Why Every Startup Founder Needs At Least Two Truth-Tellers

One of the most valuable assets entrepreneurs can possess is truth-telling friends

Not cofounders, investors, or team members… I’m talking about people who’ll tell us the unfiltered truth we need to hear.  Why are truth-telling friends so important? Triangulation.

Without friends to call us out, not only is our life unexamined, we are not capable of catching ourselves and we convince ourselves that we are doing great.

Unfortunately, the people we are most drawn to are the ones who reaffirm our reality. We agree on most things. We tend to have similar belief systems. If someone is too far removed from our version of reality, it can be hard to find common ground. Their filter seems obvious to us. They see reality through a “distorted” lens, we say.

Here’s the catch: all of our lenses are distorted.

Observing objective reality is a hard thing to do. Ask any research scientist. Getting out of our own way requires dedication to seeking out and fully digesting contradictory information and opening ourselves up to – big gulp – peer review! While peer review is part of the culture of science, it isn’t the common stuff of friendship. For peer review to work in a social context, there must be clear rules and requests.

We cannot demand anyone tell us ‘the truth’: we need to request it and allow them to decline. Better yet, we can create a framework for truth-telling so that the rules are obvious and celebrated.

Let’s talk about a framework called ‘the triad’.

Here’s How The Triad Works

The triad is a system for gaining clarity on our common reality. It involves three people: you and two truth-tellers. In a triad, we all have an agreement. We are invited to say unpleasant, unhappy observations on any matter to one another. In short, each of us is invited to call the other out. Furthermore, we all agree to celebrate the truth-telling. When done well, it feels like a magical eureka out of the blue – when someone cuts through and tells us what they’re really seeing.

The key here is consent. Truth-telling without consent can cause people to double down on a harmful belief or behaviour and rupture the relationship. Most importantly, we have to be ready to check ourselves and our ego. Are we ready to accept that our ‘truth’ is a projection? My mother, Camille, was not. She wielded Truth with a capital T. According to her, her Truth was objective reality. If you didn’t see things her way, it was on you and she would label you accordingly. 

For Camille, people were in denial, too sick, or too stupid to hear her Truth. She never could accept when her interpretation was off base. A good truth-teller will be prepared to accept reverse feedback, such as, “I think this truth is more about you than me.” They’re willing to explore that. And quite frankly, all our advice has something in it for us. We are prone to tell others what we aren’t willing to see in ourselves.

Triad: Rules of Engagement

To seek out truth telling takes a massive act of courage. We have to be ready and willing to have our view of reality challenged. We need to be kind with ourselves here. In the beginning, this will be awkward. We don’t have this kind of social contract in our culture. We are given to white lies and niceties. Frankly, it’s a miracle, with the mess of cultural norms, that we can communicate at all. To help us get started, here’s a sample set of rules for engagement that I’ve used. Over time, these rules can refined or rewritten to better suit the triad’s needs.

1) Start with our intention.

Before we engage our triad for feedback, we need to address our intention. What are we trying to understand here? Why do we want to have this conversation? What kind of feedback would be most helpful to us?

Here’s an example: “I want to talk through this awkward situation at work. I am not sure if I did anything wrong. I would like your honest opinion.”

2) Just the Facts, Ma’am.

When we are requesting honest feedback, we need to start with the facts about the topic we wish to cover. Here’s an example from Jan Smith, who offers an executive coaching programme at the Center for Authentic Leadership.

Jan was coaching a CEO who was very upset with one of his top executives. The person in question was actively not participating. In fact, he was reading a newspaper during their weekly executive lunch meetings. Jan asked for the facts.

Who was this executive? The CEO said that he was in his forties and from Bolivia. Jan stopped him there. Was it possible that this executive had requested not to do this lunch meeting? Jan surmised that a lunch meeting was likely a cultural issue for someone from Bolivia. The CEO went back and discovered that was indeed the case. In fact, the executive had declined the lunch invite, but the CEO had insisted that he make the lunch hour work. The CEO’s blind spot created the whole mess.

3) Request dissent.

Once we’ve have given the facts, we must request dissent. Ask the triad: What am I not seeing about this situation? What am I missing?

4) But first: Ask clarifying questions.

Before the responders jump into their assessments, have them ask clarifying questions:

  • Is there any helpful background information here?
  • What is happening with you right now? Are you stressed at work? Issues with family or friends outside of this?
  • Tell me about the other person(s)? Who are they? Where are they from? How old are they? What’s their nationality? Religion?
  • Is there anything happening to this person(s) that may be relevant? Are they moving, divorcing, ill? How about their family?

5) Reflect back the new information.

Once the responders have finished up their questions, it is important to have one of them restate your intention and facts fully here. For example: “What I hear you saying is that you would like to understand if you are doing anything wrong because there is this awkward situation at work. There is a woman who has been avoiding conversations with you. She is married, in her fifties, and from Lebanon. Her English is fluent. You are not sure of her religion. You are currently going through a divorce.”

6) Invite curiosity.

This is where we can use ‘wonderment’ statements to help open the conversation. The respondents can use “I wonder if” to scenario-play and see what lights things up. For example, “I wonder if she thinks you’re hitting on her, given your pending divorce.”

7) Stay curious.

If something makes us upset or instantly defensive, this is great news. It’s pay dirt! It’s likely that idea needs to be explored further. The emotional charge is a good indicator that an unconscious assumption, belief, or story is at play here.

These tend to be ‘shoulds’, such as “She should  know better!”

8) Take responsibility.

Once the triad has gone through the process, thank them for their time and insights. We may get very triggered and upset by the exchange. Take ownership of that: “I am sorry I got emotional today; these were hard things to hear.”

9) Be accountable.

We need to tell them how we intend to follow up. “I will ask to set up a meeting with her by the end of the week and will report back by end of day on Friday.” If we say we’ll follow up by the end of day on Friday, we need to do so. The triad is a system that requires accountability. If we meet once with our triad and fail to let them know how things got resolved, the likelihood of the triad continuing is slim.

10) Reciprocate.

If the triad is only for us and not our truth-tellers, things will get stale fast. It’s hard to hear someone drone on and on and never offer to reciprocate. We may start a triad up for ourselves at first, but ultimately it is for all of the participants.

It may help to set a clock and share the time. Or if we go one week, have someone go the following week. It can also be need-based. If there’s one topic and the others aren’t urgent, allow the participant with the highest need to go first or take the session.

The Power of Clarity

Today, I invest consciously in my relationships with my truth-tellers. These are the friends and colleagues who elevate my game. They make me ask harder questions of myself. They hold me to higher standards. They expect my honesty, both with them and myself.

We all need truth-tellers to help us get out of our own heads. Too often, it is our own self-talk and shifty, self-critical private narratives that sabotage us.

When we fail to surround ourselves with friends who will give it to us straight, we lose our ability to catch ourselves telling self-defeating, destructive stories. Only we have the power to change our narratives, but it helps if someone points it out to us first.

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