesty- the ability to be open about your feelings with someone you trust who will appreciate what you say and not disregard it or use it against you. This principle can be applied for establishing good professional relationships as well, although the idea is more daunting.

Many employees find it difficult to be honest with both their colleagues and their superiors. As research staff, where there are clear common goals – managing students, enabling high-quality research, and of course publishing– this idea can seem especially difficult. Every task is inherently linked to advancing the research – so how can you complain about something without jeopardising the ultimate research goals?

When something isn’t quite working, being more open with our colleagues about our concerns can be a useful approach. In principle, being more emotionally honest can be a powerful way of not only resolving a difficult work situation but also improving a professional relationship in general. You need to calmly explain how a situation is affecting you, whether it is workload anxiety or an attitude problem.

Many people think being more open could make them appear weak or incapable, that sharing their feelings will lead to some form of rejection or judgement, or that they may upset or offend people. Surprisingly often, this is not the case, but even when it is, so what? It’s a risk worth exploring, although it is true that “he who dares not offend cannot be honest” (Thomas Paine). At work we generally try and adopt a ‘professional persona’, devoid of emotions. But actually, showing some of your true feelings can be quite disarming and can therefore be a strong tool to bring about rapid change.

Many of us will find the idea daunting, especially with our supervisors, but the exercise can be very rewarding. If something is making you stressed, angry or upset, first consider that people simply might not know about it. Don’t expect people to be mind readers: if you can be more honest at work, and people can better understand you and how you work, outcomes can be more positive. Conflict is a lot more avoidable when a group of colleagues have a good understanding of how each other thinks. Being more open can also give us a stronger sense of integrity because there’s a lesser sense of pretending.

There is, of course, a caveat: if we want to be heard by others, we also need to listen more to others. If people are being honest with you about a problem, listen to them, think about things calmly, and talk through with them how to improve the situation– because as much as we have problems with others, they can also have problems with us.

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