The 3 Levels of Honest Communication—and How to Rise to the Top

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Steven GaffneySteven Gaffney, CEO & President, Steven Gaffney Company

When it comes to successful business relationships, everyone knows communication is key. Even so, most organizations are sorely missing the right kind. Honest communication is crucial to building strong, healthy relationships in business—but it’s also increasingly rare.

The evidence is striking: 80% of all work problems can be traced to a lack of open, honest communication. When employees, colleagues, and executives don’t say what’s on their minds, the entire company suffers. How can managers help their teams succeed if employees never share their top challenges? How can CEOs lead effectively if no one gives them honest feedback?

Simply put, they can’t.

It’s easy to understand the concept of “getting the unsaid, said.” But it’s much more difficult to implement this idea in day-to-day business life. That’s where the 3 levels of honest communication—reactive, proactive, and foreshadowing—can help dramatically.

Read on to learn exactly how.

Identifying the 3 Levels of Honest Communication
Honest communication exists on a sliding scale: Some organizations are better at it than others, and there’s always room to improve. Once organizations can identify the different levels of honest communication, they can gauge their current approach—and start to move up to the next level. Take a look:

The 3 Levels of Honest Communication—and How to Rise to the Top

It’s no surprise that being “shut down” is at the bottom of the communication totem pole. At this level, people don’t make any attempt to communicate honestly. They don’t share their thoughts, even when asked, and they resist engaging in conversations that might require their opinion.

From here, there’s nowhere to go but up. The first stop? Reactive honesty.

Level 1: Reactive Honesty
Reactive honesty is the most basic level of honest communication, and it’s where the majority of organizations find themselves. Here are the two defining qualities of reactive honesty:

  • People wait to share their ideas until someone specifically asks for them
  • People will be honest once asked, but otherwise keep information to themselves

In the world of reactive honesty, it’s common for business problems to spin out of control before anyone tells the person in charge. At that point, a manager might ask, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?!” and employees will likely respond, “You never asked us and we didn’t know if it was any of our business.”

If this exchange sounds familiar, then your organization is operating at the basic level of reactive honesty.

Level 2: Proactive Honesty
The next step up is proactive honesty, where people are proactive about communicating honestly with colleagues, managers, and executives alike. If your organization practices proactive honesty, here’s what it looks like:

  • People share their opinions and ideas freely, without prompting
  • Issues are proactively discussed, before major problems arise

Proactive honesty is a good place for organizations to be—but there’s still room to improve.

Level 3: Foreshadowing Honesty
This is the “gold standard” of honest communication. In addition to sharing ideas or concerns on a proactive basis, foreshadowing honesty also includes predicting future problems or opportunities. At this level, people do the following:

  • Openly discuss potential problems that might occur down the road
  • Constantly think ahead, sharing ideas that might help in the future

With foreshadowing honesty, people communicate both proactively and predictively about key areas of the business. It’s a recipe for success that builds robust relationships founded on openness and trust.

5 Keys to Achieving Foreshadowing Honesty
So, how can your organization achieve the gold standard of honest communication?

Maybe your business relationships are currently governed by reactive or proactive honesty—or perhaps certain people in your organization are totally shut down. No matter your current level of honest communication, there are several key elements that can propel your entire team to move up the ladder.

The following 5 factors must be in place at any organization in order to achieve foreshadowing honesty:

The 3 Levels of Honest Communication—and How to Rise to the Top - Risk Tolerance

  1. A safe environment is key to moving up the communication ladder. If people don’t feel safe, they won’t share their ideas or opinions—it’s as simple as that. Employees need to feel confident that they won’t be penalized or ostracized for sharing unpopular ideas or negative feedback. The organization should be a “safe space” where people can share their thoughts without fear of retribution.
  2. Benefits or rewards. There must be a clear benefit or reward to speaking openly and honestly with colleagues, managers, or executives. For example, if employees see that being open about their challenges creates positive change in their day-to-day lives, they’ll continue to share ideas. When there’s tangible value in being honest at an organization, people are far more likely to speak out.
  3. Quality time. Actual quality time must be set aside for honest communication. Otherwise, it’s impossible to reach the level of foreshadowing honesty. Organizations should spend substantial amounts of time discussing issues and listening to concerns, rather than simply “debriefing” employees in short meetings. The more quality time is spent on honest communication, the more ideas will be shared.
  4. Open-ended questions. It might sound simple, but asking open-ended questions is crucial for foreshadowing honesty. People are most likely to share ideas or talk about challenges if they’re asked open-ended questions that foster discussion.
  5. Risk tolerance. In a risk-averse environment, people are more likely to shut down. If your organization embraces risk instead, then employees will be more willing to predict or foreshadow potential problems and opportunities. A culture of risk tolerance promotes the free sharing of information and ideas, because people aren’t afraid to rock the boat.

The 3 Levels of Honest Communication—and How to Rise to the Top -Honesty WorksHow Foreshadowing Honesty Can Grow Your Business
Within organizations, foreshadowing honesty can transform internal communication for healthier relationships between employees, colleagues, managers, and executives. But it’s also a powerful tool to improve external communication with customers.

In fact, practicing foreshadowing honesty with customers can quickly grow any business.

Think about it this way: If an organization is reactively honest, it doesn’t give customers what they need until they ask for it. If an organization is proactively honest, it works proactively to tell customers what they need, and then delivers. But an organization that practices foreshadowing honesty takes this relationship to the next level by predicting what the customer might want in the future.

When organizations use this model, customer relationships are continuously improved. Even if there’s nothing currently wrong with a customer relationship, foreshadowing honesty enables organizations to get ahead of potential problems­—and create future opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

This is a giant leap beyond typical customer communication, which begins and ends with the interaction at hand.

Learning to identify your organization’s current level of honest communication—both externally and internally—can be a catalyst for powerful change. How can your employees, managers, and executives climb the ladder toward foreshadowing honesty? What key factors is your organization missing that could propel your teams to the highest rung of honest communication?

Start to answer these questions, and you’re already on your way to the top.

 

 About the Author: Steven Gaffney is a leading expert on honest, interpersonal communication, team performance, leadership, and change management. He has worked with numerous Fortune 500 organizations to increase revenue and drive profit, as well as with many governmental agencies to better allocate resources and taxpayer dollars. Thousands credit Gaffney’s seminars, media appearances, books, and products with making immediate and lasting changes in both their organizations and personal lives. He is also the author of two groundbreaking books, Just Be Honest and Honesty Works, and the co-author of Honesty Sells. For more information on Steven Gaffney, please visit www.stevengaffney.com. 

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