We've gotten radical candor wrong.
A short guide to getting it right.
Radical candor is a communication philosophy, popularized by Kim Scott in her best-selling book of the same name, that emphasizes the importance of being honest and direct with feedback, while also demonstrating a genuine concern for the well-being of the person receiving the feedback. In simpler terms, it's about being kind and clear while giving feedback.
While radical candor is usually talked about in terms of the workplace, it’s equally as powerful in personal relationships when applied correctly. But in my own experience and the experience of many people I know, there are two very common ways that we get radical candor wrong, both of which do more harm than good.
Emphasizing candor while downplaying kindness, aka being an as*hole.
When we’re candid with someone without taking their emotions into account, we’re simultaneously dropping a bomb into their psyche while wasting our own breath. If a candid message isn’t delivered with kindness and empathy, the other person’s brain shuts down to the message before it’s fully out of our mouth. We may still be talking, but they certainly aren’t listening. Instead, they’re going through the mental gymnastics of the diagram above.
Trust is lost. And the door to future candid conversations closes.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place in life for being blunt. Sometimes that’s the only way to get through to someone. But if that’s our default position instead of our last option, we’re not using radical candor. We’re just being an as*hole.
Emphasizing kindness while downplaying candor, aka ruinous empathy.
The other end of the spectrum is being kind and empathetic at the expense of saying the things that need to be said. And it can be as equally unhelpful and harmful to the receiver as blunt feedback is.
Instead of having a bomb dropped in their psyche, the person receiving ruinous empathy doesn’t have any clarity over what they’re doing wrong or where they can improve. They’re sold a lie. And they’re sold a lie by someone that they depend on for insight into where they stand. The bomb is still dropped. It’s just delayed until some point in the future when something that could have been resolved with radical candor builds to its breaking point.
The same trust is lost. The same door closes.
If being an as*hole and ruinous empathy bookend the spectrum of how we get radical candor wrong, what’s a practical approach to getting it right - to finding the sweet spot in the middle where real progress is made?
Get to the point. People are smart and sense where a conversation is going. Don’t beat around the bush - no feedback sandwiches where we deliver hard feedback between two slices of positive feedback. The other person sniffs that out to the point of losing credibility. Instead, just come out with it.
Control your own emotions. Be calm. Deliver the message with a level of kindness that you’d apply to a friend or your grandma. Your tone doesn’t have to be harsh just because you’re being candid. People naturally respond to the emotions of the person they’re talking with. If you can’t control your own emotions, don’t expect them to control theirs.
Get curious. Humans aren’t robots. There are always reasons behind the situation. Inputs and outputs. Get curious about what those reasons are. Ask. And ask with the intention of understanding. That means listening with the intent of helping them solve the problem.
Anchor on accountability. If you’ve delivered the message with radical candor, and you’ve listened well to understand the situation, move the conversation to taking action. If you offer to help them resolve it, hold yourself accountable to what you offered. If they offer specific actions to help resolve it, hold them accountable to those actions. This might be the most radical part of radical candor, because it’s so rare. Trust and accountability are intimately intertwined. Don’t neglect holding yourself and others to a high standard.
And lastly, radical candor isn’t a moment in time. It’s an operating manual for our day to day relationships at work and at home. Applying it once is hard. Applying it twice is easy. And applying it regularly is where the magic happens.