Trustworthiness is essential to good relationships, and honesty is essential to trustworthiness. Being honest isn’t simply telling the truth, though. It’s also being sincere and forthright. Thus, it’s just as dishonest to deceive someone by half-truths or silence as it is to lie.
But what if honesty requires us to volunteer information that could be damaging or hurtful?
For example, should you say something when a coworker begins to dress or act in a way that’s generating ridicule and damaging his or her credibility? What if you discover your friend’s husband is having an affair? Do you tell your brother bad things you know about a woman he’s getting involved with?
It’s easy to rationalize silence in such volatile situations because it’s less dangerous for you. Telling hard truths, however well-intended, can seriously damage relationships. On the other hand, silence can be viewed as a betrayal of trust if it’s later discovered that you withheld information.
When considering conveying a hard truth, and the principles of honesty and kindness can be in conflict, there’s no single right thing to do. In such moments, be respectful and heed these four critical guidelines:
- Motive. Be sure and pure about your reasons. Your intentions must be honorable and constructive; have the well-being of the other person, or at least the organization, at heart. If you are conveying a hard truth to punish or humiliate the other person, or simply to speak your mind it is not about truth, it’s about meeting a personal need or desire, don’t rationalize.
- Tact. Choose and prepare your words carefully. Your wording matters a great deal. If you know the information could be potentially devastating, rehearse to lessen the chance that you’ll be misinterpreted or that the person will not perceive your caring and hear your message.
- Tone. When speaking, avoid self-righteousness or accusations.
- Timing. Context is crucial. Pick a place and time that will lend itself to a frank interchange. Be sure the setting is appropriate to allow the person to absorb and consider the information. Avoid impulsive statements likely to be construed as an attack.