Candid communication, transparency, and speaking truth to power are important elements of feedback, growth, and change. Yet practicing what some people call “brutal honesty” is problematic, and it’s often counterproductive. Instead of igniting positive change, it can create resistance and damage relationships.
But it’s not uncommon to encounter people who wear this label of “brutal honesty” like a badge of honor, as something that’s part of their identity. During casual conversations, they may include phrases like, “I’m brutally honest” or “I say it like it is.”
The appeal of brutal honesty is reasonable at the surface. We generally appreciate honesty and candid communication—or at least the idea of it. We sometimes equate “brutal honesty” with strength of character or integrity. And some situations do indeed call for difficult conversations. That’s absolutely true.
But reality is complicated. Lying can be destructive and can reinforce counterproductive behaviors, routines, and systems. Honesty is tremendously valuable. Yet how we communicate with honesty really matters, and brutal honesty is often a brutal mistake.
To begin, what is brutal honesty? A simple way to think about it is that it is communication characterized by the candid expression of thoughts or feelings with little or no regard to how it may negatively influence the thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors of the recipient.
What Brutal Honesty Looks Like
If we dig deeper into what’s really going on when people are being brutally honest, it’s often the case that:
- They’re saying something to make themselves feel better—more righteous, more “correct,” smarter—not to help the other person.
- They’re stating an opinion or venting about how they feel—not discussing verifiable observations or data.
- They’re not considering how what they say will affect how the other person sees them. They’re not thinking about the relationship.
The main problem with brutal honesty isn’t the honesty—it’s the brutality.
Additionally, every time we communicate, we’re not just sharing whatever information we intend. We’re also making an implied statement about how we view the relationship with the other party. That’s why brutal honesty can be so tricky. Oftentimes, “saying it like it is” can result in damaged relationships, broken trust, and ultimately end up with the brutally honest communicator becoming isolated because no one wants to interact with him or her.
It’s also often ineffective. Brutal honesty doesn’t take into account the many barriers that exist to the reception of feedback. Getting tough feedback can threaten one’s sense of self, such that when people feel personally attacked by another person’s communication, they can become emotionally flooded and resistant to change.
A Better Way: Benevolent Honesty
Sometimes people need to hear information that’s tough to hear. In those situations, it’s important—and more effective—to consider the following:
- Is what you want to communicate really necessary for the good of the other person, or is it more about you wanting to vent?
- Are you sharing verifiable facts or data?
- Are you balancing your statements with compassion and empathy?
Instead of brutal honesty, it’s better to practice what Nathan Fulham and his colleagues term “benevolent honesty” in their article in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. In their words:
A better approach … is to give clear, honest feedback in a way that promotes the well-being of the recipient. We recommend “benevolent honesty” because this communication approach enhances the likelihood that recipients will be receptive and able to discern the truth in the feedback. In contrast, feedback characterized by brutal honesty, obnoxious aggression, manipulative insincerity, ruinous empathy, or false encouragement are all likely to create problems for receptivity and discerning the truth in feedback.
Communication—including unpleasant feedback—is inextricably part of work and life. It’s also riddled with complex emotions, different perspectives, and tricky motivations. But the evidence seems clear that taking an approach of benevolence instead of brutality while making our best, good-faith efforts at honesty is a valuable way forward.
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References and for further reading
Burgoon, J. K., & Hale, J. L. (1984). The fundamental topoi of relational communication. Communication Monographs, 51(3), 193-214. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637758409390195
Fulham, N. M., Krueger, K. L., & Cohen, T. R. (2022). Honest feedback: Barriers to receptivity and discerning the truth in feedback. Current Opinion in Psychology, 101405. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101405