Let’s be honest about being honest
“Well, but that’s just the truth.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t lie — I say it like it is.”
“I’m a blunt person.”
That’s what you say when you’ve said something you believe is true, but unpleasant. I’ve often said them myself. And as social media amplifies both individual opinions and fake news, there’s increasing faith in brutal honesty as the best way to cut through the noise and separate truth from falsehood.
But when I hear things like that (or say them), an approach I first came across over a decade ago appears increasingly relevant. It’s a thought from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Speaking the truth in love.” (4:15)
Or, as I like to call it…
Honesty with heart.
I can tell you for free (and from experience) that’s one crazy hard thing to live up to.
Why honesty with heart is hard
It’s hard, first of all, because it expands being honest into a dual responsibility: as if speaking the truth wasn’t hard enough, you have to think how to do it lovingly.
And that creates the second difficulty: honesty with heart requires you to turn away from the instinctive desire to express yourself and focus more on what’s helpful to the other party.
In other words, empathy. Suspending your own view of things for a bit, so you can try to see through another person’s eyes, feel through their mind. Not because there’s anything wrong with the way you see things is wrong (and there might well be), but because it’s almost certainly incomplete.
Honesty with heart means choosing to make empathy a prerequisite for honesty.
Imagine what the world would be like if we all actually did that…
Okay, back to reality—that world is certainly only in your imagination. But when you consider the advantages over what we have now, you have to wonder: why is it that we don’t try to take this obviously helpful approach? I can think of four reasons:
- We are just naturally more about ourselves, and it’s harder work than we’re interested in to try to understand where others are coming from. (Especially when we are so obviously right.)
- There’s no easy way to say this second reason: let’s be honest, sometimes — more often, perhaps, than we’d like to admit — we really just want to cause people pain, don’t we? (There, I said it.)
- A third reason is, it’s hard to define what’s good for other people. It really is. Everyone wants such different things, and even on what we agree is good, we still disagree on how to go about it. Much easier to just leave well alone.
These are all serious difficulties—and the third can be especially thorny. What then is one to do? Luckily, there’s a way around these problems, that I was able to see because of something I learned in medical school.
A practical approach to honesty with heart: “primum non nocere”
Primum non nocere is a fundamental principle of healthcare ethics, and is Latin for, “First, do no harm.” The idea is, you can’t always help a patient, but you can at least ensure that you don’t worsen things for them.
And the primum non nocere principle offers a great starting point that resolves the third problem (it’s hard to define what’s good for someone) by focusing on the first two (our tendencies to think only about ourselves and to want to hurt others).
In other words…
You can resolve to be as honest as possible, but never just to express yourself or hurt someone.
It’ll still be hard to actually do, but looking at this way certainly makes things clearer: you know exactly what to consider and you will know (if you’re being honest with yourself) when you cross the line.
And I can tell you from painful experience: you will certainly cross the line. So if you’re going to practice honesty with heart, you’re going to have to get used to something even more difficult: apologising when you catch yourself being thoughtless or deliberately hurtful. (“But I only said the truth!” you’ll think, with instinctive defensiveness. Yes, but the apology wouldn’t be for saying the truth: it would be for saying it anyhow.)
And be clear, the goal here is honesty with heart, not honesty without hurt. The goal is not to ensure that no one feels hurt — not like that could possible be within your control. And anyway, focusing on not hurting people can easily become more about your coming off as nice, than about their best interests — and the two don’t necessarily go together.
The point is to avoid hurting people needlessly — or worse, deliberately.
Honesty with heart is about protecting others from our worst tendencies and our good but misguided intentions. And in our increasingly divided world, it’s important to remember that truth is not abstract and that “honesty” cannot be divorced from the motives behind it and its actual effects on people.
It’s time we said no to brutal honesty. Let’s be honest about why we are being honest.
Let’s practice honesty with heart.