Radical Candor 201: The 5 stages of inquiry before the conversation
Read time: 6 minutes
Dear friend, leader and subscriber,
Is it always appropriate to have a conversation when you're frustrated with your co-worker/boss/report? Yes and No.
I'm a big advocate of Radical Candor. Yet, my answer to this question is "It depends." While I understand that it's a crappy answer when our reputation and career are at stake, there are nuances we must consider.
After more than 100 hours of coaching clients on challenging conversations, I've found patterns in the process I take them through. I'm going to talk about this process, specifically the 5 stages of mindset reframing that you need before you go confrontations galore.
These 5 stages of inquiry are necessary if you want to have meaningful influence as a leader through your conversations.
A side note: I've decided to rebrand this newsletter to focus on non-linear thinking for the tech leader. More details soon. As a part of that change, I've also decided to change the email platform to Substack. From next week, you can go back and read my posts on the Substack phone app, along with the regular emails. Not only my posts, but I will also be recommending my favorite reads that'll help you in your tech leadership career. No action is needed from your side.
Alright, let's dive into today's topic: Radical Candor 201.
Clients often ask me, "How do I deal with this co-worker/boss/report? I'm so frustrated with them!"
Though we're ever-ready to give a piece of our mind to this person— how they suck, why they were wrong, and what they should have done something else in the first place, the first order of business is to look within.
What you say doesn't matter as much as what you think about them.
Our outlook is the biggest cause of candid feedback turning into unspoken ice-cold conflicts (and what stops us from being candid in the first place). How we relate to this person changes the very essence of our conversation.
But the tricky business is that we're already in a place of resentment when we're frustrated with someone.
If you relate to your boss as, "they should not have..." or "they could have..." or a resentful "why did they think that was ever a good idea...", there is a good chance that your advice is not going to land with them. Even if you can influence them to your mindshare, your relationship is left with a bad taste of annoyance.
So the thing to do is to deal with the resentment, aka, how you relate to this person. Here are the 5 crucial stages of mental reframing you need:
Stage 1: Whatever they did to get my resentment, it's not personal to me.
Nobody wakes up and says, "It's such a great day. Let me go and upset this person today!" But our minds are glued to the narrative that they are out to get us.
"They're playing politics to upset me."
"She is arguing so strongly because she doesn't respect me."
"My boss decided to dump this on me because they don't value me."
Nope. That's not what they're thinking.
Even if they think these thoughts, they come from fulfilling their goals and meeting their needs. They're immersed in their worldview of getting what they want and avoiding what they don't want.
It's their stuff.
At the same time, our resentment of them is our stuff, no matter how deserved. Nothing to do with them. It stems from our fear of not getting what we want and receiving what we don't want.
Stage 2: They don't owe me their attention or accommodation for my proposals.
We innocently believe that because we give so much of ourselves at work, our boss/co-worker/report must react favorably (or at least predictably).
No matter how hard you worked on your idea or proposal, no matter how logical and perfectly reasoned your argument is, they don't have to react in any particular ways. There are infinite ways they can act, and they have the right to be in any of them. They don't owe the reaction you're expecting. The only thing needed is to lose our righteousness about their responses.
It does not mean that we don't trust anyone. It's only a signal to own your responsibility.
Stage 3: At the same time, can I be humble enough to accept that I do need their consideration, attention, and accommodation?
At the core, we're all social beings looking for acceptance.
Having needs to be heard, seen, and recognized is human. And it is also human to respond from our agitation of not being listened to and understood. I often get into this trip that I'm supposed to have transcended these needs (like yesterday, by meditating them away) and not be affected by others' reactions.
The thing to distinguish here is that the cause of agitation is not their reaction. But it's my need for respect, validation, and recognition. I lean into this agitation— be with it and learn from it, rather than suppress that it doesn't exist or blame others for not fulfilling it.
Another side note: If you find this line of inquiry insightful, you might love my upcoming live course where I guide you through methods to shift your narrative and show up powerfully in your conversations. Sign up here to hear more and be on the waitlist.
Stage 4: How did I contribute to this situation? How am I modeling their behavior? What is my responsibility in this situation?
Note that these questions differ from "Am I responsible for this mess or not?". It's a different inquiry where we step up as a leader and take a serious look at how our behavior is causing this response in them.
If you show up a few minutes late to every meeting, you're creating a culture where it's okay to show up late to meetings.
If you don't address a snide racist comment in a team meeting, you're creating a culture where it's okay to make those comments. Even if you're frustrated that they should not be doing this and are contemplating the conversation with this person, you're perhaps responsible for the last 3 times that you didn't address it.
Examining responsibility is a tricky business.
It's a brutal blow to the ego. So we avoid it in the most brilliant ways. I'd rather toss and turn around in my bed at night devising the 50 modes of what they "should" do, than take an objective look at how I enabled something.
Another brilliant ego strategy is to self-blame and go into the spiral of, "I suck as a leader. I should have addressed it in that meeting. Look at the hell I have caused.". This way, our ego stays in the delicious self-pity rather than confront what there is to do (which, in most cases, is to admit our impact and have that conversation).
Stage 5: Can I fix it? Or is there nothing to do?
This is the stage we answer the original question we started with— Is it the situation for Radical Candor? Is it appropriate to have the conversation?
You see how essential the first 4 stages are before we determine an answer to this question. We want to examine the mental story we're stuck in. And it's almost always invisible to us, like fish in water. We are entirely ignorant that we're swimming in water, aka our story. Said another way, we cannot out-think our thoughts.
Sometimes, there is, in fact, nothing to do. If our boss said something about an upcoming project, maybe it's just me blowing it out of proportion and getting agitated at the future possibilities.
But at other times, there is something to do about it. For example, ask the boss what that means for the team.
My advice is always to lean toward Candor, provided you reframed your mindset through the 4 stages above.
Now, it's the time for the influence conversation.
Once we determine that a conversation is in order, we focus on our inner stance more than the words.
Make sure to be clean of assumptions, curious to hear the other party, open to any possible outcome, and fully ready to empower yourself and them. This is where the majority of your work lies. Some examples of what you might say:
Though these are good starting points, remember that it's about who you're BEING rather than what you're saying.
It's how you relate to the person when you say those words. Are you in blame mode while you're saying the above? Are you holding them responsible? Are you making them wrong in your head for being who they are? Are you attached to the conversation going your way?
With my clients, we usually role-play to ensure this inner stance. I strongly recommend that when your conversations are not working for you, take them to your coach or seek help from a friend to role-play. Ask about how they perceive your energy.
Remember, influencing up, down, or across is not just about communication tactics. It's about your mindset and emotional energy. Your influence as a leader depends on it.
That's it for today! Hope that was helpful. Questions, thoughts and feedback always welcome, hit reply and let me know.
If you're looking for more help with your conversations, I can help you in 2 ways: