When Arrogance Feigns Humility

At my seminars, one of the actions I suggest to increase perceived trustworthiness is to speak truthfully.

Sounds great in principle, until you get into just which truths you discuss.

Speaking conventional, obvious truths (“how ‘bout them Bulls”)  doesn’t do much to create either distinction or deeper trust. Hence the usefulness of talking about things that don’t get said by others (“Joe, I’m sensing some hesitation here—is that right?”).

At this point, attendees often raise the issue of propriety, as in, “Some things should best be left unsaid—you don’t want to embarrass people or make them uncomfortable.  And if people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, they’re not likely to trust you anyway.”

I tell them my experience is that most businesspeople don’t suffer from telling too much truth, but from telling too little. And so on. We generally have good discussions about the issue.

But occasionally that discussion goes to a higher plane. So it was recently, when an attendee and I talked at a break:

“I buy what you’re saying about our general hesitation to take personal risks in the workplace,” she said, “and you’re right—we’re making the client take the hit for our own insecurities.”

“But what about those cases where it’s actually true? Where to hear something really would be upsetting to the client, even if it’s true, and potentially important for them. Maybe it’s an issue I’m not totally sure of.  Maybe it’s a situation where I can get by with just saying most of the truth; or maybe the risk of embarrassment to me truly does exceed the benefit of truth-telling to the client. Aren’t you really helping the client by taking into account what you know of their reactions and ability to hear tough truths, and packaging them accordingly?”

I thought to myself, “Those are good questions: and we do have an obligation to our clients to say important things in ways they can hear them. But we have another obligation, to figure out how to say those tough truths, rather than deep-six them.”

Yet, how to say that to this thoughtful and insightful person?

I suddenly remembered a wonderful quote from Martha Graham

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

I said to the participant, “I’m sure you don’t think of it this way, but is it conceivable that your genuinely good intentions and insights are nonetheless making you behave arrogantly? In the sense that you are depriving your client of the right to make this decision for him- or herself? And if you don’t trust your client to handle the truth–doesn’t that ultimately degrade their trust in you as well?”

I didn’t need to elaborate.  She reacted immediately with shock at the suggestion that she, a most pleasant person, could conceivably be thought arrogant; but in half a second I saw quickly saw in her eyes that she ‘got’ it, and understood the meaning, and the truth, of the question.

Then, I think, she smiled a bit. Which, I suspect, Martha Graham would have appreciated.