Stop priding yourself on being brutally honest

The truth already hurts. If you intentionally put the pain in the process, maybe you’re honest; maybe you’re guilty of being just a little too brutally honest.

So how can you determine the difference between honesty, brutal honesty, and outright cruelty?

Here’s one hint: examine the intention. Are you trying to hurt the other person, even a little? Shock them into listening? Then there may be a streak of abusive intent behind that honesty. The Canadian writer Richard J. Needham once wrote that “the person who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality quite as much as the honesty. Possibly more.”

So when is it not appropriate to be brutally honest? Luckily, the answer is easy.

You never, ever need to be brutally honest in the office

A recent tweet about a rather exacting executive’s search for an intern sparked a conversation about whether brutal honesty is welcome in the office.

The job posting said “I’ll push you into the pool, but I won’t let you drown,” just before adding “I will be brutally honest with you. I may be the first to do so.”

The reactions? Surprisingly welcoming from many.

Is brutal honesty in the workplace necessary—much less to an inexperienced intern who will likely be counting this as one of their first professional experiences?

Not necessarily, according to Ray Luther, Executive Director of the Partnership for Coaching Excellence and Personal Leadership at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Promises of brutal honesty are overshooting the mark, according to experts. Honesty is great and necessary — you can’t build a good company on lies, after all — but you can leave the brutality at home.

Your colleague experiences the brutality, not you

Luther explained to Ladders that “the concept of brutal honesty as a whole—both brutal and honest are relative terms to the person experiencing them,” so the most important part is determining who will be on the receiving end.

Luther continued, “What might be very brutal feedback for one person, might work for another person. It’s more about how they make sense of the feedback and their relationship with the giver.”

So, in the case of a newly minted intern with no previous working experience nor relationship with their new boss, brutal honesty might not necessarily be the best approach.

How to give honest feedback without brutality: know your listener

Luther helped explain the concept of brutal honesty in the workplace in terms of feedback, how it’s given, received, and processed. He says that as a coach working with young MBA students he regularly hears them saying they like clear, transparent feedback—which is a fairly universal comment to an extremely nuanced process.

The important part: Brutally honest feedback delivered the wrong way can cause the listener to shut down and lose any potential benefit.

Stacey Hanke, a C-Suite mentor, says she has clients who need positive feedback along with the negative. She also works with other clients who tell her “be tough with your feedback.  I can take it.” 

Hanke advises that “before sharing honest feedback, make sure you understand your listener’s style.  Do you need to slowly work your way to the tough feedback or does this person prefer you tell them how it is up front?” In other words, adapt your message and style based on your listener’s style. “Pay attention to what your listeners want so that your feedback is received and that you have influence on them.”

Before you hand out feedback, critique or your next brutally honest comment, Luther advises paying attention to the human dynamic going on. In a perfect professional world, the dispenser of critique or feedback of any sort really wants to make sure the person understands it and that the intended message is received.

Consider the relationship: are you speaking as a boss to employee? A manager to an intern?

Luther suggests you try to understand how the person on the receiving end may be processing or filtering your comment. “We all have our own filters,” he says, “We’re making sense of it based on our own values, our own personality, our own experiences.”

 And if you’re troubled by the way someone interacts with you or offers feedback, you probably can’t change them or their style— but you can change the way you react or process things.

Hanke adds “have a conversation with this individual to understand their style, for them to understand your style and to agree to how much feedback you both want, how often and how direct.”

What to ask yourself before being brutally honest

In case you’re trying to find your own balance between honesty and brutal honesty, ask yourself to articulate what’s important to you when receiving feedback.

Luther says that by clarifying your needs, you become more conscious and a better giver of feedback. He says the sign of a good leader is one who doesn’t say “I’m brutally honest and you have to take it and suck it up. The good leader will make people better and help develop them. Sometimes that requires courage and candor and tough love.”

While Luther says that he doesn’t believe in beating around the bush and filtering feedback, he tempers it and balances it with his level of desire for the person to develop. It should never be about telling them they’re wrong.

Luther ends by saying if someone is only doing or saying something to “shout it out unfiltered without regard for the person’s feelings, emotions or thoughts,” that their level of influence is compromised. And that’s being brutally honest about it.