Real Talk: How to Share Hard Truths With Your Team
This article was written by Olivia Vagelos. Olivia is an experiential, instructional, and community designer at IDEO’s Play Lab. She works to build transformative spaces, relationships, and systems that empower people to be creative agents of change. She believes laughter and questions build the most beautiful things.
Illustrations by Manuela Santos.
You have something difficult to share with your team. We’ve all found ourselves in that uncomfortable place. Maybe it’s an insight that challenges something your organization holds sacred. Perhaps it’s a story from someone you interviewed during research that makes you realize you’ve done harm. Or some numbers that really don’t look good.
So how do you share difficult information in a way that can actually be received? So that those who need to hear it can? So that it can be integrated and acted upon?
I’m an experience designer at IDEO’s Play Lab, a group working to leverage the psychology of play to enable meaningful, positive behavior change and create joyful products and experiences across industries and systems.
But put simply, I consider my job to be designing for feelings—building transformational experiences that elevate and design for the complexities of being human. This is not just designing for fun or designing for entertainment, though I do that too. It’s also about designing for complicated, hard, friction-full moments. Those places of tension are often the ripest opportunities for growth.
My advice is this: consider your delivery of difficult information an experience to be designed. Set the conditions, leverage structure, and most importantly, create space for emotion.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting into messy truths.
Step 1: Prime your audience to be curious
Before you deliver whatever it is you have to deliver, take the time to get people into a more open-minded headspace. If you don’t, chances are they’ll react defensively, shutting down and shutting you or the information out.
I hold the strong belief that warm-ups, activities that help prime the mindsets we need for what comes next, are one of the most critical elements of doing creative, collaborative work.
Your goal? To get folks already leaning in, open, and willing to be challenged before you engage the hard content.
Before you deliver the difficult stuff, have everyone take a moment to consider and share (aloud or in the video chat) their favorite question that helps them go deeper in a conversation. Give a few examples to kickstart them. Maybe it’s “Why?” like every five-year-old. Or perhaps “Huh, can you tell me more about that?” Or “Help me understand?”
This stacks the deck for you. It brings these questions to the forefront of your audience’s mind and places them on the tips of their tongues.
Step 2: Speak the hard truths, and ground it in the humans
Deliver the story. Share the insight. Give the numbers. But when you do, consider how you might bring this to life in a way that centers the humans at the core of the work. Who is this all in service of, and how might you ground in their needs?
This helps the team sit on the same side of the table, collectively looking at a shared purpose. Rather than using fear or shame as a motivator, this sets people up to receive the information more openly because it reminds them why they are there. It makes it not about the team or individuals and their potential failure, but orients around aspiration and inspiration.
Is there something you have heard directly from a user that you might share? A quote or a video clip of them in their own words?
Consider how you might immerse your team in what you have learned, so that rather than just telling them, you are helping them experience it for themselves. This will give them a sense of ownership over the insight, so that they internalize what they hear or see. It will up the likelihood they’ll feel intrinsically motivated to work towards a different outcome.
Step 3: Invite individual reflection
Before you ask people to respond in the group, give them time to process what they’ve heard alone. This does more than just support those who are introverted. It allows everyone to reflect without the pressure of others’ judgement. It creates more spaciousness for their candid feelings and thoughts without the filter of wondering what others might think.
To make this most useful, give your team a framework—a structure that supports honest and constructive reflection.
Use these three prompts, asking them to reflect on and answer them in order, writing down their answers (on stickies if you are in person, otherwise wherever is comfortable for them) so they don’t lose their insights.
Our natural reaction to hard information or difficult truths may likely be to jump straight to the impact, whether that’s the implications on the business, our team, or ourselves. Our brains may respond with an anxiety and fear-based response: predicting all the bad things that could happen. Or immediately trying to solve the problem.
This prompt asks folks to slow down––to acknowledge and first make space for their emotions, as hard or uncomfortable as they are.
This invites curiosity, creating a space of questioning without the rigidity of asking for solutions. It moves us towards possibility. It is a soft invitation to wonder if we’ve been wrong, to challenge our assumptions, and to look towards the future with openness.
This final prompt channels that curiosity into action. It generates ideas that are positive, productive, and related. And it does so in a format that allows for this to not be the only, or the singular, “solution.”
Step 4: Create space to share
After you’ve given people time to process on their own, invite them to share their responses to the prompts. Encourage them to speak further into what they wrote and to build upon and engage with one another.
Your role as a facilitator is not to extract a “right” answer or response, but rather to support dialog that moves the group through feelings towards curiosity and inspired action. It is also your job to make sure everyone has equal time and space to share.
This might involve some patient and slightly uncomfortable waiting through moments of silence. Gently invite, rather than cold calling, folks to help kickoff the conversation. Step in when certain people are dominating airtime to give other teammates an opportunity to contribute.
Start the conversation around the first prompt: “This makes me feel…” Ask folks to share what they wrote down in the video chat, or put up their stickies on a wall if you are in person. This relieves the pressure of them speaking as the only way of contributing their reflection.
Make a little time for folks to read what others have written. As the facilitator, you might read a few aloud, or start to pull out some themes you are seeing.
Then ask if anyone wants to speak more to what they wrote. If you have a quiet group, or one with a few dominating voices, consider talking to some of the themes you are seeing and gently asking if those who wrote towards those might add some more color or reflections. Then ask if those with differing sentiments might talk a bit about what came up for them.
Move on to the second prompt when your group feels ready (or depending on the amount of time you have allotted for the activity), and then the third.
Step 5: Give your own reflections
You’ve asked a lot of your people—to look some rather hard things in the face. Share back with them your own feelings, wonderings, and inspiration. Reciprocate the vulnerability you’ve asked of them. Because you’re in this together. This will help land the message that you’re sharing what you’ve shared so that you can all, collectively, learn from it.
If you are someone with power in the room, it is especially important to create the space for others to share first before you add your opinion. Otherwise it may likely influence them. And it also makes being vulnerable additionally impactful. Let them know that you are human, willing to engage difficult things and challenge your own assumptions, and most importantly that you are there as a collaborator in service of a shared purpose.
To offer your own reflections, be thoughtful about not presenting them as the right response. Try using phrases like “One thing that came up for me was...” or “So much of what you all brought up resonated. A way it landed for me was…”
Embrace discomfort as a growth opportunity
If we want to engage sticky, hard questions, if we want to be bold enough to take big leaps, if we want to be brave enough to admit when we’ve been wrong, we have to learn to exist in the discomfort. We need to view tension as an opportunity for growth and learning.
And we can design for that. If we take the time and the care, we can create the space for people to be open enough to go there with us.
And though these tips are towards designing for your team, the same principles can be applied at any scale, from within individual relationships to working at an organizational or systems level:
- Create space for and honor emotion
- Facilitate safe spaces to question assumptions and get curious
- Motivate and activate new ideas through inspiration rather than fear
If we design for feelings, sharing hard truths can be something that moves our people forward leaps and bounds. Both towards better solutions out in the world and towards stronger relationships that will allow us to continue to engage constructively, creatively, and empathetically when things are difficult.
Want to learn more about designing meaningful experiences? Check out this article and podcast episode, and stay tuned for upcoming articles on the art and craft of Experience Design.
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