Trust Tip 12: Telling Tough Truths

(Apologies to those who get my blog by email: you got it 3 times. Cause? Human error—mine. The link is live now, and I won’t make that mistake again.)

Truth-telling is easy with little at stake. If we’re asked at a party, “How long have you been with XYZ,” we’ll answer, “almost six months.”

But if a prospective client asks us, enquiring about our credentials, “How long have you been with XYZ?” we’re tempted to say, “oh, a bit under a year.”

The more at stake, the more we manage, spin, tweak, massage and control the truth. After all, the tough situations demand that we put our best foot forward, make sure the client is fully informed about the full breadth of our capabilities. And we’d hate to lose the job for not appearing confident and aggressive about our abilities and our desires.

Yet our instincts here are dead wrong.

When there’s more at stake, the value of direct truth-telling is higher, and the risk lower, than the course of “managing” the truth.

Here’s why, and how.

Choose an issue critical to your client. Do you have the experience to help? Do you have the capabilities? The industry knowledge? The judgment? The connections? A solid methodology?

Clients want answers to these questions because they believe they affect work quality. Clients need to feel confident in their assessments of you. If you speak the truth, you help them gain that confidence in their assessment. If you are perceived to be “managing” the truth, they will have less confidence in their assessments.

They will also be annoyed at your attempt to put your interest ahead of theirs. That leads to still less trust.

Truth-managing thus decreases client satisfaction and trust. Straight truth-telling enhances both.

“Hey, hang on a minute—we’re trying to get the job!”

Managing the truth has two likely outcomes. You may get the job—then run the risk of not living up to expectations. Or, you lose it because they felt you were stretching the truth.

The first is pretty bad, but less common than we think, because we’re not as good as we think at fooling clients. But the second is bad too—it ruins our reputation and future prospects.

By contrast, if you tell the truth and get the job, then the client has chosen you for exactly what you claim to be. You start off with a sound and truthful relationship, instead of endlessly managing expectations.

If you tell truth and don’t get the job, you’ll probably get straight feedback about why you didn’t get it. Truth-stretching firms don’t get such feedback.

More importantly, you walk out with a reputation for truth-telling. This increases your likelihood of being called back when they need just what you have, and of getting positive referrals.

How do you tell the straight-up truth when all your instincts say to tweak it?

Meditate, then rehearse.

Meditate on all the reasons above why you’re better off telling the truth. Don’t just learn them, believe them.

Find your own one-liner responses to the tough questions: they can be cute, or funny, or neither. The one thing they must be is straightforwardly truthful.

The key is the meditation, not the rehearsal. Once you believe and accept that truth-telling is a best practice, the rehearsal becomes easy.

Because it takes remarkably less energy to speak the truth than to speak any other version of reality.



0 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    also, when you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said…

    During self-reflection, your meditation, I would suggest asking one’s self the deeper, self-revealing question; "What’s right about not telling the truth?" (hint: don’t respond with "nothing"…else one would tell the truth right off, so there must be something "right" about not doing so). So, ask the question and answer it, and ask it again and answer it again, over and over; if done with honesty (hmmm, the truth), sincerity and self-responsibility, much can and will be revealed that points to real root causes of why I choose to lie. Lying is a choice, conscious or unconscious.

  2. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Charlie – Your post got me thinking about one of the places where many people stretch the truth: on their resumes. It’s so easy to con yourself into saying "managed" when in truth you just "worked on," to say "led" when in truth you really "followed." Especially when you’ve just been handed the list of resume "action verbs" to use. (I’m embarassed to say I’ve probably told a few of these little-white-resume-lies at some point or another.)

    I’ve seen it at all levels. Once a very junior person in my group was laid off, and asked me to proof her resume for her.  She had wildly inflated what she’d actually done. I got her to realize that she wasn’t doing herself (or anyone else) a favor by overstating her experience – and underscored it by telling her that I couldn’t act as a reference for her for the level of position her resume suggested she might be well qualified for.

    On the other end of the experience chain, I’m always reading the blurbs about senior level folks that state "Joe Blow held executive level positions at every company he ever worked for", which can’t possibly be true.

    As Peter noted, one great thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you said…

  3. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Peter.  Lying is too much work because you have to keep the lies straight in your head.  Anais Nin famously kept a "lie diary" so she could keep all the stories she was telling straight, but most of us aren’t that dedicated to lying, and we will inevitably trip up.

    I won’t say I never lie, but I very rarely do and  one rule for lying is that lies must be the  same to everyone – once you have to start keeping multiple sets of lies straight in your head (what did I tell George as compared to what I told Fred?) you’re sunk.  (It’s also easier to catch you if there are inconsistent stories out there.  If you’re going to lie, do it well, and don’t live inconsistencies out there to trip you up.)


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