A recent goal of mine is to become better at saying what I mean and meaning what I say. Once in a blue moon, I meet someone who has a profound ability to articulate themselves with razor-sharp clarity. They leave zero room for misunderstanding and doubt. They are absolutely sure about what they wish to express, and are not afraid to convey honest thoughts or feelings to others.
The other day, I watched a discussion between Ayishat Akanbi, a fashion stylist and cultural commentator, and Alain de Botton, the British-Swiss philosopher and founder of The School of Life. One of Ayishat’s many insightful remarks was that we know ourselves from the inside out, yet often forget that we only know others by what they choose to show on the outside.
And what we choose to show, usually conveyed through words, has to be filtered through layers of self-doubt, half-formed thoughts and our own ability to articulate a whole smorgasbord of ideas and emotions.
In other words, the signal is multiple times removed from the source. Compounded onto these barriers to clear expression are the cultural niceties that engulf so much of social interaction these days. Pack them all together and we’re left with a rather diluted, wooly, unimaginative distortion of one another’s reality.
I always look to Americans and their reflexive “How are ya” as the epitome of this social tragedy. When I first arrived in the US, bless my soul, I would actually reply to this greeting with, “I’m well, thank you, and how are y–” only to realise I was interrupting my counterpart’s follow-up, “And will you be paying with cash or card?”
It turns out these seemingly friendly strangers had absolutely no interest in how I was, and did not expect a reply. On the rare occasions I found the time to squeeze in a reciprocal “... and how are you?”, I could sense the startled response. There would be a pause. They’d glance up to the source of the strange question and their face would light up – as if being asked how one’s day was going was a rare and outdated courtesy.
But how are you, really? 👀
Imagine if we started asking the question “How are you” with a sincere expectation of an honest reply. And imagine if our replies lived up to that expectation.
“I’m feeling lonely.”
“Something’s been bugging me all day.”
“I really just want to curl up in bed right now.”
“I feel on top of the world and I have no idea what to do with myself!”
How much more authentic would our conversations be if we kickstarted them with a level of radical honesty?
For me, honest is synonymous with explicit. This means stating things clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt. It’s “saying what you mean and meaning what you say”. It’s a skill, and an attitude, that has to be learned.
The attitude part comes in especially in the way we show appreciation for others.
Consider, “Thanks for the advice,” versus “Thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective with me. You have this amazing ability to shed new light on things. I can feel that what you’ve said today will stay with me a long time.”
I call this “next level” appreciation. Instead of the uninspiring “Thanks”, here is an opportunity for you to take whatever you’ve been given and return the gift in a new form. When our appreciation clearly articulates a) how others have made us feel, b) what that tells us about their qualities as a human being, and c) how we expect we’ll be impacted in the future, it takes the reciprocation to a whole new level. So much so, sometimes, that the expression of appreciation is worth more than what prompted it.
Be the kind of person that multiplies what they are given. Show gratitude when it’s least expected. Be sincere in how you give thanks.
And whatever you do, don’t be mediocre. It’s all or nothing.
Finding the courage to be explicit
I’ve always been drawn to precision in communication. However, I used to feel a certain reserve out of respect for the other person. Too much eye contact with someone who is shy can intimidate them. Too much openness with a person who isn’t used to sharing can make them feel uncomfortable.
Being direct in conversation has always felt like wielding a fine chisel. You possess the tool to create beauty out of the dullness of unrefined form – but cut too hard, and you may break the marble.
Now, I’m starting to realize that while one should always be sensitive to differences, having the courage to be explicit in relationships – personal or professional – is an incredibly powerful force. It’s for the other person to either accept or refuse you, but you have to try. Honesty with consideration can liberate us, enabling us to truly understand and be understood.
We can’t tread on eggshells around each other forever. We can’t forever stick to the platitudes of “Everything’s fine, thanks”, “Let’s meet up sometime”, and “You OK? Great’’. Respecting people’s privacy so often morphs into a polite silence around the most difficult and most important conversations.
Asking a friend, “Would you be interested in talking about how we can be kinder to each other?” is an invitation to bring to light those things which so often get swept under the rug, bottled up and ignored. They are either left in darkness, where they actively dilute and dampen the potential in the relationship, or they fester until they explode and cause serious damage to both parties.
My goal over the next few months is to become comfortable with being explicit. This means being honest in how I answer everyday questions like “How are you?”, telling people when and why I appreciate them, asking for consent to discuss things that bother me, and feeling confident enough to state my own preferences.
The key, of course, is to start being explicit about being explicit.
P.S. Many of these insights emerged as reflections after attending a workshop called “We-Flow Online Immersion”. We-Flow is “an awareness-based social technology” that uses the power of connected minds and hearts to facilitate collective flow states for teams. As we hurtle full steam ahead into the age of remote work, I cannot recommend this course enough.
P.P.S. Finally, with deep gratitude to Andy Tudhope, whose creative collection of wonder led me to this resource, here is a conversation with Paul Myburgh that offers the "big why" behind better communication: