How Honest Should I Be? (The Five Year Rule)
When you need to have a difficult conversation with someone that could seriously threaten your relationship with that person, how honest should you be? A lot of times, we think of that question as a zero-sum game: I can either be honest or keep the relationship, but I can’t do both. That thinking, however, is a “fool’s choice” (Crucial Conversations, 21).
One tool I use to evaluate what to say and how to say it is what I call the Five Year Rule. It’s an easy rule to use. Simply imagine that you are evaluating your words from today at a point five years in the future, and ask yourself these two questions:
- In five years, if everything turns out well from this point onward (in relation to the subject of the hard conversation), what will I wish that I hadn’t said today for the sake of relational unity?
- In five years, if everything continues spiraling in this situation (in relation to the subject of the hard conversation) from this point onward, what will I wish that I had said today for the sake of a clear conscience?
Time has a way of reframing what is truly important. The first question helps to temper you from saying things that, in the long run, would be inflammatory rather than helpful. The second question helps make sure that you actually say everything now that you have wanted to say in the future. If you can balance both answers, you will communicate effectively in a way that is both honest and loving.
For more on this topic, I can’t recommend enough the book Crucial Conversations. Based on extensive research from effective communicators in a variety of areas, this book walks you through a powerful script to frame what you need to say when the stakes are high. The Five Year Rule builds on what they say there.