The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 88

Mark Murphy

Truth At Work

How can we have productive conversations around sensitive issues? Bestselling author Mark Murphy offers a solution in his newest book, Truth At Work: The Science of Delivering Hard Messages. Discover the eight steps in a “truth talk,” the key to getting someone else to understand your perspective, and how to distinguish for yourself between facts and interpretations.


Book: Truth At Work: The Science of Delivering Hard Messages
Bio: Mark Murphy is a New York Times bestselling author, founder of Leadership IQ, and a sought-after lecturer. Mark’s previous books include Hundred Percenters and Hiring for Attitude. His firm Leadership IQ is a top-rated provider of cutting-edge research and leadership training. He has personally provided guidance to more than 100,000 leaders from virtually every industry and half the Fortune 500. Mark has been featured in such publications as Fortune, Forbes, BusinessWeek, and The Washington Post.



Peter: With us today is Mark Murphy. His most recent book is, “Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages.” It’s a really critical book and critical concept, which is that the hardest thing any of us have to do, the thing that holds us back most often from getting traction on what’s most important to us is often a conversation that we’re not having. Mark has the solution for us. In ” Truth at Work,” it’s a very well thought-out, disciplined process and he’s here to talk about it with us today. Mark, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Mark: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

Peter: Mark, you talk about the science of delivering tough messages and you talk about the truth talk, the need for truth talks. What’s a truth talk?

Mark: A truth talk is, essentially a real dialogue. It’s a real conversation where we surface issues that, not everybody wants to talk about and the reason it’s important is that, several-fold. Number one, we have, right now, going on a real lack of conversation. What we have throughout the media, throughout social media, we have a lot of what I would call, “Reciprocated diatribe.” That is, people kind of shouting messages back and forth at each other, but that’s not a conversation. Generally speaking, when you think about a conversation there are as many questions as there are statements. It’s a two-way sharing of information but not just a sharing of information. There’s an assimilation, a digesting, a dissecting of that information and ideally, somebody’s perspective is going to be changed. That’s not what we have at the moment with this reciprocated diatribe. We have shouting, but that’s not a conversation, so that’s really what a truth talk is supposed to be.

Peter: It’s interesting, because when I think about these difficult conversations that people have it almost always starts with somebody saying, “I’ve got to deliver a tough message to this person. I’ve got to tell them something that’s going to be hard for them to hear.” We enter into it, it sounds like, as a setup, right? Because we aren’t thinking, “I have to have a conversation.” We’re thinking, “I need to deliver a message.” You’re saying that the idea of going into a conversation with the intent to deliver a message is a mistake?

Mark: It’s a mistake in that it puts us in the mindset that the other person’s perspective isn’t relevant or valid. Even if we’re talking about, for example, lets say we have an employee who’s late 15 days in a row. It’s not that I, necessarily, care that this person has some incredibly valid reason for being late 15 days in a row, but rather, if I go into the conversation that their perspective is irrelevant, much less stupid, I’m already setting this up for the person to get defensive and not hear anything that I have to say. I can’t work around their psychological defenses if I don’t go, at least, go into it with the idea that they have a viewpoint. Now, it may not sync with mine. Their viewpoint may, ultimately, lead to them not being a good fit with my company, but it’s not going to be … I’m never going to get them to really understand my perspective if I don’t, first, reach out and try and understand what’s going on in their head, because their buy-in is critical to them actually making a behavioral change.

Peter: I can hear certain leaders that I work with, their voices in my head, saying, “Wait a second, the guy’s late 15 times. It’s not rocket science. I’ve got to let them know they can’t be late. Done. They’re going to need that perspective, it’s not rocket science.” Refute that for me.
Mark: There’s kind of two ways to look at it. One is, if we’re at the point where it’s not rocket science they’ve made the choice not to show up, well, then just fire them. If we actually want to sit down and have a conversation where we’re trying to get them to understand why they can’t be late then we need their guard to come down a little bit. We need them to engage and actually figure out, “Yeah, the boss has a point. This is the relationship we need to have. I need to show up on time.” My … because, I get a lot of the same thing from leaders that I see.

“Well, yeah, they’re late. It’s terrible.” Then just fire them, but we’re not having a truth talk at that point. At that point if somebody has messed up so much that they’re clearly not a fit? Great. What I see a lot of managers do is put themselves through this process where they’re having this pseudo conversation. They pretend like they’re sharing some deep information and getting but-in from the other person, but really all their doing is telling the person, “Don’t be late.” Okay, I’d do that but that’s not a conversation.

Peter: Let me ask you one other question that comes to me and then I want to dive into the meat of the book.

Mark: Yeah.

Peter: I had a conversation very early on in my career. I had started my company, this is probably about 20, 18-years-ago, let’s say, and there was a coach who was working for me who violated a contract. There was a contract that said that they can’t contract directly with the client because they’re contracting through our company. He went around and tried to do that. I called him in to have a conversation with him and I really wanted to approach it with curiosity. I really didn’t understand why he would do this. I said, “First of all, am I right?Did you go around and contract directly with the client?”

He said, “Yes, I did.” I said, “Help me understand what’s going on for you that you made that choice. We have a very clear contract and you already knew but you made that choice and I want to understand.” His response was, “Look, I don’t want to be psychoanalyzed.” Then my response was, “Okay, so you violated the contract so I’m going to have to fire you.” But I tried to approach it to understand his perspective and he came back with, “I don’t want to be psychoanalyzed.” I’ve actually heard that a couple of times. I’m wondering from a truth talk perspective when you have a message but you’re still coming with curiosity. How do you avoid that?

Mark: There’s a couple of things. Number one, is that in a real conversation it does take two people to want to engage in this and when you have somebody whose defensiveness is so up that they say, “Listen, I would rather opt out of the organization than I would sit down and have a true dialogue with you.” I mean, odds are this is a person whose been caught, their embarrassed, etc, etc. You know, kind of coming into a conversation like that, this is one of the things I would always tell somebody is, “Know what your goal is.” If the goal is ultimately, there’s no changing it, they violated the contract. You’re going to, “Free up their future,” or you know, my euphemism for firing them.

You’re going to separate ways, part ways with them regardless of the outcome of this conversation, oftentimes, somebody can sense that, and they’re basically saying, “Listen, I don’t want to have 20-minutes of preamble before we get to the, ‘You’re out of here.'” At that point honestly there isn’t a lot of comeback, because this isn’t, this also is not a great setup for a real dialogue. We already know what the goal is. The goal is, you broke this, non-negotiable, immutable rule and so no matter what each of us says in this conversation, you’re still getting let go. There are going to be people who will just say, “Listen, just fire me. Just, let’s just make this go faster. Band-Aid time. Rip it off and be done.”

Peter: You know, that’s interesting, because I actually think I was open to … If there was some reason that I could understand and we could figure this out, we can get through it, but, maybe that’s … Maybe I wasn’t being honest with myself? Maybe I wasn’t coming to the conversation with the kind of openness I thought I was coming with and he sensed that? That’s interesting. It’s something to think about. Let’s briefly go through the eight steps of the anatomy of a truth talk. Very short overview and then we’ll go into some more detail.

Mark: Yeah, so, essentially, every truth talk kind of has to begin with some understanding of what might be blocking this person from wanting to engage in this. There’s all sorts of psychological defenses and even financial defenses that prevent the person from these truth killers. Prevent them from wanting to have a real conversation. Once you get some lay of the land we really want kind of jump in their head a little bit and get a sense of what’s going on inside their head. This is where I get some resistance from managers sometimes. Where they come back with the, “I don’t want to understand their perspective,” and I approach this more like, “Pretend you’re a negotiator. Yeah, you have your position, but you’re not going to get a great deal unless you understand what’s going on in side the other person’s head. You can’t sell unless you understand their perspective, you can’t negotiate unless you understand the other person’s perspective.”

The fact is you don’t have to agree with it. I’m not saying you have to come away and say, “Oh, they should be allowed to be late 15 days in a row.” No, but you have to understand it before you can deal with it. Once you do that you basically got to get away everything else, all the emotions, the emotional reactions, the interpretations and get right to the facts and this is kind of the heart of a truth talk, is that truth talks are not really big, emotional explorations. They’re really getting rid of everything else that isn’t factual so we can then have an unemotional conversation about what’s really happening. Once you do that, we can then invite this person into a conversation. This is really as simple as saying, “Hey, listen. Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about this? I’m not coming in to yell at you. I actually want to have a conversation. I want to understand this.”

Once you’ve done that, now, you can listen to them, understand where they’re coming from, and, it’s always a good idea when possible, to let them go first, kind of share where their head is at. Which is like sales 101, negotiating 101. Don’t start with the big speech, elicit from the other person. Once you’ve done that you can share your perspectives, maybe create a word picture, which is sort of a common understanding of what our expectations here are, come to some agreement and then we’re ready to get some buy-in and actually move forward. If I were to distill a truth talk into its essence it’s basically, jump inside the other person’s head, figure out what’s going on in their mind. Get rid of all your emotional baggage. All my stuff. I’ve got to get rid of that. Once I’ve gotten rid of that I invite them into a conversation and now we can start to hash things out.

Peter: Step 2 of focusing on the facts and getting rid of the emotional piece makes a tremendous amount of sense and is tremendously difficult, right? Because we often confuse our emotional responses with facts. My question is, what guidance can you give us that can help people distinguish between facts and interpretation of facts and the emotional reaction to facts and the goals that we’re trying to achieve? How do we separate that out to really have a conversation about facts?

Mark: There’s kind of two techniques. One of them is incredibly simple and a little goofy, but it’s if we literally, imagine you’ve got a blank piece of paper in front of you and you just make like, a two-by-two grid. You label this grid, “Facts, Interpretations, Reactions and Ends.” What I would recommend and I do it, personally, before I go into a tough conversation I want to actually make my notes to myself and say, “Okay, this is a fact,” and, “They’re being disrespectful.” Okay, I’m going to put that in the fact. Well, okay, now once I kind of label everything out I go back and I look at it and I say, “I put some stuff in the fact box here, and I’m not entirely sure.” Then the second thing I want to do, I have an acronym, “FETISH.” I would say, you want to scout for the facts. You want to make sure they’re specific and candid and objective, but, ultimately, you want to make sure that if there were a video camera in the room would the video camera see the situation the same way I saw it?

The video camera or the tape recorder might say, “I don’t know that that was disrespect, per se, rather, I think that might be just a series of words that we’ve interpreted as disrespectful. They said, “Your idea will not work.” Is that disrespectful? Did they see it as disrespectful? Well, the video camera would have said, “No, they said the words, ‘Your idea will not work,’ that’s not the same thing as totally being disrespectful.” If we actually box this out and then we make ourselves look at the stuff we put in the fact column and say, “Would a video camera see this the same, exact way that I saw this?” Oftentimes what we find is no, it’s, this is not, really, fly-on-the-wall kind of perspective here, this is not the way the video camera in the corner would have seen this situation. That is sometimes what we need to do to force ourselves to really segment out what the facts are versus what our interpretation of those facts are.

Peter: It feels like a critical practice in life, right?

Mark: Right.

Peter: Which is, that I think most of us walk through life feeling like our perspective is probably shared.

Mark: Yeah.

Peter: And that when people do things we often personalize them and feel like they’re doing them to us. I had someone tell me the other day, “If it starts raining and you’re walking outside and you get all wet, is the rain targeting you?” Right? I thought that’s actually a very good point. The rain is not targeting me it’s just raining. That’s what rain does. That’s actually true for people in many ways, so to depersonalize it helps, to identify what’s actually factual and what’s my reaction to the situation that’s happening? Still, it’s hard. I think it requires, maybe, years of therapy to say, “I will look at a situation and not invest all of my emotional baggage in that situation, and be aware that I have emotional baggage that I shouldn’t be investing.” It’s not that easy, I think, to do. Have you found with leaders that you work with that they get it immediately or there’s a process?

Mark: Some do, some don’t so for the ones that don’t they’re two things that kind of help. Number one, is that once you understand that the brain is essentially an interpretation engine … Our brain absolutely works against us in this regard. Our brain does not, if we, we’re kind of hard-wired. If you hear a rustling in the bushes outside your window for example, the brain does not, naturally say, “Oh, my isn’t that interesting? There’s a rustling in the bushes.” If I, I have a 13-year-old daughter. If she and I were up, she’s my horror movie buddy. If she and I were up late, watching some horror movie and I hear a rustling in the bushes I’m likely to say, “Aw, dang that’s one of those clowns coming to get us. I saw that in the movie last night.” Or, if I were a birdwatcher, I might say, “Oh, well isn’t that interesting? I bet that’s a Yellow-Bellied Red-Haired Thrush,” or something.

Peter: Sure.

Mark: Our brain is hard-wired to view the world with interpretations rather than dispassionate facts but the other thing and this is important, is that social media is actually training our brain to respond in the exact wrong way. When you think about what works on social media? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., they want us to respond quickly and emotionally. When you respond quickly and emotionally that’s what Twitter thrives on, but that is the exact wrong response when you’re walking into a tough situation. One of the things that I find works well is, (a) Pointing out to people that, “Listen, part of this is not you. Part of this is you’re surrounded by stimuli that say, ‘Respond emotionally, respond personally, do it, quick, quick, quick.'” Somebody once asked me, “How do I make my brain work faster in a touch conversation?” My answer was, “You don’t. What you can do, though, is slow the conversation down.

Even something as simple as saying to somebody that walks into your office and says, ‘You know, I’m pretty ticked off of what you did in that meeting last week.’ Say, ‘Okay, look, can we just pause for a second here?'” Because if we start to insert just a three count before we start reacting and uncorking, and if you train yourself to a) three-count it, b) pull out a piece of paper, say, ‘Do you mind if I take some notes? I really want to give this it’s full due?'” You can habitualize those things and over time they will start to train you that when you see something that sets you off? You’re going to kind of hard wire this response that, ‘Breathe, just breathe. Pull out a piece of paper.'” Even if you’re not consciously thinking, “I have to think about facts and interpretations, reactions and ends and all of that.” Forget that for a minute. Habituatilize a three count and a piece of paper that does, bit by bit, over even just a couple of months, start to make a difference.

Peter: You’re talking to the guy who wrote the book, “Four Seconds,” so you know, you have an all-ears audience to this one.

Mark: I figured maybe we had some intellectual simpatico here.

Peter: Yeah, exactly. One of the things you said that I found very interesting and counter-intuitive is, if I understood you correctly, setting your own goals after taking in their perspective. It’s a step that says you’re taking their perspective, then you’re deciding what it is you want to achieve. It’s … that’s very counter-intuitive, because, most of us won’t go into a truth talk without having a goal of what we want to achieve with it. I mean if someone’s late 15 times, my goal is for them to not be late 15 times. Talk to us about how you really not go into a conversation with an intention of what you want to achieve?

Mark: Good question. One of the things, let’s go back to that 15 late example. You go into it and if your goal is truly, “I want them, I cannot have an employee that is late 15 times,” we kind of have an inflection point here. We can either say, “There is no salvaging this. This is, violates the rule, we’re done here.” In which case my goal is I’m just going to go fire them, and, at the point we’re not really having a conversation. If we are going to have a conversation though, part of what I’m doing when I’m kind of climbing inside their head a bit and trying to figure out their perspective is, “I’m assessing what kind of goal I have any shot of achieving here.” If I really look deep into their perspective, I’m looking at their pattern of behavior. I’m listening to the things they’ve said. I may take a step back and say, “You know what? My goal isn’t a conversation here. I might not be able to do this.” This is the thing that sometimes we go into a conversation with one goal in mind but if we don’t open ourselves up to the possibility that the data may tell us something different? The data being there, what’s in their head and what comes out of their mouth. If we don’t open ourselves up to, the data may change my goal and force me to readjust what is doable here?

Then, essentially we fall back into this reciprocated diatribe where, I’m going to yell, they’re going to yell, and we’re going to end up at an impasse. It’s not so much that it always has to be perfectly linear, rather it’s more a case that I need to be open that I may learn something about them that forces me to reevaluate whether my goal is doable, not doable. You know you go into a tough conversation with your boss, for example. You’re like, “Okay, I’ve got kind of a jerk as a boss, this is untenable.” If I go in and I say, “My goal is they’re going to treat me with respect?” Okay, well, maybe, but you may find something out and you can set that as an initial goal. I mean, yeah, that’s fine, but you may go into the conversation and all of a sudden you’re starting to realize that this is not going to work. Rather, I’ve got to adjust my goal to, “I’ve got to just keep things quiet for the next six months so I can find a new job.” That’s the adjustment process that we need to be open to.

Peter: Briefly, I want you to share this idea of word picture, which I found very compelling and important in conversations where we may be using words that each of us has a different interpretation of.

Mark: The word picture concept was born out of this idea that if I go tell one of my employees, “I need this report done ASAP.” We’ve all got a different definition. That could mean in the next five minutes, it could mean by the end of Friday. Who knows? It’s non-specific and so the word picture concept was partly that and partly … One of my surveys recently found that only about 29% of employees know whether or not they are truly doing a good job. Okay, so, people don’t know if they’re on the right track with their work, and we have fuzzy definitions of a lot of different words. A word picture, essentially said, “Take everything you want your employees to do, where every boundary you want to set in the conversation and break it into three categories. Essentially, bad, good and great. Needs work, good work and great work. Then you want to define each of those categories in a really, behaviorally specific way.

For example, if I go talk to my kids and I say, “I want you to do better piano practicing.” They’re going to look at me and go, “But I did good piano practicing.” “Well, it’s not good enough. It doesn’t meet my definition of what good enough is.” They’re going to look at me and go, “But I don’t know what that is.” I would sit down with them and say, “All right,” because I torture my children this is exactly what we’ve done. Sat down and said, “All right, we’ll define, let’s define what bad piano practicing looks like.” “Well, I guess, if I just played a piece through three times and I sit there for 15 minutes that would be bad.”

“Okay, perfect. I like that. I can see we’re not doing it enough times we play it through. What is good piano practicing?” “Well, good would be I’d sit here for 40 minutes and I would, if I make a mistake when I’m playing my piece through I would stop and fix it.” “Ah, I like that. What would be great piano practicing then? If that’s good, if that’s nice, you can live with that, what’s even better?” “Well, I wouldn’t even bother playing my piece all the way through. I would only work on the parts where I know I’m struggling and I would play it until I have worked out all the kinks in that particular measure.” Okay, now, what I’ve essentially done is I’ve created this behaviorally-specific grading scale for what, bad, good and great is.

Now if I go have a conversation with them I don’t even have to say, “You know, that piano practicing wasn’t very good.” I can just say, “So, where do you think that piano practicing fell?” Then they could say, “I know that was, needs work. Oh dad I’ll go do it some more.” It allows them to automatically self-correct. The same exact thing happens in the workplace. If we do this for a tough conversation we could go into a conversation and say, “All right, well tell me what a bad conversation would look like?” “Well, we both walk away. We’ve said our piece but we’ve used a lot more sentences than questions and on and on and on.” And it’s just a way of saying, “Let’s define some stuff. Before we start talking across each other lets just define some stuff so we know exactly what it is we’re talking about.”

Peter: It feels important and it feels like the risk of sounding or feeling patronizing as the person leading this exists and you have to really go into it with both confidence but also humility and a willingness to learn. Because I can imagine that everyone you go into a truth conversation with might feel like your ten-year-old son?

Mark: That’s one of the, an absolutely huge risk and that’s one of the reasons why we actually have to begin with their perspective rather than, “I’ve got this agenda and I’m going to shove it down their throats,” because that can, even if you don’t think we’re letting that leak out it can still leak out. That’s why if a conversation really, truly has to be … I want to understand. If we don’t go in with that ounce of humility, that curiosity, I want to know what’s inside their head. If we don’t truly feel that? It absolutely, unconsciously, leaks out. They pick up on it and now all a sudden it feels very parent-child. That’s exactly what we do not want to happen.

Peter: We have been speaking with Mark Murphy. His most recent book is, “Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages.” Mark, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you so much.

Mark: Thank you so much for having me. This was great fun.


  1. Pradip Shroff says:

    Peter, I enjoy all your webcast. I regularly share the web link and recommend to my clients to listen to your webcast.

    In this webcast you referred to a * step process for Truth talk. However 8 steps have not been explained in the conversation. can you give those 8 steps?

  2. Peter Bregman says:

    Hi Pradip – here they are:

    1. Understand the truth killers
    2. Focus on the facts
    3. Take their perspective
    4. Set your goals
    5. Start a conversation, not a confrontation
    6. Create a word picture
    7. Listen with Structure
    8. Share the facts

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