A senior leader recently told us over lunch that he had serious reservations about the changes being made in the organization where we are working together.


The organization has begun using principles and methods from the Authentic Conversations book and the workshop to build an adult culture of accountability. The broad premise is that if you want to change the culture, you must change the conversations. This requires clear intentions, commitments and new skills. He asked us this question: “Isn’t is necessary to trust someone in order to have authentic conversations with them? Otherwise you can’t really be open.”


It sounded to us like he was saying that in order to tell the truth with goodwill to others, he had to trust them first. “Did I get that right?” Jamie asked.


He agreed that was his position, and added that trust required getting to know people well, even outside of work, “and this is a big organization.”


We frequently hear this concern and others like it.  An undercurrent of fear runs through these statements: “I can’t be authentic unless I find a trusting environment in which to do it. And I’m still looking.” People think about authenticity and look outward, rather that recognizing that it is first a statement of who you want to be, and how you want to interact with others.


The fears surrounding telling the truth are not unfounded,. They reflect the experience many people have that being authentic in an organization is risky. People see a huge downside to telling the truth in an place where open disagreement could be seen by people in power as a form of mutiny. It’s easier, and feels safer, to disagree in silence and use nonverbal forms of resistance in a futile attempt to make disagreement invisible.


Authentic conversations will build trust, because it’s impossible to be authentic without telling the truth. But the wish is for others to earn our trust before we start telling them the truth — the old “you go first” conundrum.


Building trust isn’t really that difficult if you tell the truth with goodwill and follow through with what you say. If the other person doesn’t reciprocate, you can choose to confront the issues directly, non-judgmentally and with goodwill — but it doesn’t affect your ability to be transparent unless you allow it to.


When we said this to him, he said he needed time to think about it. The conversation reflected an understandable vulnerability. Everyone longs for safety. We want to know that taking a risk will reap a reward.


Unfortunately, the only way we know how to build trust it to be the one who goes first.