How to Use Radical Candor to Communicate Effectively

  • October 25, 2018
When you challenge people with direct communication, you might be surprised at the results.

It takes courage — and candor. And when adding some care, your listener often will take notice and be better persuaded to improve.

In the high-pressure world of tech, it might just pay off to try it. Company leaders are finding that "radical candor" techniques can help focus their teams on the big picture, rather than on conflicts that distract from it.

Challenging others directly, and with respect, can generate productive outcomes, says Radical Candor author Kim Scott. Her Radical Candor framework is designed to make tough conversations less difficult and more effective.

Candor and care: The fastest route to success

Communicate strategically by balancing two powerful forces — being direct and showing care. Practice with the small issues first so you can use this strategy to address higher-stakes conflict with more confidence and ease down the road.

To start, take a look at the upper-right quadrant of Scott’s diagram.
Source: Radical Candor.


“Ideally, you must build an environment that is more than just professional,” says Jason Rosoff, who co-founded Radical Candor with Scott. “You must create a world in which other people know you care for them. This allows candid communication to take place.”

When leaders communicate in a caring, yet challenging way, people often respond by taking positive action. Here are some tips for more effective workplace conversations:

Speak clearly and directly

The fastest way to this inflection point is to speak clearly and directly. Let’s use a simple example to illustrate how this might work: You need your team of engineers to deliver a product in time for an investor presentation. It’s imperative to meet the deadline, but you’ve received reports that some tasks are late and others are at risk. You need to talk to the manager, Mary.

When communicating with Radical Candor, you want to start the conversation with a direct approach that shows you care and are open to feedback. This invites positive communication, and therefore sets the stage for a positive outcome. Assume the best of an employee, rather than the worst, and you’ll likely be able to discover valuable information.

“I’ve noticed your project is running behind. I bet that’s stressful for you because I know you run a pretty tight ship. What’s happening and how can I help?”

This approach clearly identifies the issue, and provides a safe place for Mary to acknowledge the issue and provide further detail about the help she needs.

Beware of aggression

It’s typical to get defensive when confronted with a difficult situation, and the default response sounds overly aggressive.

“You’ve missed half your deadlines and all tasks for this week are at risk. The schedule is not changing and if you can’t meet it, we’ll find someone who can.”

This statement is very direct, but obnoxious. It places too much emphasis on your own power and shows little care for Mary. Remember that the purpose of your conversation is not to have an argument that you “win,” but to help correct a course and build a relationship in the process.

Avoid the empathy trap

On the other hand, if your response is overwhelmingly empathetic, you’ll ruin Mary’s opportunity for direct feedback that can help her be successful.

“I know this schedule is really tight — no one can blame you for being behind.”

This statement expresses you know the job is hard, but fails to acknowledge the responsibility and expectations Mary has been given. You may think that avoiding candor is the kind thing to do. However, it’s not the honest or fair thing to do.

Steer clear of insincerity

When your interactions have too much aggression or too much empathy, it’s really easy to slip down to the bottom left quadrant where there is no caring and no challenging.

“I’m sorry I called you out in the status meeting — I’m confident you’ll get the job done.”

“You’re right — it’s impossible for you to meet these timelines. I’ll tell the marketing team it’s not going to work.”

Even more problematic than any particular statement is the insincere intent of the message. You are not sorry, you don’t think Mary is right, and both of you know it.

No matter how direct and caring you are, though, it’s also possible your conversation can go drastically awry. In this case, repeat what you heard and restate your concern.

When others know you care, your interactions will be more productive. And if you can communicate directly, but with respect and empathy, you’ll build relationships based on trust and be able to promote positive change even when the stakes are high.

Robert Sureck is the Senior Market Manager for Silicon Valley Bank's Southwest region.