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Paul Laughlin


Succeeding at Difficult Conversations With Radical Candor

A book review for current times

Published: Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 11:02

During this time of teams being physically apart, it is easy for leaders to avoid difficult conversations. Empathy and compassion from leaders matters at this time, but you will not be serving your team if you use this as an excuse to avoid all criticism or challenging feedback.

I am hearing from a number of my clients who value some help on having more challenging conversations. For that reason, I am pleased to share another book recommendation. This review covers a book that I have found provides a very useful model.

In her very popular book, Radical Candor (St. Martin's Press, revised edition, 2019), Kim Scott shares a model developed during her own experience working at Google and Apple, as well as coaching CEOs in a number of successful start-ups.

It’s an easy read, although it will provide you with plenty of challenge to put the theory into action. Let me walk you through the key concepts and recommended steps.

Radical candor

At the heart of this book is the model that Scott presents to help define the term “radical candor” (or candour, for my UK audience).

This term and its relevance to having difficult conversations is defined by considering two dimensions in a 2 × 2 matrix. On the horizontal axis, you have the need for challenge directly (rather than avoiding saying anything, or moaning to others, at the other extreme). On the vertical axis, you have the need to care personally (rather than attacking verbally just to win, at the other extreme).

This model is best understood visually:

Radical Candor four-quadrant model (from Kim Scott)

Hopefully, you can see that this definition of challenging conversations that can help (the radical candor quadrant) is useful in avoiding common mistakes. Scott emphasizes in the book that radical candor is not “brutal honesty” or “obnoxious aggression,” as distinguished above.

However, Scott also highlights (rightly, in my view) that a more common misstep is to back off a challenge that is needed for fear of hurting someone’s feelings or in response to emotion. That pitfall is defined as “ruinous empathy” and is a mistake I’ve made in the past.

Start by learning to take it yourself

Moving on to putting that model into practice, this book recommends first experiencing being the recipient of criticism. In other words, by soliciting candid feedback.

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Yet most bosses will acknowledge that they rarely hear critical feedback from their peers or team that will help them improve. But unless we have the emotional-intelligence aid experiencing how it feels to receive this, we are unlikely to be suitably nuanced in communicating it to others.

Helpfully, the book tackles that challenge head-on with another model to guide you in requesting criticism. Scott proposes the following four steps:
1. Ask a go-to question.
2. Embrace the discomfort.
3. Listen with the intent to understand, not respond.
4. Reward the candor.

As an executive coach myself, I can see so much coaching wisdom in each of these steps. Practicing asking open questions that cannot be answered superficially, getting comfortable with silence, silencing your inner defenses, and offering appreciation even if it hurts.

Readers could learn so much from this book, even if they only became skilled at putting this part into action.

Praising can be difficult, too

When hearing the common term, “difficult conversations,” it is tempting to always think of giving or receiving criticism. But it can be just as challenging to deliver praise in an effective way.

As Scott highlights, it is too easy either to remain so high-level with praise that it does not help the hearer and comes across as insincere or “just saying that.”

This book has a framework to help you provide more effective praise. It uses the acronym of COR:
Context: What is the context for your feedback?
Observation: Describe what the person did and/or said.
Result: What is the positive consequence that is most meaningful to you and them?

A simple formulation, but following that guidance can make such a difference in communicating praise that people take on board.

Mastering criticizing productively

The book does go on to what readers probably expected guidance about: how to challenge someone or communicate criticism to him in a way that is helpful. That balance was described in Scott’s initial model, of challenging directly while also caring personally (i.e., challenge to help them).

Here, too, Scott provides a model/framework/acronym. It is labeled as HIP, but really it’s the slightly more clunky HHIIPN:
Humble: Realize it is only your perspective.
Helpful: Make sure your goal is to help the person.
Immediate: Provide as close as possible to the event
In person: Where possible, meet in person.
Private: Find a private place away from others.
Not about personality: Be specific, focus on behavior, not motive.

Once again, a helpful guide in a book packed with practical suggestions and examples from the rough-and-tumble of office life.

Are you having difficult conversations?

I hope this review encourages you both to read the book and put this advice into practice.

Do you agree that difficult conversations are being neglected? Have you ever been trained how to do this well? How are you managing to still have these types of conversations when working from home?

I look forward to hearing your experiences and advice.

First published June 5, 2020, on the Customer Insight Leader blog.


About The Author

Paul Laughlin’s picture

Paul Laughlin

Paul Laughlin is a speaker, writer, blogger, Customer Insight enthusiast, and the founder and managing director of Laughlin Consultancy.