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Speaking Your Truth: The 5 Whys

In this May series, we will discuss how to speak your truth, navigate other people’s reactions to your truth and help others find and speak their truth. What do I mean when I say, “speak your truth?” It is being able to communicate your needs, ideas, boundaries and even your convictions to others without wavering and in a way that other people can hear you. This is often done in a situation or a relationship important to you or when it feels the stakes are high. These moments can produce feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, so it is important that we go into those conversations with a clear sense of what our truth is and how we want to communicate it to others.

Why is speaking your truth important? By having confidence and clarity in your communication will help you maximize your contributions to your team, help you find your way out of conflicts, assertively and non-aggressively set boundaries with others, and create clear expectations for your team and the people around you. The art of speaking your truth includes not only standing firm on your truth, but also helping others hear the heart of what you are saying.

Speaking your truth is a powerful way to communicate your needs and values to others while maintaining openness and grace. We may think we are doing this effectively, but it is much harder than most of us realize. Stay with us throughout the month of May as we explore speaking our truth.

We will start this series by figuring out how to identify our truth. After all, how can we speak our truth if we can’t identify it to ourselves? You will hear me say this throughout this series, but speaking your truth (especially in conflict situations) is about standing firm, but not about stepping on someone else’s toes. Below is an exercise called the 5 Levels of Why. The 5 Whys is a root-cause analysis process developed by Sakicki Toyoda, who used it to diagnose car manufacturing methodologies. We can adapt the exercise to help us identify the ground we want to stand firm on when speaking our truth.

The 5 Levels of Why

People tend to speak in positions, evaluations, judgments or solutions. We form opinions on issues we care about, then typically communicate our stance on that issue. Our stance will likely be shared by some and rejected by others, which undermines how others hear our truth.

To speak our truth and stand firm on our own two feet, it is important that we understand why we have this opinion. Consider the 5 Levels of Why exercise. Take what you think is your truth and ask yourself why it is true for you or why it is important. When you have your answer, go deeper and ask yourself again and again until you are 5 levels of why from where you started, or you simply cannot go any further.

Here is an example from my personal life:

Initial thought: We should get up early and walk the dog every morning.

Why is that important? (1st Level): It will get her energy and wiggles out.

Why is that important? (2nd Level): If she gets her energy out first thing in the morning, she is less likely to need a walk during the workday.

Why is that important? (3rd Level): If she doesn’t need a walk during the middle of the day, I can get more work done.

Why is that important? (4th Level): If I can get more work done, I will set myself up to have a more successful career.

Why is that important? (5th Level): If I have a more successful career, I will be able to provide more security for my family.

Notice that what was once a simple idea about how my fiancé and I structure our day turned into a conversation about providing security for our family. Now I know the thing I want to stand firm on isn’t about dog walking, it is about security for my family. Walking the dog is simply an avenue toward that end, to which there are other solutions and ideas that can contribute to family security. Perhaps we come up with other ways to provide security for our family that doesn’t relate to the dog walking schedule that I wasn’t considering before. This exercise sets me up to stand firm on the important issues and at the same time take a flexible and collaborative approach to how this can be accomplished.

Walking the dog in the morning, however, may have other levels of why that don’t lead to family security. For example, on the 3rd Level above I might also be able to say it is too hot in the middle of the day to walk the dog, which will lead me to a different truth to stand firm on at the 5th Level. You can do this exercise multiple times for the same topic and discover multiple truths. Let me know what you think of this exercise or if you need any support identifying your levels of why. These are the truths we will focus on next week when we discuss how to communicate our truth to others.

Luke Wiesner is the UC Merced Conflict Resolution Coach , a private resource for staff members who are interested in having a partner to support workplace challenges or conflicts. This service is voluntary, and you can partner with the coach by yourself or with fellow university employees.