Speaking Truth To Power

Here is a five-step process to assert yourself before powerful people.

By Brent Filson - 5/2007

If you earn a living, you’ll always come up against people who have power to effect your life, your job, and your career. It may be a boss, a colleague, a customer, a client.

At times, they may try to use their power to bully you and/or treat you unfairly.

How you deal with these people in those circumstances can determine how well you do in your life’s journey.

Make no mistake, in every circumstance, you have three choices: you can try to change them, you can accept them, or you can leave them. There’s no fourth choice.

I’m going to talk about the first choice, trying to change them – or if not change them at least change your relationship with them.

Generally speaking, the most effective way to make that change is to speak truth to them. In other words, assert yourself for who you are, what you believe, and what you need to do.

Such assertion, though necessary, is not sufficient to speak truth to power. You must also have that power accept your truth.

You and I have seen many people who, faced with overbearing power, react by retreating, getting angry, defensive, and uncommunicative.

However, if they employed these techniques, they can meet the person of power on common ground, establish a more workable relationship, and lay the groundwork for long term, mutually beneficial understanding.

First, you must recognize that your anger and frustration with the person, even if justified, won’t help you make consistent, long-lasting changes in your relationship.

Yes, at times a demonstration of anger can get the attention of the powerful and even have them temporarily alter their speech and actions. But as Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics: "Anyone can be angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, in the right way — that is not easy."

Ultimately, anger is a poor communication tool not just because of its commonly understood deficiencies—its unintended consequences, its being hard to control, its self-centered point of view—but mainly because it corrodes the vessel in which its contained.

People who are constantly angry or who use anger as a way to try to get people to do things have a hard time making those important human connections with people that are necessary when one speaks truth to power.

Second, in order to effectively speak truth to power, you must have an appreciation for the person who has the power. That does not mean you must like them or what they stand for or how they act. That does not mean you appreciate them to kowtow to them. You are not just understanding their point of view. You are genuinely appreciating it; and you are using that appreciation as a tool to establish a more equitable relationship.

The word "appreciation" comes from a Latin root meaning "to apprehend the value." In other words, your appreciation of difficult people of power must be centered on your genuine understanding of the value they offer.

Your preamble to speaking truth should be your telling the person why you appreciate him/her and why. You need not go on and on, a simple brief statement will suffice.

However, don’t make the preamble of appreciation seem as if you are trying to ingratiate yourself. You cannot speak truth if you are telling untruths or half-truths or have an ulterior motivate of trying to get into their good graces.

Three, ask questions: Your truth is best spoken from the mouth of the powerful. The way you get power to speak your truth is by asking questions.

Asking the question rather than using a declarative is usually more effective because it gets people reflecting upon their situation. We can’t motivate anyone to do anything. They have to motivate themselves. And they best motivate themselves when they reflect on their character and their situation.

The question prompts people to answer, and when they are answering, they may engage in such reflection. You may not like the answer; but often their answer, no matter what it is, is better in terms of advancing the relationship you aim to establish than your declaration.

Also, their answering the question may prompt them to think they have come up with a good idea. People are less enamored of your great ideas than they are of their ideas, even if those ideas are simply average.

The question mark, as opposed to the simple declarative, opens up a world of relationship-building possibilities.

Four, When speaking truth to power, provide choices. It is the rare person of power who wants to be told what to do. You’ll have a much better chance of getting your point across if you give options they can choose to accept or reject.

Your delineating options is the art of speaking truth to power. Here are guidelines: The options must be tied to their needs, not your needs. The options must be clear and agreed upon by both of you that they are relevant. The options must lead to the establishment of a more productive relationship.

Here, then, is the speaking truth to power process.

1) Deal With Anger.

2) Appreciate Whom You’re Speaking To.

3) Use Questions.

4) Provide Choices

This begs the question: What if the process doesn’t work? What if they don’t want to listen to your options? What if they insist on using their power to demean you and what you want to do?

In that case, we’re back to where we started. You have three choices: you can try to change them, you can accept them, or you can leave them. There’s no fourth choice.

Copyright 2007, The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved


5/2007© The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – Celebrating 25 years of helping leaders of top companies worldwide achieve outstanding results every day. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get his FREE report "7 Steps To Leadership Mastery"