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What is Radical Candor? 5 Ways to Make Sure Your Criticism is Kind and Clear

What is Radical Candor? The whole point of Radical Candor is that it really is possible to Care Personally and Challenge Directly at the same time. Radical Candor is not brutal honesty, it’s being kind, clear, specific and sincere. We can break free of a false dichotomy that leaves too many people feeling they have to choose between being a jerk and being an incompetent. That’s a terrible choice, and nobody has to make it. In fact, if you really care personally about somebody, you will tell them if you think they are making a mistake — and when they are doing something great.

Radical Candor happens at the intersection of Care Personally and Challenge Directly. Care Personally means that you care about the other person, not about whether you are winning a popularity contest. Challenge Directly means that you share your perspective and invite the other person to do the same. What’s more, using improv to practice these skills can help make it less awkward. According to a study published in the journal Organization Science, cultivating improv skills can foster positive behavior on an individual, team and organizational level.

What is Radical Candor?

There is a world of difference between Radical Candor and brutal honesty, or as we call it, Obnoxious Aggression. It’s bad, but Ruinous Empathy can be even worse, and Manipulative Insincerity is the worst of all.

  • Radical Candor is kind and helpful.
  • Obnoxious Aggression is praise that doesn’t feel sincere or criticism and feedback that isn’t delivered kindly. Obnoxious Aggression is also called “brutal honesty” or “front stabbing.”
  • Ruinous Empathy is “nice” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It’s seeing somebody with their fly down, but, not wanting to embarrass them, saying nothing, with the result that 15 more people see them with their fly down — more embarrassing for them.
  • Manipulative Insincerity is a stab in the back.

What Caring Personally is NOT

  1. Caring Personally does NOT mean getting all personal with somebody who wants privacy. I once worked with a man who had a terminal illness. Work was the only place where nobody had to know about that, or ask about that. The best way I could Care Personally about this man was to protect his secret, and never once ask him about his health. We focused on the work.
  2. Caring Personally also does NOT mean over-sharing personal details of your life with those around you who may not want to hear them, who may be made uncomfortable by them.

What Challenging Directly is NOT

  1. Challenging Directly does NOT mean you can assume that whatever you think is “the truth” and therefore should be shoved down people’s throats.
  2. Challenging Directly does NOT mean you are right. You may be wrong. In fact, you should expect and welcome a reciprocal challenge.
  3. The “direct” in “Challenge Directly” does NOT mean to be brutal. Radical Candor is not brutal honesty. It means to share your (humble) opinions directly, rather than talking badly about people behind their backs.
  4. Challenge Directly does NOT mean just saying whatever pops into your head…

What Caring Personally IS

  1. Caring Personally is at its core common human decency. You don’t have to have a deep personal relationship to have this as your point of departure. But if you work closely with somebody — if for example you are somebody’s boss — you need to begin to develop a positive human relationship with that person.
  2. Caring Personally is inherently about thinking of others, putting their success and needs ahead of your own. At its best, it is not about being loved; it is about loving.
  3. To Care Personally, one must move at a pace that doesn’t make the other person uncomfortable. The fox in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince described what I’m talking about most beautifully.

What Challenging Directly IS

  1. Challenging Directly is giving people the kind of heads up that underlies basic human decency. Imagine that you were working on a construction site and you looked up and saw a man cutting an iron beam — but sitting on the wrong end. When he finishes cutting he will plummet eight stories to his death. Challenging Directly is sort of like saying, perhaps yelling even, “Hey, you’re on the wrong end of that beam, you’ll plunge to your death if you keep cutting!” Of course you’d do that, and right away, right??
  2. But there is no reason that moving quickly has to mean moving disrespectfully. It’s not going to help the guy to preface your warning with a “Hey, dummy!” And, it could be that you don’t understand what he’s doing, and he’s actually not about to plummet to his death…. Challenging Directly is first and foremost humble. It’s tempting to say that “Caring Personally” is about love, and Challenging Directly is about truth. But there is a problem with the word “truth….” Which gets me to why we call it Radical Candor, not “brutal honesty.”

Why It’s Called “Candor”

We chose the word candor over truth or honesty very consciously.

There is nothing humble about the Truth. There was a Jesuit missionary a colleague of mine met in the Congo in the early ’60s. It’s important always to tell the truth.” The missionary then looked heavenward. “But who knows what the truth is?”

I always think of this Jesuit when somebody says to me, “I’m going to tell you the truth.” How are you so sure you know what the truth is? Are you sure I don’t have a clearer idea of the truth??

We chose the word candor because, to us, the word has more of a “here’s what I think, what do you think” connotation than the words “truth” or “honesty” do.

Why It’s Called “Radical”

What Is Radical Candor? Why did we choose the word “radical?” Here’s a definition of radical: “(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.”

The reason we use the word Radical is that the kind of candor we’re talking about is rare. It feels unnatural to practice it. It flies in the face of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all” maxim that most of us have heard since we learned to talk. Changing training that’s been instilled in us since we were eighteen months old is hard. But, with playful practice and a commitment to being kind and clear, Radical Candor can change your relationships at work, home and everywhere in between.

A version of this article by Kim Scott, the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss without Losing your Humanity and the co-founder of Radical Candor LLC, appeared on the Radical Candor blog.

Improvising Radical Candor is a co-production of Radical Candor, LLC and Second City Works. By exercising Radical Candor through improvisation, teams learn the art of giving and receiving feedback while developing core improv fundamentals that emphasize skills like active listening, staying present and being others-focused. Want to learn more? Get The Feedback Loop, our workplace comedy series and supporting learning materials, starting at $59 for our self-paced e-course.


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