They say that honesty is the best policy. But have you ever been on the receiving end of someone telling you what they think (of you), and hearing “I’m just being honest?”
Yep, it stings. And often, it’s meant to.
“Those pants don’t look good on you. I’m just being honest.”
“I think you’re really acting immaturely and you need to get your sh*t together. I’m just being honest.”
“I really don’t like your new boyfriend. You need to dump him. What? I’m just being honest.”
When we use the phrase “I’m just being honest here,” it doesn’t usually come after something lovely and positive.
“I really adore your new haircut. I’m just being honest.”
“You are such a wonderfully caring person. I’m just being honest.”
(Okay, maybe some of us say that, especially when our compliments are received with a quizzical look and a “you be crazy, lady” reaction from the recipient who doesn’t see themselves in the same way.)
But the sting doesn’t occur from compliments; it occurs when someone is trying to take us down a notch with their negative opinion and doesn’t feel like being empathetic.
We’d like to think that the person uttering these kinds of pointed statements is just a real jerk, but relatively nice people utter them all the time too.
If someone asks us our opinion about someone or something, and our opinion is negative, what are we to do? Tell a white lie to save their feelings?
We’ve been taught since we were kids that it’s much better to be honest. Honesty is a virtue and lying is bad, and it’s not authentic when we have to pretend.
If we lie and we feel bad about lying, then we can feel guilty. But if we tell our truth, and it hurts the feelings of someone else, then we can feel guilty for that too. It’s a lose-lose situation.
So how do we be honest, without being brutally honest?
The brutality of honesty
Honesty feels brutal when it is expressed without any kind of empathy for the other person’s perspective or feelings.
“I’m just being honest” is the disclaimer — as though the honesty should just stand on its own as a given. There often then follows a certain smugness, like a gold star should be awarded for the candor.
Honesty, in that context, is more about the speaker’s position or opinion and less about the conversation between two people.
It becomes a defensive response couched in the pseudo-polite energy of aggression.The saying “I'm just being honest” is a defensive response couched in the pseudo-polite energy of aggression.Click To Tweet
The honesty is just a delivery mechanism for a brutal blow — a chance to feel superior or more powerful, even if just for a moment.
When honesty becomes a position in the game of “right” and “wrong,” it stops being an authentic expression. Fixed positions tend to separate people instead of bringing them together.
When we get to that point, blunt honesty without empathy can be hurtful to the recipient. And if the recipient expresses that hurt, then the response is often, “Don’t be so sensitive.” Followed by, “I’m a strong personality. Get used to it.”
It says, “I’m right, and you’re wrong, and the conversation stops here. I’m not interested in being curious about your perspective.”
This is a fine recipe for a relationship breakdown.
Now, this could all be solved if we just stopped asking for anyone else’s opinion (or giving our opinions especially if we haven’t been asked). But that’s not realistic — talking about what we think and how we feel is a necessary part of relationships. And you know what they say about opinions: they’re like certain southern parts of the anatomy and everyone has one. They can’t be avoided.
So what are we to do?
The gentle delivery of honesty
When we share what we think, believe, and feel with people, it requires a certain amount of openness and vulnerability: we care about their perceptions of us because we want to feel liked and accepted. When we differ in our perceptions and experiences, we risk being rejected and that feels bad.
Becoming defensive and stalwart in our position is a way to feel less vulnerable: It’s okay if you reject what I think, because I’m right. I’m being honest. I’m going to validate my opinion over yours and make you the vulnerable one.
Now, most of this is done subconsciously, it’s not even in our awareness — and this reaction is built by habit over years of being triggered in the same way by multiple people in our lives.
Yet we still have to take responsibility for our reactions and our delivery.
If we can drop the “I’m just being honest” defence and really get present to the conversation, we can keep the lines of communication open. And if we can give some empathy for the other person’s perspective and experiences, we are more likely to receive empathy and openness in return.
Practising radical curiosity can help us connect without necessarily having to give a negative opinion. Most of the time, when people ask us what we think, they are just hoping to have their opinions validated. And when we tell people what we think, we expect to have our opinions validated in some way as well. So it’s not really about the opinion, it’s about both parties wanting to feel seen, heard, understood, and accepted.Honesty is a function of ensuring that both parties are seen, heard, and understood.Click To Tweet
Empathy not only asks us to consider how the other person will receive our opinions, but also to consider that they are perfectly fine just as they are — even if they have a characteristic or way of being that isn’t something we want for ourselves. Acceptance doesn’t come with judgment; it just says, “this is how you are and this is how I am” and both perspectives are okay.
How to be honest, but without the sting
Most of us aren’t brutally frank (although on the Internet, it seems like no one’s feelings are to be considered), but we still want to learn how to be honest without hurting anyone’s feelings. It can be a narrow line sometimes. Here are some ways to be transparent and empathetic at the same time.
- Recognize that your honesty is just reflecting your own opinion. And when stating an opinion, it can be helpful to be mindful of the language you use. Using “I” statements keeps you ownership of your opinions, instead of projecting them onto the other person.
- Be mindful of the energy you are bringing to the conversation. Are you feeling confrontative or defensive? Are you feeling angry or aggressive? There is nothing inherently wrong with these feelings, but it’s difficult to hold a constructive conversation and have positive resolution when these energies are present. It may be helpful to take a step back and cool down a bit before expressing your perspective.
- Let go of the need to have your opinion accepted by others. Your opinion is your opinion: it doesn’t have to be liked or validated by anyone else.
When two people differ in their opinions, and their opinions are coloured by their own perceptions, there is no official right and wrong. Trying to force the other person to accept your opinion just creates more resistance. They are more likely to be curious and understanding about your perspective if you can drop the need to be right.
- Become curious about the other person’s perspective. Why do they think what they think? What is leading them to be that way? What is their experience? Why did they make those particular choices? The more curious we can be, the more empathetic we can be, and that allows the other person to open up too. Without curiosity, relationships can become distant.
- Go a bit deeper. Usually a contentious conversation doesn’t begin with the surface interactions. In it is contained some habitual pain: I don’t feel heard. I don’t feel understood. I feel judged. I don’t feel significant. I’m afraid. This pain happens on both sides of the conversation. And when we get defensive or conflict arises, the pain starts talking and no one really listens. The question to ask it, “What is this really about?”
“I don’t like your boyfriend, I’m just being honest” can become much more healing if the emotional depth is revealed: “I’m afraid that your boyfriend will take your attention away from me and our friendship, and I’m scared to lose you.”
Vulnerability is the key to really connecting, and honesty is a way of being gently open to it without needing to be brutal.
Please don’t go without leaving a comment and sharing your experience with us.
How do you approach being honest with someone, even though they might not like what you have to say?
How does it feel when someone gives you a negative opinion about who you are or what you do?
How would you like them to deliver their opinion instead?
Keep shining the insight light,