Many people today embrace “brutal honesty” as a necessity in the business world—and even in social situations. The current attitude is that if you are not brutally honest, you are not really being honest. Embracing a reputation of brutal honesty seems to be, for some, a license to behave rudely, and to say whatever pops into their mind without regard for the feelings of the listener.
I disagree with that assessment. We often have to deliver feedback or information that is hard and uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean we have to deliver it in a way that will make the recipient feel even more uncomfortable. I have been the recipient of difficult feedback on more than one occasion. Sometimes that feedback has been delivered with brutal honesty, and sometimes it has been delivered with tact and diplomacy. I’m sure you can guess which was better received.
Honesty is necessary. Brutality is not.
The emphasis in brutal honesty should be on honesty, not brutality. Diplomacy and tact can go a long way in delivering a difficult message. In my opinion, speaking a hard truth is not the same as being brutally honest. A hard truth does not need to be delivered harshly or hurtfully to have its desired effect (unless, of course, that desire is to hurt someone).
One of the key drawbacks to brutal honesty is that the listener withdraws and stops listening because the message is delivered in a hurtful and demeaning manner. You can be effective, powerful and straightforward without that. That truth may be hard to hear, but it doesn’t mean it must be delivered in a hard way.
Here are some points to consider when delivering feedback that can help your listener to receive, understand, and appreciate your feedback.
Understand Your Motivations
Why do you feel the need to deliver the feedback in this way? Are you having a bad day? Do you have a conflict with the person you need to provide feedback to? Is there something about the subject or the situation that doesn’t sit well with you? If you can answer these questions and achieve internal resolution to issues that may lead you to deliver feedback more harshly than is necessary, that can make a tremendous difference.
Consider Your Audience
Consider the impact of your words on the person to whom you are speaking. Will your words be helpful, instructional, and motivating? Or will they be hurtful, shaming and demoralizing? The answer to these questions will depend on the listener. You must know to whom you are speaking before you give feedback.
Take time to consider the impact of your words and whether that is the result you—and your listener—want. If you aren’t sure, consider first what you would want if you were on the receiving end of your feedback. Second, consider that it’s generally better to err on the side of tact and diplomacy.
Don’t Beat Around the Bush and Be Clear in Your Feedback
Not being brutally honest doesn’t mean beating around the bush, using euphemisms, or sugarcoating feedback. In my experience, this is almost worse than “brutal honesty.” It pains me to watch someone stumbling around trying not to say what they know they need to say. Yes, sometimes feelings will be hurt. As the bearer of the bad news, it is up to you to own your opinion (because feedback is nearly always opinion as opposed to hard facts), put it out there succinctly, and back it up with necessary facts.
End With A Solution
Good communication should instruct and uplift. If you can find anything positive, or any way to help your listener, do so. Instead of just telling them all the things they have done wrong, or all the ways their ideas won’t work, offer possible solutions or support to help them move forward in the right direction.
A number of years ago, when I was running my photography studio, I was frequently asked to judge competitions for the local hobby camera clubs. After one such event, one of the organizers confided that I was their favorite judge. When I asked why, he responded, “You are never hesitant to tell us where our images fall short and to point out the errors we have made. But you are equally quick to offer suggestions and instructions on how we can correct those errors and improve our photography.”
As you find yourself in situations that seem to call for “brutal honesty” consider whether you can achieve a more positive result with tactful, diplomatic honesty. I think you will find yourself amazed at the difference you can make for your team and yourself.
What has been your experience with “brutal honesty?” Have you been on the giving end or the receiving end? And how did it impact you?