Communicating with grit and grace

“I know what I want to say, but HOW do I say it without getting ignored or killed?” In my experience as an executive coach, this question stymies leaders, especially women leaders, as much as any other issue.  Why?  Because organizations often require women to operate within a painfully narrow stylistic range: nice, but not TOO nice; strong, but not TOO strong.  How on earth do you navigate this?

Here’s what doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work to dilute your message, minimize your strength, or chip away at your authenticity so much that you disappear.  Nor does it work to “damn the torpedoes,” and blow your listener away.

You do not have to choose between “zipping it” or “letting it rip.” Effective communication, whether at work or at home, is often both tough and tender. Whether you tend to communicate directly (“grit”) or with soft edges (“grace”), the greatest potential lies in blending the best aspects of both. This blended form of communication can turn a conflict into a moment that transforms a relationship.  It can turn a supportive encounter into a catalyst for action.

How do you achieve this kind of balance? The most powerful communication guidance I’ve found comes not from the worlds of business or communication, but from Buddhist teachings.  The principle is called “wise speech.”  Wise speech is any message that meets four essential criteria:

  • Truthful – clear, direct and authentic
  • Useful – actionable, relevant and intended to be of service to the other person and the situation
  • Unifying – acknowledges all perspectives, so that everyone’s view has a “place” in the conversation
  • Kind – respects the dignity, aspirations and frailties of all parties.

‘Truthful’ and ‘useful’ are the grit side of the equation; they make a message clear and actionable.  But directness can intimidate some, and cause them to shut down. ’Unifying’ and ‘kind’ are the grace elements; they cultivate respect and trust within the conversation.  But too much softness can obscure your message, appear inauthentic, or create stagnation in a relationship. The greatest power is in the blend. Holding your communication to the standards of wise speech is no easy task, but the payoffs can be great.

What about you?

Most of us tend to emphasize just one or two of the wise speech criteria, especially when the message is difficult. Which one(s) do you tend to default to?  What are the strengths and limitations of that?  (Don’t think about this in the abstract – examine this through the lens of real life situations.)

Which criteria are the most ‘foreign’ to you, or are the ones you most quickly sacrifice when the chips are down?  Again, what are the implications of that?

For the next two weeks, try holding your important communications to the four standards of wise speech.  Make mental or written notes of what you try, how it works and what you’re learning.  And let us know how it goes!

7 replies
  1. Becky
    Becky says:

    As always, your message is wise and insightful. I love the call to action, too. It’s a great self-observation activity that will result in greater effectiveness and improved relationships.

  2. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    I would say the unity part I struggle with – it seems no matter how many people you try to include there is always someone who feels left out. I try to stay true to what I know and who I am without intentionally offending so that when I’m asked about it, I can answer with clarity and the thought process that went behind my writings. When I write for others I sometimes feel I’m not sure why.

    • leslie.williams
      leslie.williams says:

      Hi, Joanne. Thank you for this really thoughtful comment. ‘Unifying’ is the hardest for me as well. After all, how do I know what will be unifying and not? How do I unify without diluting my voice so much that it’s no longer my voice? But I think that unifying does not mean vanilla-izing. I think that it’s writing with an underlying intention to create connection, even if that connection occurs through disagreement. I like what you said about being intentional about not being offensive, and I really agree with that. But I think there’s a difference between being offensive (writing something that devalues another) and being provocative (writing something that challenges someone’s view). It sounds like the way that you approach your writing has a ton of integrity and is, in fact, done with a unifying intention.

  3. Patti Miller
    Patti Miller says:

    This is very helpful – and nicely deliverd. I’ve written down your 4 guides and will keep them in front of me for the next 2 weeks MINIMUM. Thank you!

  4. Dorian
    Dorian says:

    Thanks Leslie. I’ve copied and printed the 4 essentials of Wise Speech to focus on.
    I was recently presented with an issue in a business setting in which I knew I needed to look to my spiritual side to find the words to address those I considered the “offenders”. I love this Buddhist teaching!
    I tend toward the grit side and frequently find myself longing for grace in dealing with others.
    Fortunately, life offers me lots and lots of opportunity to practice and grow. ☼

    • leslie.williams
      leslie.williams says:

      Hi, Dorian. Thanks so much for commenting on my post. Life certainly has a way of serving up plenty of opportunities to grow! I love that you see that as ‘fortunate.’ Sometimes I forget to be grateful for those, so you’ve given me something important to remember.

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