Honesty is the best policy… except…

A debate followed my post on speaking the truth, that I think clarified my position somewhat. Ultimately though I’m amazed that I ended up being interpreted on the side of those who would use white lies in business. However, I’m no longer the outspoken 20 something year old who could shock people with her improper remarks – I’ve become more of a diplomat, despite myself. But I’m still very capable of standing up for what I believe in despite what people may think.

I’m not quite sure how this happened – I think I came to realize that words shape our communal reality. What we say to people becomes in its turn part of the conversation about a topic. And that conversation involves not just the facts of what we said, but how we said it, who we blamed for what, our positioning in the social landscape.

I think sometimes what happens as people write online, they write about what they have learned. Starting out very outspoken and undiplomatic, I’ve learned to hold my tongue a bit more. I’ve learned that silence is indeed often the best policy. I’ve learned that my words can easily be understood as more aggressive than I mean them. And although it seems my lot in life to be in general outspoken and sometimes controversial – I do realize how useless it is to be so when no purpose can be served: not my own, nor someone else’s. After all – much of what we say to each other is opinion, not fact. Emotion and interpretation, not the unbiased truth.

For those of you who were raised to be diplomatic and deferential to authority, learning to be more outspoken and honest may well be part of your learning process. Ultimately it’s a balancing act. There is certainly a place for honesty, but there are in many cases very good (and not selfish) reasons for being diplomatic. It’s far easier to go to one extreme or the other than to find a safe and wise middle ground.

Without proper communication conflicts can not be resolved – nor prevented.

But holding grudges can also be a form of so called ‘honesty’ and that’s not useful to anyone. It will not teach the person against whom the grudge is held, nor will it make he person who expresses his or her distaste any happier. Instead expressing our frustration and disappointment can hurt relationships more than we meant to. I’m saying that out of personal experience, because I’m prone to this mistake. For those of you who are prone to bottle up this sort of thing – please take me as saying the opposite: it’s very important to learn to communicate emotional issues and ask people questions about what they do when you don’t understand.

I guess what I’m saying is that we should use wisdom in what we express.

We should at least be aware that emotion clouds our words, and those of others. That emotion is as much a factor in most conversations as the ‘facts’  we try to talk about. We impact other people’s emotions by what we feel, as much as by what we say. But when words and emotions are in line, something very powerful happens. This can work for good if our words and emotions are full of kindness and understanding. But when we are angry or frustrated, harm can also be done. In many cases it is safer to just hold your breath. The old advice to count till ten is still good. That is: if you’re angry, the other person will attack or retreat. They will respond to emotion with emotion – unless they are uncommonly wise themselves. This can easily escalate.

To avoid such confrontation, staying as calm as you can manage is certainly the best policy in most situations. By which I don’t mean that disagreements should not be spoken about. I’m saying: pick your battles. Find a middle way that includes open communication as well as respect for other person / people and their strengths and weaknesses.

6 thoughts on “Honesty is the best policy… except…”

  1. Hi Amy,
    Thanks for responding.
    I think staying calm is the best policy even in many cases where the provocation is NOT meaningless.

    I’ve recently been witness to several quarrels that got out of hand because people – with plenty of provocation – could not stay calm. It is natural to respond to aggression with anger, but one can only prevent escalation by staying calm.

    And I’m not at all suggesting this is easy.

  2. I found this article very well written. I work in an atmosphere where telling the truth can have interesting consequences. My co-workers are very often challenged when I will tell a patient or family member what may be a seriously bad news. What I have learned is the old song is very true, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” (Paul Simon-The Boxer, i think) If news or knowledge are too painful, the person simply will not consciously acknowledge what you have said.
    I have also learned that one way to defuse anger is to simply acknowledge and reflect, “You seem angry, can you tell me about it?” I was amazed to find this technique working with family and friends as well as strangers. Even when think they are angry with me. I usually can make things right, because I don’t act with malice, but I do make mistakes. Acknowledging mistakes you’ve made validates the person who feels wronged, and usually results in a resolution that works for everyone.
    I really liked this post. Good food for thought.

  3. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for sharing.

    One other issue with telling the truth when it may hurt is that it may make it easier for people to realize it when they are ready to.
    There’s a difference between people saying they agree, and people listening. I think it’s very often the case that even when people don’t seem to hear, they may still store it somewhere inside and it may germinate there. I’ve sometimes made it a point to very strongly put up an unpopular opinion, not because I thought people would agree or give any acknowledgment that they were listening – but simply to make sure that they were familiar with that point of view.

    In all these things balance is the main thing – but it’s a very difficult balance.

  4. I’ve been reading my way through your blogs and websites and somehow ended up here. It’s such a good post. I learned a long time ago that breathing deeply or counting to ten is important for me, personally. It was a good lesson to learn.

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