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Safe Place

    There can be few of us who would want people to lie to us. For the most part (yes, I know there are exceptions) we want to know the truth, and we want people to feel safe to tell us the truth. Yet so often this does not happen.

    Truth-telling requires trust, and trust has more than one aspect. There is the personality of the teller of the truth (or not) and there is the personality of the receiver. There is also the environment which, most often, it is the responsibility of the would-be receiver to make safe. If we are to receive the truth we cannot do anything about the nature of the teller. If the teller has a guilty conscience, or is habitually fearful, then the best we can do is create a safe space - but we cannot control the teller's conscience or fears, so we need to accept that some parts of the equation are out of our control - and it is not useful to expend energy and worry on what we cannot control.

    How can we go about something that we can control - creating an environment in which people feel safe to tell us the truth?

    These issues apply in both the work situation and in personal relationships. However, because the previous issue of WIP was devoted to relationship issues, I will focus first on the work environment, where there is dire need for truth-telling.

    What might prevent someone from telling the truth in your work environment? Let's list some:

    There is the "kill the messenger" attitude in which a person in authority focuses not on unwelcome news and what should be done on the situation, but on the person who has been courageous and loyal enough to bring the information. It behooves anyone in a managerial position to work REALLY hard on not "shooting from the hip" when information arrives. (Not only in not blaming the messenger who brought the information, but also in not totally believing it without double-checking from other sources, but that is another topic.) It may be that the information you receive is unwelcome, that you feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under you, but it is most likely that the person bringing you that information is not responsible for the aggravating situation. Even if s/he is responsible, pause and consider the courage it took to tell you about it before responding with rage. If s/he is not responsible, then you have every reason to be grateful that someone has come to you so that you may, perhaps, take steps to correct the situation.

    Another way to foster lack of willingness to deliver the truth is by ignoring what is given to you. Perhaps the information that is brought to you is not what it seems, or does not warrant action. However, to brush it aside without acknowledgement is to foster future apathy. Recognize that it often takes courage to tell what the individual believes to be the truth, and the effort needs to be acknowledged.

    Then there is the casual put-down that treats the information as unimportant, maybe so not worth listening to that you interrupt or change the subject, perhaps because you do not want the topic ton continue. Again, is it likely that the individual will come to you again in the future?.

    There is the stealing of credit. Whatever information is brought to you, if you take credit for it, instead of sharing that credit with the person who brought it you, will foster ill-feeling and lack of future sharing of information.

    On the other hand, at times the individual needs to be able to trust that his/her identify WILL be shielded, at least temporarily, while you investigate further. Whistle-blowing situations may come into this category.

    There is the issue of confidentiality in general. If colleagues and employees cannot feel able to confide in you, then they may fear to speak the truth to you. On the other hand, from the flip side of this issue, it is not appropriate for anyone to give someone some information and THEN to say "But this is really confidential, you must promise that you won't tell anyone." That warning must, ethically, come first, so that the individual can buy out or buy in right there, and can also say as soon as s/he realizes what the topic is "I'm sorry, I can't agree to keep silent on this" before the confidential information has been given. And, conversely again, if you are told at the beginning of a conversation that something is confidential then you are wise not to agree to that requirement until you have heard it, lest you be landed with a burden you are not prepared to carry. Likewise, once you have given your word, if you realize that this is heading in a direction in which you will not be able to keep your promise of confidentiality, the ethical thing to do is to cut in and stop the flow of words before you are placed in an impossible situation.

    Another situation which does not, in the long run, encourage trust is when which the manager (or whatever position) is so aware of the need for a safe environment that s/he goes too far. This is what I call the "too nice TO everyone, nasty ABOUT everyone" environment. Here I am thinking of the manager who talks to every employee as though s/he is the only person around who can be trusted, and who denigrates everyone who is not present.

    At first this can feel very heart-warming. The listener feels special and appreciated. Yet, if the listener keeps alert, it becomes clear that each and every person around that manager receives the same treatment. You, the observant employee, may begin to suspect that, if the manager speaks unpleasantly about everyone else, then there is a good chance that s/he speaks equally unpleasantly about you to other people! Sadly, this usually comes from the boss who really, really wants to create a safe place, but because of too strong a need to be liked does not have the confidence to be fully authentic with everyone. This individual unwisely expects that this approach will make you feel special, and will lock in your loyalty. It often works in the short-term, but in the long run it can lead to misunderstandings and mistrust.

    Clearly, an atmosphere of trust starts with a high level of authenticity and self-awareness on the part of whoever hopes to be told the truth. Similar dynamics occur in relationships. How often do families lack open communication because of fear of what a parent may say? How often does one partner hold back on the communication of thoughts or feelings because of fear that the other partner will over-react, or will respond before the full story has been told?

    Do you WANT to hear the truth? Are you sure? Then it is up to you to make it clear, by your behavior as well as by your words, that, if they speak the truth, they will be safe, no matter what that truth may be.

    � 2003 by Diana Robinson, Ph.D.
    Choices Success Strategies Coaching
    Work in Progress may be reproduced in its entirety only, including this copyright line. Disclaimer -The contents herein are solely the opinions of Work in Progress owner, and should not be considered as a form of therapy nor advice. There is no guarantee of validity or accuracy. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, services of a competent professional should be sought. TO SUBSCRIBE to Work in Progress send a blank e-mail to workinprogress-On@lists.webvalence.com. To offer feedback e-mail Diana.