To Tell or Not To Tell: The Three-Question Transparency Test

We’ve all had those moments when we realized we knew something that someone else didn’t know and it was awkward. Think of the last time you were at lunch and you noticed your tablemate’s big, toothy grin adorned by a piece of big, leafy spinach—yep, that’s the kind of awkward we’re talking about. Even though most of us probably ascribe to a principle of Transparency—being honest, open, candid except when illegal or injurious to others—we’ve all made the choice at some point to say nothing.

The question is: did we do the right thing?

Use the Three Question Transparency Test to find out.

When a Lie by Omission Seems Like a Pretty Good Option

On the surface, it’s easy to say “Honesty’s the best policy!” Dig a little deeper and it’s not so clear.

Let’s look at some client examples to make this real—cases where you know something that he or she doesn’t (or might not), and you wonder “to tell or not to tell?”

– Imagine you’ve discovered a mistake in your work. The impact is relatively minor. Does it help or hurt the customer relationship to call attention to it?

– Or…you’ve discovered a mistake in your client’s work. The impact is significant. So is the likelihood of embarrassment (or worse) for them. Are you honoring or dishonoring the relationship by saying nothing?

– What if you learn something unfavorable about a competitor—one your customer is currently engaged with. Are you the hero or the jerk if you bring it up?

– And—maybe the worst of all—what do you do when you notice your client has spinach in her teeth?

End the Debate with the Three-Question Transparency Test

The next time you’re debating “to tell or not to tell,” ask yourself three questions:

1. Is my reason for not telling actually for my benefit, rather than theirs? Let’s face it: we human beings have a natural tendency to avoid scary, uncomfortable stuff—and that includes not telling things when telling is precisely what will honor the relationship. Is it really in the other person’s best interest to say nothing or is your desire to avoid your own discomfort creating a platform for a nice, juicy rationalization?

2. If I don’t tell and he finds out later, will he feel misled? This question invites you to see the situation from the other person’s vantage point—always a good practice when it comes to relationship-building. (By the way, if you’re banking on the fact that he won’t find out later, check your probabilities…and your motives.)

3. Would I tell her if she were my friend? This is my favorite question because it really cuts to the chase and invites us to set aside the arms-length decorum (often masked as “professionalism”) that defines most business relationships.

If at any point your answer is yes, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Say what needs to be said (with compassion and diplomacy, of course – caveats help immensely.)

An Even Simpler Test

If three questions seem like too many, here’s the ultimate litmus test. Thanks go to Chip Grizzard, CEO of Grizzard Communications Group, who recently shared these words of wisdom. Chip says, “If you’re expending any energy on the debate, then it probably means you should say something.”

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

In Theory and In Practice

While the principle of Transparency sounds good in theory, it’s actually very hard to live by. It takes courage. It takes a willingness to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It takes a commitment to removing yourself from the equation. And it takes a certain level of discernment to figure out when it’s hurting versus helping to sidestep the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Use the Three-Question Transparency Test—or the simpler “Grizzard Gut Check”—the next time you wonder whether to tell or not to tell.

10 replies
  1. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Great post, Andrea. (It always makes my day to stop in here and find there’s an article from you.)

    I find that in these sort of situations I usually want to help, but I have to overcome obstacles of my own anxiety and insecurity. In other words, the challenge for me is to justify doing what I already know is right and to spur myself into action.

    Here are two additional questions that I find helpful:

    1. Is it likely that no one else is going to [tell Andrea she has spinach in her teeth]?

    2. Will the information sit better / easier coming from me than from someone else?

    (Rats, I wanted to work in an example of telling Charlie his fly was undone, but I just couldn’t manage it.)

    Notice that these questions work for me because I’m trying to justify positive action; for those who may seize an opportunity to talk themselves out of taking action, it’s easy to manipulate the answers here and these questions are better left skipped.

    Thank you again for the great post. (And your teeth are just fine.) 🙂

  2. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Andrea: Chip’s comment caused me to reflect back to a former colleague of mine. Years ago when I ran Mgmt Dev programs for a consulting firm, the Vice Chair would always help facilitate the promotion courses. He would always throw out a hypothetical dilemma in the section that dealt with ethics and professional behavior. Needless to say, it always elicited a interesting discussion. He always ended the segment by saying, “…there will be many times in your consulting career when there will be no black or white answers to rely upon. So when that situation comes up, ask yourself – how comfortable will I be a year from now sitting across from Mike Wallace explaining this decision to him [and the millions of TV viewers] on a “60 Minutes” program.”

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    This really got me to thinking; so thanks, Andrea

    If two of your examples were reversed, is it a “no-brainer” that folks would speak up: (1) – Imagine you’ve discovered a mistake in your work. The impact is significant. Does it help or hurt the customer relationship to call attention to it? (2) Or…you’ve discovered a mistake in your client’s work. The impact is minor . So is the likelihood of embarrassment for them. Are you honoring or dishonoring the relationship by saying nothing?

    Great questions. I’d also add the notion of integrity here (perhaps that’s “understood” as a “given, here). That is, doing the right thing. Can one be in integrity by not speaking up/out? This one gives me pause. I suppose it depends.
    As for the “spinach in her teeth” scenario, I’ve been reflecting after reading this and in my case, I’ve seldom had any angst about bringing up such items, BUT, I’ve always, first, asked permission, (May I mention something to you?” or the like) and, second, spoke in private, or very sotto voce (spinach, open fly, zipper, unbuttoned shirt collar, static electricity issues…). For some reason, I’ve never had a problem doing this. And, I can’t think of anyone who pushed back when I did. Maybe they’re were being gracious and hated me for calling their attention to afterwords but I always had the “felt sense ( Chip’s “energy” element) it was OK; and, too, I always would ask myself this thought with the “spinach”-type thing – “would they like to go through the rest of their day with this?” Maybe I was judge and jury but as I said, it always felt OK and from what I gather folks seemed to be more appreciative (and sometimes embarrassed) than angry of resentful.

    Related to your #1 question, a flavor of it: “Am I taking care of him/her/them” by not speaking up?” That’s a childhood thing that many folks bring to adulthood. Talking care of “mommy” or “daddy” so I’ll be a good boy or girl in either their eyes and/or my own eyes. So’ I’ll be quiet. It’s a kind of “narcissistic goody” that allows people to be “liked.”

    I love your question #3. So many folks talk about “friendship” at work, being connected with colleagues, and the like, but when “friendship push comes to shove,” they back off. Even some partners and spouses do this.

    Chip’s words of wisdom ring so true. Our body is our best barometer of where we are, what we’re feeling, what the “truth” is. Discomfort means something’s going on “in me.” When I feel this physical-somatic discomfort it’s a good sign that I need to check in with myself and see what’s up, not deny, suppress or repress it..

    Your “in theory and practice” ending is excellent and for me it spells “integrity.”

    Thanks so much for this, Andrea. I think it’s GREAT!

  4. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Great post, Andrea. I am reminded of “right speech” in Buddhism, which asks (1) is it true? (2) is it necessary? and (3) is it kind? The focus is always on intent. I find the less energy I have on saying something, the better it’s received, back to Chip’s comment once again!

  5. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Thanks, all, for the thoughtful responses.

    Shaula, thanks for adding the perspective of what it takes to justify positive action (along with your usual candor about the anxiety and insecurity that gets in the way of doing what’s right — so true for us all). Your two additional questions are gems.

    Barbara, I love the “’60 Minutes’ Test” — a great one for us to add to our bag of tricks whenever we’re grappling with ethics and issues of professionalism.

    Sandy, I’d never heard of “right speech” in Buddhism. Thank you for that contribution. It reminds me of another three-part test taught to me by a grad school instructor – (1) Does it need to be said (see blog post), (2) Does it need to be said right now, (3) Does it need to be said by me. I guess good things come in 3’s.

    Peter, there are many times when I wish you had been my lunch companion — the ease you have with bringing up “spinach in the teeth” items would have saved me a lot of embarrassment! Unfortunately many people (at least those I dine with) don’t find it so easy. Your point about listening to our bodies is well taken, too — if we feel the churn in the stomach or the the stress of the “brain like a rat on crack” phenomenon (shout out to Charlie Green for that phrase) then it’s a sure sign that it’s time to “check in,” as you say, to see what’s going on.

    And Charlie, if you’re out there listening, gee, (sotto voce) this is awkward, and we all hate to be the ones to tell you … how shall we say it … it’s snowing down south!


  6. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Andrea, I just came across some great resources that made me think of this post: a collection of resources from MIT’s bystander training.

    1. 6 Steps to Bystander Action (adapted and expanded from Darley & Latane’s Bystander Intervention Model)
    2. Why Bystanders Don’t Act (at the same link as #1)
    3. Responding to Situations, with examples of strategies both in the moment and after the fact

    The six steps are very congruent with the discussion here on this post.

    (via Alpha’s comment on a post about sexual harassment intervention approaches and policies that work well, stemming from the current discussion about a high profile sexual harassment investigation in the University of Oregon philosophy department.)

    [PS I really wish your blog comment system had a preview feature. And I say that in anticipation of having mucked up the html on one or more links in this comment.]

  7. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    This post reminds me of a great line I read once some years ago, about the difference between a civilian and a cop or firefighter. If we see someone acting crazy we avert our eyes and move to the other side of the street.

    The police officer or firefighter says:”Oh goody, Santa got my letter.” A bias toward action. I would hope we can all move a little more from bystander into action.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] “To Tell or Not To Tell: The Three-Question Transparency Test“ was first published at the Trust Matters blog. […]

  2. […] during the program I led on Trust-Based Selling for Grizzard. The question on the table was, are there ever times when you shouldn’t tell a client the whole truth? Chip was in the room at the time (role modeling that he, too, had things to learn and it was worth […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *