Crucial Conversations QA

Why “Brutal Honesty” Isn’t Honest At All

Dear Justin,

I get a little tired of dancing around issues. People want me to beat around the bush or butter them up before I come down hard on them. It’s not my problem if they don’t want to hear the truth. I’m just someone who tells it like it is, and sometimes that’s tough for people.

Brutally Honest

Dear Brutally Honest,

Sometimes, it seems easiest to say what you’re thinking and feeling instead of filtering your thoughts and comments. But, as honest as you think you are, I’m guessing your current delivery isn’t actually as honest as it could be. I believe you’re holding back some honesty in an effort to be a little “brutal,” as you stated. I’ll give a little advice here to help you be even more honest—incredibly honest. But not in the way you might think.

1. Your beliefs about something are not the same thing as ultimate truth. I’ve heard dozens of people say, “I just tell it how it is.” They say this as if the way they see things is the same as “how it is.” This fundamental misbelief is where we go wrong. I’m going to encourage you to be crystal clear on “how it is” by separating facts from stories. Make sure you completely understand what the other person said, or what he or she did, that has you concerned. Consider: what did he or she say? What are some of the behaviors he or she exhibited? How many episodes where there? Is there documentation of the situation that supports your concern? Just because you feel very strongly about your opinions doesn’t make them facts. The more you focus on facts—what you saw, heard, observed—the more influential you’ll be in the conversation.

2. Share your opinions as opinions, not as facts. When it’s time to talk, don’t overstate your opinions. Have you ever watched a political debate? Inevitably, during these events you’ll hear one, or both sides, say something to the effect of, “Actually, Representative Hale, the fact of the matter is . . . ” and then they proceed to share their opinion, view, or perspective on the topic. Why do they do that? Because they want to make their opinions seem like facts. They want to add more weight to their views to coerce people into agreeing with them by giving their opinions the façade of fact. You and I do this as well. Try the following:

  • Instead of saying, “Fact of the matter is . . . ” try, “It seems to me . . . “
  • Instead of saying, “You never . . . ” try, “The last three times . . . “
  • Instead of saying, “You don’t have any clue about . . . ” try, “I’m starting to think that . . . “

It’s not false uncertainty when we’re talking opinions. Facts are certain. Stories and opinions can be changed and molded.

3. Realize honesty is not what you think it is. As you mentioned, it’s common for us to feel like we can’t be “too honest” for fear it will hurt people’s feelings. This idea comes from a misunderstanding about what it means to be honest. Being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean, or “letting off steam.” Showing those emotions has nothing to do with honesty, but for some reason, we equate them with each other. Being more honest is about being more clear, more specific, more sincere, and more authentic. So, you DON’T have to raise your voice to increase your honesty. You DO need to be more effective at stating the observable facts of the situation and your honest perspective about those facts. My model for starting even the toughest conversations is this:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story (opinion)
  • Ask for others’ perspectives

If you do these steps effectively, there is no limit to how honest you can be . . . only a limit to how brutal you can be.

Take Care,
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25 thoughts on “Why “Brutal Honesty” Isn’t Honest At All”

    1. Great article! I can see myself in some of the situations where “my opinion” was spoken as a fact by the way I worded my sentence:( Great suggestions on how to re-state from opinion to facts. I especially loved the line that you don’t have to be hurtful, mean or angry to be honest. So many times I have been approached this way only to feel each of those emotions after the person “has been brutally honest! Thanks again:)

  1. This is a great post! I recently worked on a team where two of the “leaders” were the biggest jerks I had ever met! They described themselves as “brutally honest,” or “not having time to be PC,” as if those were things to be proud of. I particularly liked this sentence: “Being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean, or “letting off steam.” I wish every person who took pride in being a “straight shooter” realized that!

  2. I apprecite the distinction between the delivery and the content. Hard truths delivered with grace and openness are more easily accepted and elicit the desired response more often. Thanks for this perspective.

  3. Very well presented. Basically, being honest has nothing to do with being brutal. Our opinions are really not the fact of ANY matter.

  4. I have noticed that ‘brutally honest’ people would rather be heard and give their opinion that ensure they are trying to improve a situation. ‘Saying their piece’ is more important than a productive outcome, which will often depend on the buy in and cooperation of the people they are criticizing!

    I once read this truth about these type of people: “They say they call a spade a spade, but they really call it a shovel!’

    1. Nice! I’ve had to listen to the endless self-righteous monologues of “brutally honest” people all of my life. It’s nice to hear that someone is calling their bluff.

  5. People who relish in being brutally honest relish being brutal. It is just as easy to be honest without being brutal.

    “Tact is the art of making your point without making an enemy.” – Howard W. Newton

    This is much easier than we credit it as being, and a receptive audience will appreciate it. Too often, perhaps, the giver is not receptive of this principle.

  6. The issue with the reply is sometimes the truth is fact. People want you to act as if you aren’t sure about a situation or circumstance to allow them an escape from the truth. Sometimes brutal honesty is an opinion… and sometimes it’s a fact. If an opinion is and opinion well then state it that way but if it is a fact then state it that way as well. Usually the people that disagree with brutal honesty and get offended by it is because the statement pertains to them. Well if it pertains to you why isn’t the statement true???

  7. I prefer straight shooters. They’re open, honest and very straightforward. You always know where you stand. Nothing annoys me more than thin skinned people who sugarcoat.

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