Frequently friends, family, clients and colleagues call on us for advice. They usually begin, “I really need to have an authentic conversation with my boss/colleague/sibling/child.” And though that is what they say, what they typically mean is they want to discuss something that both parties will likely find unpleasant.


We see this phenomenon in our work with clients as well.  An “authentic conversation” suddenly becomes code for: “Brace yourself. I am going unload on you in a way you’re probably not going to like.” Brutal honesty, if you will.


This viewpoint of authentic conversations is not too surprising in organizations, considering the avoidance of conversation that foster adult cultures characterized by commitment, accountability, purpose and meaning. Telling the truth has often been seen as dangerous, even subversive. And the people at the top — those who have the most organizational power — often have viewed suspiciously the notion of transparency, building business literacy and true collaboration.


Historically, organizations have seen people as objects, as opposed to the complex, thinking individuals they are. That opens the door for manipulative conversations, and disregards the fact people always choose how they will engage the organization.


Writing “Authentic Conversations” doesn’t make us the make us the conversation police – nor is it a role to which we would ever aspire. Even so, we want to dispel the idea that “authentic” and “brutal honesty” are the same thing. Honesty should never be modified by the word brutal.


If we had to sum up an authentic conversation in one sentence, it would be this: “Telling the truth as you know it, with goodwill and curiosity about another’s point of view.”

While we do advocate raising difficult issues — always with goodwill — it is with an eye toward collaborating on a solution that is good for everyone. If you enter a conversation with the intention of dumping on someone, or “winning” them over to your point of view, authenticity is not really the goal.


When I am conversing authentically, I am willing to name my contribution to the difficult issues. I listen for understanding so that I can take and support the validity of other’s point of view — even if I don’t agree with it. Instead of insisting on my own way, I frame choices as a way of resolving issues, and invite others to do the same. I maintain goodwill even if it’s not returned.


Authentic conversations happen when we see others as our partners and collaborators. It means caring as much about the success of other people as we do our own. And it means considering what is good for the whole enterprise instead of focusing only on our individual or departmental needs. Authenticity is about connection and communication, not emotionally dumping or vanquishing the opposition.


So instead of announcing that you want to have an “authentic conversation” with someone, why not just have a conversation — and engage others authentically?