Brutal Honesty Isn’t

I have to be brutally honest

Oh it’s brutal, all right. But it’s not honest. Real honesty is empathetic.  Here’s how.

I suppose you could be honest in a vacuum – but who cares?  Was Robinson Crusoe honest?  Until Friday came along, that was just a silly question. You can’t be usefully honest, except in relation to or with someone.

Honesty Implies a Relationship

If you’re honest with someone, then suddenly it’s about a relationship. You might be honest with them, or you could lie to them; both are a form of relationship.  The quality of your honesty affects the relationship, just as do the quality of your appearance, your manners, or your powers of observation.

If you’re in relationship, you may intend to honor and promote that relationship – or, you may choose to work against the relationship,  to take advantage of it for your own purposes, or disavow it, or destroy it. If your intentions are to further the relationship, then honesty – and any other theme – must serve that goal.

Positive Honesty

This is what we usually mean by honesty; telling someone something they will find helpful, sharing information with them in the hope that knowing it will give them a broader view, being open so as to be of service to them. And when we behave honestly with these motives, a collateral benefit is that the relationship itself improves.

If these are your motives in being honest, then you will strive to make the information useful, and able to be heard and understood by the recipient. After all, if the information you present is rejected, or causes resentment, then it cannot help the other person. Additionally, the relationship will be damaged. In being honest, you intend your message to be accepted. If the medicine needs a spoonful of sugar to go down, keep the sugar bowl handy.

Brutal Honesty

But what if your motives are other than to help the other person?  Suppose that, for reasons perhaps obscure even to yourself, your motives are to be right; or to prove that you had been right all along; or to provoke a violent reaction; or to cause pain. What is the effect in those cases?

The effect is almost always negative. The person rejects the advice, and the relationship is damaged, with each party going off muttering imprecations under their breath about the other.

But what about the times when we simply have to confront someone to get them to see the error of their ways? When there’s just no substitute for rubbing their face in it, for conducting an intervention, for shocking them into seeing the truth, which shall then of course set them free? This is what goes by the name of Brutal Honesty.

My experience is that for every 10 of those cases, maybe one works out. The others fizzle out and create havoc. The brutalized party rarely comes to full consciousness and thanks us for saving their soul. Instead, they just stop talking to us. At best.

Brutal honesty, then, is an oxymoron. If you are to be brutal, you will not long stay in relationship. If your view of improving relationships involves brutalizing them, you will not find many willing to travel that road with you.

If someone says to you, “I have to be brutally honest with you, ” say, “No, actually, you don’t. And I don’t have to hear it, either. Now, what was it you wanted to say?” And don’t overly weight what they tell you.

If you are ever tempted to tell someone, “I have to be brutally honest with you,” go hit yourself upside the head with a closed fist, to remind yourself how it feels to be brutalized.

Then ask yourself, “Do I care about this person and this relationship?  Then what do I have to share with them that is constructive, useful, and builds the relationship based on positive honesty?”

  • Robert Terson

    I love articles that cause me to think, Charlie; this one certainly did that. I believe you’re spot on, in that pure (my word) motives are the key to passing along honest (“sensitive”?) information, which brings us back to the poignant question, Is it all about you or is it about the other guy? A sentence that really grabbed me–”You can’t be usefully honest, except in relation TO or WITH someone.”–caused me to ask myself, Do we have relationships with ourselves? According to what you’ve said here, we must, because there are times when we have to confront ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, which doesn’t always go down the pipe easily–no matter how gently we try to swallow it. Perhaps our motives in these situations, too, are the key. I think so, because we don’t always have the purest motives even when dealing with ourselves, do we? That must be why Shakespeare said, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

  • Charlie

    Robert,

    Thanks for weighing in, that’s very thoughtful. I didn’t originally mean to include the idea of relationships with ourselves, but, for the reasons you state, it does actually seem to make a good deal of sense. Good thinking!

  • Tony

    Thank you Charlie. I have loved your blog for a while as it has reinforced my own attitudes and thoughts. This piece however, really gave me an insight as to what my own position may be when I give a bit of brutal honesty to my colleagues and family. On reflection, it is probably more about me and my need to be right and prove that I was always right. I think I have at times used the brutal honesty excuse to make myself seem altruistic. Thanks for the insight.

    • Charlie

      Tony, what a highly self-aware thing to notice; good for you. We’ve all done that, but not all of us are good enough to notice when we’ve done it.
      Thanks for the nice words.

  • John

    Charlie,

    Thank you for another thoughtful post. Intentions do matter in our communications. I find that when I am fight to be right I normally look back on the conversation

    Have a great day

  • Peter Niemandt

    Charlie, once again a great article! And it could not have come at a better time as I work with a group, who are hell-bent on giving “constructive criticism” to each other…So, once again, thanks a million. Cheers, Pete in Australia

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