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Elizabeth Fuss Arnott, SPHR  I have been working in Human Resources for 23 years. Since 2011, I have been certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).  I have a BA in English and a Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law from Tulane Law School. I live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband Luke and our cat, Poirot. I write about HR, non-profits, the art of managing people and Neurodiversity in the workplace. I'm available for employment, contract work, consulting, coaching and training virtually and in the Portland, OR area. Please email me at for more information. 

  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Arnott, SPHR

Being Blunt is Kind: Stop Trying to Hide Your Message

"The surgery is serious. Do you want us to do everything we can to save him?" There were eight doctors at a table in a conference room staring at me. I couldn't process their words. What were they talking about? What do they mean? I was confused - what does "serious" mean? Why were they talking about saving him? Finally, I blurted out "Is he going to die?"

All of the doctors except one looked down. The one doctor still looking at me said "Yes, there's a very strong possibility that your husband will not make it through the surgery." Okay. That's what I needed to know. I needed clear, concise communication so that I could make decisions and communicate with family members. I did not have the ability to read into coded language and interpret what they meant in that moment. My husband made it through the surgery and recovered, thankfully! But the meeting in that conference room and the confusion I felt in that moment has stayed with me.

Understandably, doctors are hesitant to tell someone that their loved one has passed or will likely pass. But what we do in HR, in management? It's not life or death. Yet more often than not, we find ourselves getting anxious about giving feedback or giving fully truthful answers because we don't want to hurt the feelings of the other person.

Just yesterday, I had conversations with three different people at three different companies who were trying to figure out what their manager was telling them.

- One person was confused by their manager taking away duties from them, but posing it as a restructuring that had nothing to do with performance. When pressed, the manager admitted it was because there was negative feedback, but wasn't specific with what the feedback was.

- Another person reported asking their manager for clarification so she could understand all the information that she needed to give to another employee - the manager changed the subject.

- The third person reported asking HR for clarification on a problem they were having and HR responded by providing the employee with a separate policy they said the person was violating instead of clarifying the original problem.

So in all three situations, the employees wanted to get to the heart of the issue and each time, the manager or HR seemed hell-bent on avoiding being upfront. And in all three situations, the employee has no idea what they need to do to improve, or what steps they need to take next. Why do we have such a strong urge to avoid clear language?

Let's talk about worst case scenario: You tell your employee that they have made multiple mistakes. You explain the mistakes and ask what happened. What is the worst that will happen? Your employee will cry? Walk out of the room? Give their side of the story? That's not devastating. You can handle that!

What's more likely to happen? The employee feels bad, but reflects on their own performance and improves. Your employee feels supported. And their results improve, which makes you look good. Win-win for everyone.

Being blunt is KIND. That's right - it's KIND. By being clear, concise and honest, you give the employee the information they need to assess the situation and determine what they need to do. The employee then has the actual opportunity to improve, saving you money on turnover and improving not only their engagement, but also that of those around them, because their constant complaining that their boss is being passive aggressive and unclear about expectations will be reduced or cease all together. You can't argue with that.

Here's my blunt conversation checklist:

1. Be brief.

2. Be concise.

3. Keep it factual.

That's it, folks! You can do this! Let's be blunt to be kind and stop trying to do word wizardry to avoid hurting feelings.


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