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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Poke People In The Eye With Truth And Then Give Them A Hug

Comments (119)

Indulge me while I think out loud. I’m trying to decide if I like the phrase “poke people in the eye with the truth” or not. Help me by reacting to the following rant – good, bad, bullshit – and feel free to poke me in the eye with truth if you’ve got some, just give me a hug at the end.

Last week, at the Startup America Regional meeting, I got into a conversation about the role of state and local government in the development of startup communities. I went on my typical rant about how entrepreneurs have to be the leaders and government is a feeder to the startup community. I talked about a few things government can do that have a positive impact and a number of things government does that hurts startup communities. More specifically, I talked about specific types of people in government and their roles, including the people with an “economic development director” title (or something like that – who I’ve come to learn are called “ecodevos” which makes me think of Devo and the B-52s and then my brain goes somewhere completely else other than startup communities and government.)

One of the people I was talking to said “that’s all well and good, but I’m not comfortable telling my fill-in-the-blank-with-a-government-title person this stuff. I’m concerned they won’t respond positively to this. I strongly agree with you on what your saying, however. How should I approach this.”

I responded that “sometimes you just have to poke people in the eye with truth.” Be blunt. Be direct. Be firm. Don’t be an asshole – just say it like you see it. And if they think that makes you an asshole, that’s their loss. And when you are done, give them a hug so they know you care and are trying to be constructive.

I carried that line around with me for a week. I observed myself (which is deliciously meta) poking people in the eye with truth and then giving them a hug. My animal spirit, according to Amy when she’s in an earthy crunchy woowoo moment, is a giant polar bear. I like to think of this as the warm, cuddly, lovable version of a bear – the one that won’t crush you when it hugs you. Somehow these two thoughts merged together in my head and continue to circle around.

I’m at Venture Capital in the Rockies today. This is our annual Colorado VC / entrepreneur thingy. Last night I had dinner with a bunch of entrepreneurs who didn’t have dinner plans. It was last minute and a lot of fun. At the end of the dinner we got into a great conversation about the state of the local VC community and I was characteristically blunt about what I thought had happened, was going on now, and would go on in the future. While I have no idea if I’m right about the future, I made the strong assertion that it doesn’t actually really matter that much given the incredible underlying startup community and incredible entrepreneurial talent in the region.

While on the surface there’s plenty of political correctness about this conversation, and lots of “we need more VC money”, which I’m sure will be echoing in the hallways at VCIR today, I realized that I was once again simply asserting my belief that this didn’t really matter. At dinner, I wasn’t poking any VCs in the eye with the truth since there weren’t any there, but if they had been, I’m sure that’s how they would have felt I was behaving. It probably wouldn’t have been comfortable, but if they’d been willing to respond and challenge my assertions, it would have been a robust conversation.

I’ve got plenty of other examples of this from the last week, but you get the gist of this. Is “poke people in the eye with truth” a good phrase, or just nonsense?

 

  • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

    I’m not sure how what that phrase is describing differs from ‘don’t be a grin-fucker’.   Isn’t the real gist here ‘just be honest, but not hurtful’?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      One is passive (don’t be a grinfucker) and one is active (poke people in the eye with truth). Similar behavior, but different actions.

      • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

        The core behavior (tell the truth) is the same, tho, whether that’s done passively or actively.  Semantics.

        The difference, if any, may be in how vested you are w/ the person on the other end.  Seems to me this wld dictate (for me, at least) how much effort (i.e. passive v. active) to put into delivering the truth – the ‘*don’t* grinfuck’ v. ‘*do* poke…’

  • http://cynthiaschames.tumblr.com/ Cynthia Schames

    I think it’s not only a good phrase, but it’s a vital way to BE.
    The thing is, there are millions of people who want to blow smoke up your ass, especially in the entrepreneurial world.  See: grinf*ckers.
    There are very few people who care enough to actually think about your ideas, dissect them, and then give you the straight hard truth.  But those few people are the ones who really matter most and are incredibly valuable. To me, criticism (being poked in the eye with truth) is the highest form of sincere praise, because it means someone actually cared enough to take their time and give me actionable feedback. It can mean the difference between failure and success, or between survival and domination.
    And hopefully, it’s followed with a hug.  But even if not, I’d rather have my eye poked than go around delusional.

  • http://twitter.com/CindyOKeeffe Cindy Moret O’Keeffe

    Great phrase.  Many are good at the lovely hug part but sidestep the hard conversation.  Your phrase is a reminder that “you  can’t have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat.”

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Awesome – you snuck some great Pink Floyd in there. Big smile.

  • latpro

    i like it. similar to ‘tough love’ but more specific and graphic… could get old quickly for the same reason if overused.

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    Not to get all religious on you, but the Talmud says the ideal teacher-student relationship is one where the teacher:

    ‘pushes away with the left hand, but draws close with the right hand’

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Great talmudic reference.

  • http://twitter.com/pravesh pravesh

    If people are willing to received feedback, then being straight (or poking as you say) is the best thing. More often, people just want to hear good.. and poking only pokes their egos and not their minds.. So I would be careful and poke only with definite purpose.

  • Bill Draper

    Maybe the phrase, “poke people in the eye” will take people a little while to get used to, but I don’t have a better phrase right off. I believe this approach is further up the maturity hierarchy than the more PC grin-fucking approach. Some people won’t take it well, and to your point, that’s their loss. The more mature will take it as it was given – thoughtfully and carefully considered. And they will also give equally careful consideration to the input. Of course the truth of the one doing the poking may be no more truth than the truth of the one being poked, but we owe it to them and to ourselves to speak what we believe the truth to be.

    I often think about working on product ideas as this ‘thing’ that’s on a table in front of us. It’s not ‘mine’, or ‘yours’, it’s “an” idea. Then we all poke at it. What doesn’t survive the prodding gets set aside, what does gets moved forward.

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  • Mike Greczyn

    Eye pokes tend to blind people, or at best make them all squinty, which may not be helpful when you’re trying to show them the way. Maybe “hit them with the ice cold water balloon of truth”?

  • http://stevenhb.myopenid.com/ StevenHB

    Your post reminds me of all the people management stuff I’ve read that talks about managing people in a way that works for them.  I don’t believe that any one approach works for all people.  “Poke them in the eye” will probably work for some but for others you might need to use a different (softer) approach to be equally effective.

  • http://patrickfoley.com/about Patrick Foley

    I like it – and I think the follow-up hug is important, too.

  • http://datageekitude.blogspot.com/ Adam Hertzman

    Specifically with government involvement in building entrepreneurial communities, “poking in the eye with truth” is fine, but some tact is imperative. In my experience, government bureaucrats and elected officials both value straight talk and prompt follow-up action, but years in the political realm being poked in the eye by opponents (sometimes literally when the debates get heated) have made these individuals cognizant of the need for consensus-building. Thus, a statement such as, “Sorry to be poking you in the eye with the truth, but I believe passionately in this cause” will go a long way towards making the poking less painful.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    I don’t know if I like the metaphor “poke them in the eye” because that connotes a long term hurt, I have said I like to slap some truth in them and then give them a kiss.  We both must have watched three stooges.

    The point is to shock the person out of the bullshit mode.  I do get that when I hear somebody talking about getting a center of excellence, blah, blah, blah.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    I like the principle.

    The analogy and the picture feel a bit gross though.

    And I’m guessing style needs to be tailored to audience.

    Some people do better with nudging than brute force (maybe not the government..)

  • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Not one of your best ideas. Poke in the eye suggests your weapons are drawn. Maybe, ” awaken them with a cold bucket of truth”.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Hmmm. I like the idea of “dump a cold bucket of truth on their head”

      • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

        I like it! Give it A test run.

        • http://freepository.com John Minnihan

          Yes.  “A cold bucket of truth”

          • http://explainitstudios.com/blog/ Mgav

            Lovingly followed by a warm towel?

      • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

        Btw. I just googled ” 409a valuation ” and your blog was número uno on the results page. you should get a badge for that :) or at least use it as a place to promote your book.

        • http://www.feld.com bfeld

          Ah – the joys of being an expert at esoteric things.

  • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Down in dirty water is no place for a paper doll (rachael yamagata)

  • DaveJ

    Seems like some of them would pull a knife during the hug, and let you have it.

    Remember the awesome eye-removal scene in Kill Bill 2?

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      I think of the black mamba scene regularly. It’s one of the best scenes ever.

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    Not really feeling that specific phrase.  what about, knock then off balance with the truth, but make sure your both still standing.

    Sometimes the other person can fall down, thats no good.  Sometimes they can grab and bring you down too, thats no good either.

  • http://www.IAmDann.com/ Dann Berg

    Poking someone in the eye with the truth leaves out the part about the hug. Maybe more of a deflating? But something a bit more blunt than “bursting a bubble.”

  • http://dylan.tweney.com Dylan Tweney

    I don’t know about the phrase, but I can’t un-see that photo, and now my eyes feel really uncomfortable.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Hah! Yeah – that photo weirded me out pretty bad so I decided I should share it.

    • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

      my nose feels uncomfortable :) do not try that…

  • temporarily anonymous

    My family’s construction business recently built a home for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition which I imagine is the tech equivalent of a hackathon. Building a house in 106 hours is as insane as it sounds and far more insane than it looks on tv. In any case, it was a very stressful sleep-deprived period and one of our team members during the build was having a hard time dealing with another of our team members – both independent business, volunteering for the build, great in their own right but not so sweet when mixed together. One was marketing and one was PR – there was some overlap, they disagreed, their feud became public via social networks and that was unacceptable given the reflection on our business and the distraction from the task at hand. So, at 3 am one night at around hour 45, after about 20 hours of work that day alone, I had to address this issue – I had just found out that it was dangerously close to becoming an irreparable problem. I sat down with the marketing group, with whom I was wrapping up loose ends at the time away from the job site. I complemented them for all the great things they had done. I then poked them in the eye with truth, and gave them an ultimatum – swallow your pride and put a bandaid on the gapping wound you created or go home. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to manage. There were honestly tears shed, there was some twisted laughing over ‘how did it come to this’, they agreed and we literally hugged it out and I told them how thankful I was to have them on our team. I was told by my antagonist that my tactic was, in management speak, the practice of Build – Burn – Build. I don’t know if poke them in the eye with truth and hug them in the end has the initial “Build” but maybe you: draw them in with a high five, poke them in the eye with truth and hug it out in the end. 

  • http://www.vegasstartups.com/ John

    My religion has a scripture that says, “Reproving betimes with sharpness … and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;”  Seems pretty close to what you describe.

  • http://twitter.com/andyidsinga andyidsinga

    nonsense.  you already speak your mind – so why do you need this phrase? 
    People who know you already know you’re like this. For your books just add to the preface “Brad speaks his mind [edit] and tries not to be a total dick in the process …yada yada”. tada!

  • narikannan

    Brad – I agree with your approach and the phrase also. Yes. You are right. When local Economic Development bodies get involved with things like investing and handing money out for Business Plan competitions and such, they are always accused of incompetence, favoritism or even outright nepotism. They can only create the right conditions and can be a catalyst but never be participate as an active ingredient in the reaction. The phrase applies very well to managing people also; some people react well to subtle hints thrown here and there but it never hurts to be direct in the first place saving all that hand wringing on whether someone got the message or not!

  • MacW

    Just a quick take on the governmental aspect within your post.  They’re already poking you in the eye….no hugging.  Their role should be the old axiom;

    a. lead
    b. follow, or
    c. get out of the way

    Preferably ‘c’.  Pink Floyd actually addressed that very issue….’High Hopes’

  • http://explainitstudios.com/blog/ Mgav

    Concept is great. Phrasing is okay.

  • Barbara Tien

    Hey, Brad, it works for me.  Here’s a thought though: First, get close enough to poke (or hug.)  All too often advice givers decide they’re the “poke in the eye” truth teller types.  They don’t stop to realize that they need to first establish their credibility with the recipient of the advice.  Only when you do that first will your poke hit the mark and your hug make a difference.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=526609250 Rocco Chappie

    As long as it comes from the right “place” its the best thing to do. Most people don’t understand that truth has to come from an honest place and it is not to be used to harm, but to help. Keep it up!  

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  • http://pinds.com larspind

    Ouch, yes, the photo really hurts. Would you hadn’t done that :)

    But the phrase is great. Just make sure it’s not about making you feel superior, but about genuinely helping by speaking the truth. Not saying you’re doing that, but I could see myself use the excuse of “poking someone in the eye with the truth”, ie. doing the right thing, as an excuse to secretly be smug and feel superior.

    //Lars

  • David DuPont

    I am going to disagree with much of the thread here. Much of the world is trying to “poke someone’s eye out” with what they consider to be “the truth.” This approach almost never has the desired effect because the recipient of the poke isn’t receptive. I find it much more productive to question rather than pronounce. Responding to a well-formulated question avoids the natural defense mechanism that comes into play with the full-on frontal attack.

    • Josh Sims

      I think you just poked everyone in the eye with your truth. No hug ;(

      • http://www.feld.com bfeld

        Knowing Dave, the hug was implied!

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      Dave – good point. I’m feeling like the trend on this phrase is negative in my mind. It works in some cases, but there are lots of others where it doesn’t. So – the general case isn’t comfortable.

    • Derek Scruggs

      This is a really good point. A couple friends of mine do coaching and are very good at it. The secret to their success is to *not give any advice at all.* Instead, they to ask open-ended questions in such a way that the coachee arrives at the conclusion on his or her own. I’ve had them use the technique on me and it’s very powerful. 

      I don’t know if there’s a way to scale it beyond one-on-one interaction, but if someone figures out a way it would be extremely useful.

  • Derek Scruggs

    “Are we not men? We are Ecodevo!”

  • wfjackson3

    You should just walk around with Bo Fishback for an hour. You can smack people in the face with some truth and he can give out the hugs.

  • http://www.samedaydr.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Isnt an investment in a idea stage startup after 60 minutes just purchasing a “call option”  on the model/founder(s).     The issue, to me, is does  a portfolio approach on startups (like other asset classes) out-perform  a managed approach.  Lets look to the data to find out. The good news is that at least we are dealing with sophisticated Investors and for some this is a small part of their total asset holdings. 

  • Celine

    Agree and have been trying to implement this for a while but I find that many people don’t care much about the hug once they received the poke. I think it’s a matter of knowing who you’re poking.

  • http://adingintheuniverse.com/ Emily Merkle

    When I accidentally-on-purpose poke out an eye with my truth and someone lets me have it, I sometimes thank them for Caring Enough to Get Pissed. 

  • http://www.samudranb.com Samudra Neelam Bhuyan

    Maybe it should be “give people a hug, and then poke them in the eye with the truth”?

    I feel strongly about two things:
    1. “Truth” depends on perception. Your truth may not be my truth, simply because we have different backgrounds. To guard against this requires a meta-level beyond most.
    2. Taking the time and the effort to “give someone a hug” gives you a moment’s worth of consideration for the other person’s feelings, and whether poking them in the eye is indeed worth it. Maybe the other person would be better served if you gave him a milder version instead?

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