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I was backstage at an event recently, and a speaker was about to go on. She was nervous, checking that her presentation was in order and that the technicians had her latest deck (as oppose to her second-to-latest deck, the one she emailed last night). While asking her the correct way to pronounce her name (my guess was right, but it never hurts to ask!), I noticed a green leafy something in her teeth. Whether it was spinach or kale or romaine lettuce I’ll never know, but it definitely did not tell the world, “Trust my views on machine learning.” I wanted to tell her, but she was already nervous, and I barely knew her. What do I do?

In communicating, you have two axes of communication. On one axis, you can be honest or dishonest. On the other you can be kind or unkind. For example, you can be honest, but not kind. This would be the manager who gives you an utterly unvarnished opinion of your report: “Oh God, what stinks in here? Rosenfeld, it’s your report!” Or the occasional Dutch person who corners one of us after a show and declares, “I will now tell you why you and your show are not funny.”

You can also be kind, but not honest. This could be an American noticing your purple striped outfit: “Oh my GOD, I LOVE your new DRESS!” Or your British colleague responding to a terrible idea at a meeting: “Oh yes… quite interesting that… yes, I’ll definitely have another look…” To people who practice kind dishonesty I would note: there’s no such thing. Being dishonest is never kind.

Then there’s unkind and dishonest. This would be Donald Trump when he says something like, “Crooked Hillary Clinton is a lying Mexican drug dealer.” Actually it’s Donald Trump when he says just about anything.

The best is to be kind and honest. You need to tell people the truth. This is especially true of people you care about. You friends and family depend on you for what we used to call, “home truth.” The real truth. And so do your colleagues, teammates, subordinates, students and mentorees. But you need to deliver it in a kind way. There’s no reason to crush people’s spirit while you tell them how to better themselves or their work. And many times, when one receives criticism or bad news that is delivered in an aggressive, unkind way, the conversation becomes defensive and full of emotion. Kindness isn’t just kind; it helps get the message across.

Honest and Kind Chart

This is extra important when people are sensitive, say during times of change. Digital transformation, cultural integration, the approaching (or is it already here?) AI and machine learning revolution. Or even a new strategy. Managing change takes honestly and a willingness to face hard facts. But it also requires patience and empathy; it takes kindness.

I told the speaker, “Hey, we don’t know each other super well. But if I had spinach in my teeth, I hope you would tell me about it.” She nodded. “So… do you see where I’m going with this?” She did! She removed the green distraction, thanked me, and gave a kick-ass talk. When she was done, I led the applause… and made jokes about a couple of her points.

But the leaf in her teeth was our little secret.

Is your organization facing change? Are you and your team facing challenging times? Do you have something gross stuck in your teeth? Our tailored sessions can help you lead through your people through it.

Pep Rosenfeld

PepPep Rosenfeld

As Director of Creative Content, Pep does it all: He’s a high level event host & facilitator, writer, stand-up comedian, public speaker, coach, and developer of innovative corporate programs. A co-founder of Boom Chicago, Pep’s passion is using comedy to make hard-to-communicate messages land and stick, as featured In his 2012 TED talk, ‘Fight, Flight or Make Your Opponent Laugh.’ Pep hosts events like TEDx Amsterdam, The Next Web Conference, The Nordic Business Forum, and the Spin Awards to rave reviews, and he was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on America’s long-running television show, Saturday Night Live.