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How to be honest without ruining relationships

Brands that “keep it real” are grabbing the spotlight in mainstream media. San Francisco's primary public transit system agreed with passengers over Twitter that their cars are outdated and Yellowstone National Park candidly shared the events leading to the euthanization of a baby bison in its park. Both of these exchanges made global news, not just because of the topic of conversation, but because of the honesty displayed by the brand.

Empassioned Twitter exchanges like: “.@SFBART we've come to expect rush-hour equipment problems and train delays from you. what you're saying is that today ends with '-day'."

"@shakatron BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of our useful life. This is our reality,” show a candor and honesty uncommon in business-to-customer conversations.

It's an uncommon openness that customers clearly want. When BART apologized in the first tweet—a typical brand response to complaints, the Tweet garnered 98 likes. But when it admitted to the frustrating reality of the transit situation in the second tweet, it received 1,541 likes. Customers want real, honest communication.

But honesty is not easy. Honesty requires us to be vulnerable and to face fear. It requires us to be real about what's happening in the moment instead of trying to pretend that things are going a certain way. And it requires a lot of skills, says Max Dickins, a UK-based comedic actor and author. Fortunately, these are skills that one can learn in Max's field of expertise—improv.

According to Max, who does improv training for brands including Apple, Tesco, and BBC, improv gives you the skills and mindset to have a brilliant and honest approach to your entire life. Max talked with us before Relate Live London on how improv can improve your life, how to get started, and what a culture of honesty can bring to the workplace.


How does improv teach honesty?

One thing that helps improvisers be really honest, and reveal of themselves is the improv culture of unconditional support.

Sometimes those cultures don’t exist in the workplace. What do you do then?

It's the responsibility of leaders to make a supportive culture. Have a "Yes, and..." culture, a supportive culture that allows people to speak up without fear of being criticized, or censored, or embarrassed.

In a work situation, a great way of doing it, is Pixar’s model. They have a thing every morning called, "Shredding," where all of the designers and story writers get together and present their work from the previous day. Everyone's allowed to criticize it. They're allowed to be rude about it, and say, "This doesn't work, this doesn't work," but they also have this simultaneous idea called, "Plussing," where if you criticize, you have to add a plus, you have to add a solution. "This is how you solve that problem. This is what makes your work better.”

There's criticism, but it comes with support.

What can someone do to get over their fears of being honest and vulnerable at work?

Know that people relate to people when they're being real, and authentic, and you cannot relate, and build a great relationship without being vulnerable, and personal. So often, in business, everyone is busy trying to be clever, and they'll talk about a fascinating idea they've seen, a book they've read, and they'll forget to do the most basic thing, which is almost to reveal the elephant in the room. How did that make you feel? What was your initial, obvious thought to that? So much creative capital gets missed, because we're so busy trying to be clever without doing the basics where we're just being real, and human.

Know that people relate to people when they're being real, and authentic, and you cannot relate, and build a great relationship without being vulnerable, and personal. - Max Dickins

Try improv for yourself

If you are interested in trying improv, but feeling a bit of stage-fright, Max has a few tips:

  • Surprise! You already know how to improvise. It’s true. Anytime you answer a curve-ball question in a meeting, strike up an unplanned conversation, or blurt out an idea, you are improvising.

  • Surprise, again! You are naturally interesting. You don't need to be good, or clever, or funny, or interesting. Laughter comes from truth. If you reveal the truth about your own life, and your own specifics, it will make people laugh, and people will find it interesting.

What are other improv skills that can help you be more genuine in your daily life?

Listening. I think That's an improv idea. You have to let yourself be changed. You don't try and control the agenda. Instead, you're co-creating the reality in real-time, and you allow yourself to be changed by the other person.

How many conversations are there where two people are saying exactly what they want to get out of the conversation, and it never quite meets? They're not being rude to each other, but the two lines of thought never interact, and the two people are never forced to change the other person's reality.

You have to let yourself be changed. You don't try and control the agenda. Instead, you're co-creating the reality in real-time, and you allow yourself to be changed by the other person. - Max Dickins

Trust the moment. There's an idea in improv, that the scene is smarter than you. What you think the scene is about at the start is probably won't be what it's about. The scene will give you the answer of where it needs to go. Same with writing a book. Authors don't start often, with the ends in their heads. The book will tell you what it is, what the book's about, and it will emerge in real time.

The same in conversations. Don't go in, and prejudge, and try, and control it. The answer will emerge in real time. The conversation will tell you what it's about.

Be changed. It's not enough just to listen. It's also important that you use what you've heard, and recycle it into what you're saying. Then, that comes again into the idea of, "Yes, and..."

Saying, "Yes," is not the same as agreement, it's acceptance: "I'm accepting that's what you think." Say, "Yes, and..." and you add something to it. "And this is what I can do about it." It's not just listening. You've got to really use what's said.

People go into conversations thinking, "I know exactly what I'm going to say." They forget that the interaction is evolving in real time, so it's a completely different way of looking at the world. You're letting it happen, rather than forcing it.

Remove the BS. In customer service, sometimes you ring up customer service people, and it's like they're putting their customer service's voice on. They talk in language that no one uses; they're clearly using sentences that have been given by a trainer, and you hate them, straight away.

People have got amazing BS radars, they're like, "I can smell this isn't real." But sometimes we ring up customer service, and they act like people. I rang up someone from a phone company, and they've got a call center in Ireland, and the guy on the phone was just talking to me like we were in the pub, and I just liked him straight away. I couldn't explain why, because they'd treated me quite badly in the company, but I didn't care anymore, because I thought, "Oh, it's not his fault. I like this guy." It's how you communicate.

Focus on the good. There’s a famous improv quote, by Del Close, “If we treat each other like geniuses and poets, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” That’s a great mentality to have in work and life. I suppose it's seeing people as a network of strengths and weaknesses, and making sure that you see the strengths, and not get obsessed about the weaknesses.

I suppose it's seeing people as a network of strengths, and weaknesses, and making sure that you see the strengths, and not get obsessed about the weaknesses. - Max Dickins

With customer services, for instance, it’s a cop-out to say, “Well that customer is negative.” You have to do your best in that moment. There's no excuse not to use everything we've spoken about to try. Can you get along with everyone, based on these improv principles? No, because it requires two to tango. But, I can guarantee that if you use those things,


It’s been said many ways: “The truth will set you free,” “Honesty is the best policy,” or my personal favorite from Wonder Woman, “Embrace your truth, my friend.” However you say it, there is real power in honesty when it comes from a supportive place.

It’s the friend who tells you, without judgment, that you’ve got spinach in your teeth. The manager who respectfully explains what you can be doing better. The customer service representative that has a genuine conversation with you. All these people are speaking honestly, and even though it might not be news you want to hear, it’s at least the truth. At work, in our personal lives, and in our relationships with customers, honesty builds trust. And trust is what builds long-term, fulfilling relationships.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.

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