How “Honest” Do Your Opinions Need to Be?

I’ve known people over the years who regularly conflicted with their coworkers or managers because, in their own words, “They couldn’t handle me expressing my honest opinions.” Often, however, it’s not the honesty of someone’s opinion or even the content that causes the friction. It is, instead, everything that gets attached to the honest opinion. Yes, it’s been awhile, but it’s time to return to that old lecture of “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

You’re telling me to censor myself, aren’t you?

Good grief, no. I’m not interested in making people afraid of speaking their mind. Organizations work better if individuals feel free to offer up their positive contributions to a problem or solution. But again, there are ways to do so that don’t alienate others.

Focus on expressing your idea rather than your attitude

You might be thinking, “That’s stupid!” when you hear someone put forth an idea. There are ways you can say that without being a jerk about it. You might try:

  • “Your idea is interesting, but have you considered what would happen if…” (then add a concrete, specific example of how an idea could end up creating harm).
  • “I understand what you’re saying. However, that approach was used in [X circumstance] and the result was Y.”

Share your wisdom, not your superiority

Nine times out of ten, I am not the smartest person in the room, and note that I’m willing to write/say that publicly. In those rare instances where I am (theoretically) the smartest person in the room and someone shares a fact that I know to be incorrect, I do not insult or berate the person sharing said fact for being incorrect. I will politely offer up a correction and my source: “I’m afraid X is not the case. Document Y states Z on page 30.” That’s a bit different from insulting the person in question and doesn’t make them more likely to listen to your correction. Bragging about your expertise, background, degree, position, rank, etc., also does not help the situation.

Focus on the reasoning, not your response

You might catch someone in an error that could result in grievous physical, financial, or legal harm to themselves, others, or the organization. This is a time for calm but matter-of-fact speaking/writing: “We cannot do that because it will result in Y.” Berating or insulting the person in question does not help the situation.

Watch the things you don’t say

Body language and tone convey quite a bit more than whatever our mouths happen to be saying at a given moment. Rolling your eyes, crossing your arms, or laughing at others are not great ways to win friends and influence people if you’re trying to get them to listen to you.

Emphasize the WIIFM rather than assume the brightness of your idea

I run into this a lot in the science and technology fields, in verbal and literary form. Eminent Doctor/Engineer X, convinced of the technical, social, financial, or even moral superiority of their latest program, idea, or widget, will sometimes overlook possible holes in their solution. Sometimes they overwhelm the audience with technical facts about their product/procedures and then assume that the audience will know the implications of all those  facts and why they’re good.

Yet another communication misstep is to emphasize the superiority of one’s own idea without bothering to explain why it might benefit others. This is a form of technical arrogance that creates problems when you’re trying to sell a program. Just stating that a project, widget, or process will produce a given set of outputs is not enough. You need to state aloud why your given outputs are good, useful, and beneficial to other people because they are going to want to know the WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me?”). An honest, polite communicator will be willing to acknowledge those aspects of his/her audience and be prepared to answer appropriately.

Bottom Line

There are many different ways to express your honest opinions about workplace activities that do not require insults, condescension, or berating others. You might even get people to listen to those opinions! Food for thought.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to How “Honest” Do Your Opinions Need to Be?

  1. Great article! I have SOOO much to add (but I won’t). Personally, I try to use “I need x to make that work” type statements (rather than, as you mentioned “I can’t do that because of x.” I also really like the WIIFM method – although it doesn’t always seem to work with especially large egos. Yet, that’s how we, as technical writers, act as the voice of the customer.

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