I often talk to people about being honest and truthful. I meet people who tell me what honest people they are and how they ‘tell it like it is.’ But, I don’t often meet honest people who also have good outcomes with their honesty. There are often one of two things going on here: One is that, we are ‘honest’ when we are upset about someone else’s actions, thoughts, or words. So, we want to tell them the truth from our perspective, even if it hurts them. What’s the saying? “Sometimes the truth hurts.” But, what is missed in this statement is that telling the truth doesn’t have to be done in a hurtful way. The second thing that may be going on, is that we think we need to educate someone about something we think. So we drop our “brutal honesty” or truth bombs on them, to help them or educate them into a new understanding, typically our understanding. I think that both of these ‘truths’ are a little self serving, but I know I have had moments when I felt the need to share my perspective and told a hard truth to someone.
The problem with telling the brutal truth to someone else, is not the truth part, but the brutal part of the delivery. I taught Anger Management for the Air Force for 7 years, and several of the responses I have gotten to this honesty issue have sounded like this, “I am not going to sugar coat the truth!” or, “I am a blunt person, just deal with it!” or “Sorry if the truth hurts, but it’s the truth and that’s not my fault!” or “I am not responsible if you don’t like the truth!” Or, one of the many personal variations on this theme. What I would like to ask is this, “Were you effective and did you get the outcome that you wanted with your method of truth telling?” Because where I have seen this go very badly is, we told the real truth, like it is man, no fluff, and we blew the other person out of the water, we sunk their battleship, and now they won’t or can’t hear us. We may have severed the relationship, or created ammo for them at a later time and conversation. Basically, we did harm and our truth was not only useless, but may have been abusive. And, my guess is that probably wasn’t the intent behind the ‘truth,’ but it might certainly be the impact.
When I was young, somewhere along the way (I think it was my mom), someone told me, “If what you do with the truth is blow someone up, my point, my insight, my message, the value of the very truth I was telling, would be lost. The way to help my truth be heard, was to develop it around the idea of True, Kind, and Necessary.” These three values were the legs that stabilized the truth, these were the values that helped people hear the truth from me. This concept fits very neatly with “Socrates’ Triple Filter Test,” True, Good, Useful. It also is something you heard at least in part, in childhood, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I don’t subscribe to the last statement, because sometimes I have to say something difficult. But, my goal is to be heard by the other person. And, if I have something difficult to say and say it in a mean and hurtful way, I know I won’t be heard.
I see True, Kind, Necessary as aspect or legs of a stool, without all three, you lose stability. I have heard people say, just use a 2/3 model, if it is two of the three, you can say it, but I believe you run the risk of saying something either, untruthful, unkind, or unnecessary if you opt for that rule, so I stick with the power of 3. This does mean we sometimes have to slow down our statements, think about our responses, gain insights into what we are really trying to say, so we can say it clearly and concisely. And, I guess, at the end of the day, if the conversation is so important to you to have, or the statement and truth are so compelling, you actually owe it to your conversation to do it well. Or, otherwise maybe you should have just left it alone.