Speaking Truth - Persuasively

Sir John Chilcot's Iraq War Report criticised senior civil servants and the military for not doing more to challenge Ministers in the months leading up to the war. Sir John later told the Liaison Committee that senior officials should “take their courage in both hands and insist on their right to be heard and to record what their advice is, even if that advice is not taken”.  But how do you communicate with Ministers in a way that ensures that they listen to you?

There is some good training material available for those lucky enough to work with those many politicians who are willing to listen to advice, even if they can’t always agree with it or accept it. Recent examples include Christopher Jary’s Working with Ministers and How to be a Minister written jointly by ex-Minister John Hutton and ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis. But civil service trainers feel that they cannot publish anything that suggests that Minsters are less than perfect. There is therefore little or no published advice for those working with a politician with a more difficult personality. I hope that this web page will go some way to filling that gap. It includes, in no particular order, thoughts on:

  • Initial Impressions
  • The Art of Persuasion
  • Transactional Analysis
  • Project budgets and timetables
  • Offering and receiving challenge
  • Crew Resource Management

Initial Impressions

I confess that I once got this badly wrong, respectfully but unnecessarily appearing other than subservient in an initial meeting with a Minister who was known to dislike civil servants. I should have known that it is best to do everything you can to first convince a Minister that you are their loyal and devoted servant.  You need to forge the kind of bond that will later allow to be seen as a critical friend - someone who knows when - and when not - to be brutally honest. Take your time (if you can) and wait for the Minister to accept that you know what you are talking about before you attempt to challenge his/her views.

Be aware,though, that (lack of) personal chemistry might anyway get in the way – sometimes unknown to you.  Ministers may (quite unfairly) react adversely to your age or educational background, or may feel patronised when you display your experience.  This was (to the latter’s surprise) a big element in Tony Blair’s initial dislike of Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, whom he found somewhat patrician.

Ministers are also often displeased when they find that their officials are better networked than they are.  Try to hide it if you can.

Hopefully, however, there will eventually be a moment when you can crystallise that bond that should exist between Minister and trusted adviser. If you have first established their trust, have been respectful, and not undermined them, most Ministers will be grateful when you can help them overcome a problem, or find another better route to their policy objective.

The Art of Persuasion

It helps, too, to read and remember expert advice on effective persuasion - advice more often directed at sales teams, but relevant nonetheless. There is lots of advice available in bookstores and elsewhere. None of this advice is at all modern, of course. Aristotle argued an audience will more likely accept propositions put forward by a credible speaker. To appear credible, he said a speaker must display (i) practical intelligence, (ii) a virtuous character, and (iii) goodwill.

And almost all modern writers repeat Blaise Pascal's advice, written in the 1600s. In short, before disagreeing with someone, you should first point out the ways in which they are right before helping them discover a counter-point of their own accord and so persuading them to change their mind:

"When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. ... People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others."

Experienced officials do this almost without thinking. They adopt the Minister's aims as their own, whilst gently - and a little later - suggesting that there might be better ways of reaching the desired objective.

Transactional Analysis

We all communicate with each other as superiors, as equals or as inferiors and we frequently adopt different approaches to the same person at different times. Problems invariably arise, in work as well as at home, when one party’s approach does not meet the expectations of the other.

The usual starting point in any analysis of expectations is that we all expect to be treated with respect, and with due recognition of our different skills, experiences and perspectives. For instance, we should not talk down to Ministers (although some colleagues seem to forget this*) or to the public (ditto). And Ministers should not talk down to us - or to the public.

*I strongly suspect that this was a big factor in Ivan Rogers falling out with Prime Minister Theresa May during the early stages of the Brexit negotiations.

Sometimes, however, you may need to signal clear subservience. You may, for instance, need to defer to a Minister if time is short, or if he or she clearly has much more experience or knowledge than you, or if he or she has already heard enough and wants you to accept their decision. The need for you to do so is usually signaled pretty clearly. If you are slow to notice the signals then problems will certainly follow.

Equally, excessive use of deference can also cause problems. Ministers, managers and the public expect to deal, most of the time, with experienced professional civil servants. Lengthy displays of deference will cause them to write you off as inferior in ability as well as status.

So if your relationship with a Minister seems to be fraught or distant, or if you suspect that they actively dislike you, consider carefully whether you are signaling superiority, equality or inferiority when they are expecting something else.

This analysis can also improve the effectiveness of your submissions.  I was always taught to make clear recommendations – “I recommend that you should …” – but I have noticed that recently interviewed Cabinet Secretaries say that they generally suggested that “The Prime Minister might …”:- a softer and probably more acceptable formulation at that level.

Further notes on this subject may be found on my Personal Relationships web page.

Project Budgets and Timetables

It can sometime be helpful to suggest to an enthusiastic Minister that more haste generally equals less speed, even though they may feel that you are dragging your feet and/or seeing unnecessary obstacles. They may however recognise the thought that there is a natural rhythm to a good project – nice and slow and cautious at the beginning, so that rapid pre-planned progress can be made at the end. It is a trite but accurate observation that a new building will soon be finished after its foundations have been laid. Ministers will still need to make those big bold announcements, if only to forestall the announcement of a similar ambition by a rival.  But such announcements should explicitly allow you time to research and plan the project in some detail. 

Benchmarking can be a very useful tool.  Ministers are more likely to listen to advice that "X achieved something similar within Y months after spending Z", and so recognise that it is unlikely that he or she could expect to do it in much less time and for much less money.

Click here for a more detailed discussion of appraisal optimism.

Offering and Receiving Challenge

The dreadful process failings that led to the mistakes of the Iraq War have led to much soul searching in Whitehall. One result has been an MoD document which contains the following excellent advice.

Chilcot tells us that it's important to avoid 'groupthink' as we develop policy, and the best antidote to that is reasonable challenge. An environment in which challenge is expected and accepted is important. People should be receptive to reasonable challenge and assume that it is provided with the best of intentions, while those offering challenge should know how to do so effectively. Challenge isn't about proving someone right or wrong; rather it's about highlighting and exploring alternative options. These cultures and behaviours reflect a healthy organisation.

When offering challenge, you should:

  • Make challenge with courtesy and politeness.
  • Be prepared to explain the logic and reasoning behind your alternative view and provide evidence. Keep your challenge concise and relevant to the issue at hand.
  • Think about the interpersonal dynamics. Keep it professional - it's the issue you're challenging, not the person. Be respectful to the approach form which you are differing.
  • Choose your moment and your medium. A one to one discussion or a smaller team meeting may be more appropriate than a big meeting at which positions are being taken and decisions are expected; a gently proving conversation or email is better than a confrontational one.
  • Raise issues in a timely manner. Don't leave your challenge too late in the process, when changing course could be too difficult.
  • Accept if the eventual decision remains unchanged - a decision has to be taken once all reasonable challenge has been considered. Only in cases where regularity or propriety have not been observed should you need to turn to the Department's whistle-blowing process."

When receiving challenge, you should:

  • Not take it personally - the challenge isn't about you, it's about the issue at hand.
  • Make it known that you welcome reasonable challenge, and create space in the way you run your business to receive it. Recognise that challenge might result in change.
  • Seek real diversity of thought, not just shades of mainstream thinking.
  • Give staff the opportunity to fully articulate different views and give them credit for doing so and remember that the person challenging shouldn't be expected to have a solution there and then.
  • Demonstrate that you are giving serious thought to the challenge being offered - do not dismiss it out of hand and make sure people aren't just telling you what you want to hear.
  • Respond respectfully - never belittle someone's view, and never (even after the event) sideline those offering it.
  • If you do not accept the challenge, explain your reasoning, include supporting evidence when necessary.
  • Encourage the use of evidence from beyond the immediate organisation, think tanks, academia and other sources.
  • Support both junior colleagues and peers to raise a challenge with more senior colleagues.'

Crew Resource Management

The above MoD advice is consistent with the best Crew Resource Management practices of airlines and larger shipping companies, who came to realise that a high proportion of accidents could have been avoided if old-style autocratic Captains had listened more carefully to their crew, and/or their crew had been more willing to point out possible errors. There are occasional signs that the NHS, too, is learning similar lessons, although the prosecution for manslaughter and striking-off of Dr Bawa-Garba will have set back the acceptance of CRM in hard-pressed hospitals.


It is unrealistic to expect Ministers always to welcome advice. Even the best of them will have days when they simply want to be obeyed. But it is good if they can subsequently make amends. I quite like this story told by Robert Harvey about the Duke of Wellington:

'To his chief medical officer ...who had the temerity to differ with him on an issue he snapped: "I shall be glad to know who is to command the army, you or I?" However, he asked the good doctor to sit next to him that evening by way of atonement.'


Martin Stanley


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