Be Honest Without Being Harsh

Do you ever wonder if you should avoid telling the truth to keep from hurting someone's feelings? Not only is it possible to be comfortably honest with people in situations that require an offensive response, candor is often the kindest and most honorable way to express yourself and help other people avoid the perils of false flattery or mistaken confidence.


  1. Remember that honesty is the basis of all healthy relationships, whether with a friend, a significant other, co-worker or any other person. Honesty gives rise to trust, which is essential for maintaining relationships. Honesty also establishes consistency, allowing the other person to rely on what you say as carrying true meaning. Most importantly of all, honesty is about respect and valuing the dignity of the other person.
  2. Recognize how dishonesty plays itself out within a relationship. Lying to a friend or other person can ruin a relationship, sometimes instantly. Even if dishonest behavior goes undetected for a time, it will white ant your relationship––insincerity and a lack of investment in the well-being of the other person burrows into the subconscious of those at the receiving end, even through the most finely crafted lies and pretense. Dishonest behavior in relationships can include:
    • Fawning over someone even though you don't particularly like them. Sometimes this is to get something you want (such as a promotion, a role, a gift, money, etc.), while other times it is simply because you are too insecure to own up to not liking this person much. While it can be difficult to maintain relations with a person you don't much get along with, you can agree to respect each other's differences instead of lying outright.
    • Pretending you like something someone has done or made for you/given you/shared with you. For example, you might pretend to like a friend's rock-hard baking or pretend that your boss's presentation is fantastic even though it's a bore. In each case, you have an opportunity to enlighten the person that they need to improve but lying is a way of sidestepping this teaching role. Lying will often cause more of the same behavior and you'll have to endure more rock solid cakes and boring speeches when you could have compassionately shone a light on making improvements. A no-win for both of you.
    • Enabling bad behavior. Although more complex than there is room for discussion here, enabling bad behavior is a form of dishonesty. In letting the alcoholic have "just one more drink", or the internet-obsessed "just another after-midnight hour online", etc., you fail to address the root problem and enable the bad behavior. This dishonesty can let problems fester or grow, damaging both the other person and the relationship.
    • Brushing someone off. Sometimes dishonesty is as simple as saying "Yes, that looks all right on you", just because you can't be bothered or don't care. This is a failure of paying attention and is insincere because you fail to want the best for the other person, giving your own wants greater attention.
  3. Acknowledge why you feel a desire to lie instead to speak honestly. Honesty is often embarrassing or confronting. It requires clarity of thought, very carefully chosen words of candor and a commitment not to stray from the facts (keeping away from the minefield of emotional interpretations). Other reasons for lying include covering up your own weaknesses, maintaining compromises that make life easier to cope with and avoiding getting into trouble. And many people have been raised to see honesty as too "blunt" or "rude"; yet rather than being an issue of etiquette, this stems from a misunderstanding as to how to put forward honest messages compassionately. There is a world of difference between being tactless and being considerately and respectfully open.
  4. Be honest with yourself first. This may seem unusual, given that you want to know how to be honest to others. However, until you can be honest about your own weaknesses or share of the blame, you risk using lying or evasion of the truth to cover up your own sense of failing, especially if you have a tendency to compare yourself to others. Being honest with yourself is about knowing––and accepting––yourself, warts and all. Good self-knowledge means that you are less likely to try to conform to other people's expectations of you, lessening the need to lie to them. If you're not pretending to be someone you're not, then people already know what they can expect from you and you can spend more time focused on having a compassionate outlook toward other people instead of worrying about how you come across.
  5. Accept that honesty is about kindness. Is it kind to say yes to someone when you would rather have said no? There is little kindness in having your reluctant or scant attention, your resentful presence around a person when you would have been more comfortable saying no. Is it kind to let someone go forth thinking they're well prepared or looking good when the exact opposite is true? There is a laziness and unkindness involved in not telling people such things; how can they remedy or learn what needs to be learned if they are not told? Is it a good idea to fail to speak up when something wrong or unlawful is happening in your workplace? It may keep you your job a while longer, but as with the case of a place like Enron, the truth will eventually be out and the ship sinks. When seen in this way, honesty is best understood as kindness, not harshness.
    • Honesty is also self-kindness. Lying increases your blood pressure and subjects you to stress. Doing this frequently can reduce the effectiveness of your immune system. Dishonesty can lead you to second-guess your self-worth and justify even more dishonesty. All of this is unnecessary mental and bodily strain; honesty is the easy way to take care of your health. Honest means not having to keep cross-referencing your deception to make sure it all adds up. After all, eventually it won't.
    • If you're still struggling with the idea of honesty as the best policy, put yourself in the other person's shoes. How would you feel if someone concealed something important from you, such as slips in your work performance that could be remedied early or your fly being undone/your skirt being stuck in the back of your underpants as you return from the bathroom? It is rare that you would rather not know something awkward, confronting or bad that affects you personally. Sure, the embarrassment or pain at first may be intense but then you can get on to fixing things quickly.
  6. Ask yourself the trilogy of essential questions when deciding on whether your honesty is coming from a place of good intent: Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?[1] If you can't answer all of these in the affirmative, then your "honesty" probably has the wrong motivation (such as spite, anger or revenge) and you'll need to rethink what you intend to communicate, if anything.
    • Distinguish between jealousy and honesty. Jealousy is not tactful, caring or considerate of reality. Telling a person that they have no talent or that they're ugly just because you're jealous of their achievements or looks is a distortion of reality, not an expression of honesty. Do not confuse the two.
  7. Focus on how you present your honest assessment of any situation. This is the most important part of reducing any sense of harshness––the how of delivery matters. Begin from a position of kindness, of acceptance that it is better to be tactfully honest than to let someone go on believing something that is not true. Be prepared to stick to the objective, identifiable facts and avoid making emotional observations. Act from the goodness of exposing a problem in need of a solution. And be aware that this is a communication skill––as with all skills, it will take time and practice to perfect, with a good dose of humility thrown in.
    • Consider the person with whom you must be honest. Don't be brash or too pointed where the person is usually shy or very sensitive. Take into account their nature when adapting your message. There will be a different approach between telling your best friend something delicate and motivating a slack co-worker with whom you are trying to complete a project.
    • If you need to rehearse, do so! It is much better to have gone over what you are going to say to iron out any insensitive or thoughtless comments that might crop up through nervousness or an over-willingness to "set things right". It won't make you sound forced; practice will actually help you to work through whether this is the right thing to do, and which words are the right ones to use.
  8. Seek a favorable environment for divulging the truth. Don't tell the person something potentially hurtful or embarrassing in front of other people––try to speak to them alone as the best option. If you have no choice about telling the other person in the company of others, keep your voice down low and even whisper if you have to. People will be able to take your honesty better if they're not under social pressure.
    • Face-to-face is best; it lets the other person read your body language and helps them put your words into emotional perspective. Words spoken over the phone or written can be all too easily distorted, to make a negative meaning where none was intended.
    • Avoid using distractions as a solution. While a cup of tea or going for a walk outdoors may be a nice segue into a heart-to-heart, and a form of consoling a person, don't allow this to turn into a distraction from what needs to be said. Stay focused on the purpose of delivering your message of honesty.
  9. Recognize some potential situations where honesty is necessary, and where a "white lie" might not be reasonable. There are some standard topics that can come up in the course of your relationships and it is a good idea to know in advance how you'll avoid the reflex action of bland and evasive responses! Just a few to get you thinking:
    • The "Am I fat?" question. This one often occurs in the fitting rooms or when dressing to go out. If your friend or spouse is being self-conscious, then reinforce his or her confidence. Don't say "You're not that fat", as this comes off as sarcastic or insincere––and it may well be untrue. Rather, use a comparative note. Consider something like, "You're healthy and beautiful. I love how you wear green––it brings out the color in your eyes. However, that outfit isn't showing you off to your best advantage––what about wearing a shirt with sleeves instead?" It is also a good idea to be proactive and help your friend to find something that really suits him or her, rather than trying to squeeze into something clearly not suitable for his or her body shape.
    • The "Am I ugly?" question. Remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is subjective. Everyone has different areas of beauty; it's important to stress these areas. Your friend might not have the most beautiful body, but he or she may have gorgeous eyes, or a smile that stops traffic. Make this clear to your friend or significant other! Never tell a person that they are ugly––if you do this, you are always being dishonest because you have failed to appreciate that person for who they really are.
    • Your friend wants to break up with his or her significant other. It's important to express your opinion, but only if it's relevant and always couched in terms of your own experience, not trying to substitute your feelings for facts. If you simply do not like your friend's boyfriend, then don't use that as an excuse to persuade your friend to end the relationship. If your friend's boyfriend is abusive, then convince your friend to break up because she might get hurt. You could also help your friend to get support from counselors, etc.
    • Appalling work performance. If you can catch bad work from a co-worker before the boss does, you may just be able to intervene in time to help fix the issues; perhaps the person is under lots of stress, perhaps they did not understand the work task, perhaps they need more time. Your lack of judgment about the reasons and your honesty about their slack efforts (including perhaps a willingness to help train them) may just save them their job.
  10. Give advice constructively. When expressing an opinion that may conflict with that of the other person, particularly if it is about some work that they have produced, focus on the positive aspects of a recommendation, and avoid phrasing it as a mandate. Rather than saying "I don't like it because..." or "You should do this instead...", try something like "I think it would help to…". It is also best to mention any positive remarks you may have about the subject before giving advice. This way, the person is less likely to perceive it as an affront on their abilities and is more likely to consider following your advice.
    • Always notice the good with the bad. This makes it clear that you see the whole and that you respect the person's abilities and think that they can do or be better with more effort.
  11. Be as specific as possible. Your friend is likely to read more into what you're saying, because they'll (sometimes subconsciously) wonder what you left unsaid. So be as exact as possible in telling them what they need to know. It is a good idea also to think about what else they might read into your statement and proactively tell them there is nothing more to it than you have stated. This has the advantage of introducing positive emotions into your statement, which softens the impact.
    • While you should stick to the objective facts when describing the behavior or issue in question, this is not to say that you abandon emotion. Showing the person's plight moves you or concerns you is appropriate––they're much more likely to connect with you as a result and realize that you're on their side. Again, all things in balance––don't be melodramatic. Show warmth and empathy.


  • In short, don't be rude. There are other ways to inform someone of something without directly hurting his or her feelings.
  • Remember—–take note of the person with whom you want to be honest, and adjust your tone accordingly. That is, don't be over-the-top with a quiet and shy person.
  • Simply knowing something to be "scientifically" or "religiously" proven does not give a free pass to be forceful or rude when trying to enlighten another person to the facts you think you know or beliefs you hold. You still have a responsibility to respect the dignity of the other person and to avoid suggestions of ignorance, stupidity, or eternal damnation. Honesty without being harsh means acknowledging the other person has reasons for resisting your "truths" and it behooves you to find the pathway to opening their mind to your view by being polite, sensitive, and respectful.
  • Ideally, "wrap" a negative statement with two positive ones.
  • It's easier to hear the truth from a friend than from an acquaintance or stranger. If you aren't particularly close to a person with whom you would like to be honest, but you still want to convey your message, then ask someone who is close to that person. For example, you might tell this person's close friend that he or she has bad breath, rather than telling the person yourself. Be careful not to gossip about someone's perceived shortcomings, though.


  • Name calling tells other people that you are frustrated; it does not amount to honesty.
  • While excessive white lies are counterproductive, remember that some things are just better left unsaid. That which you have not said doesn't need to be taken back.
  • Be aware that for some people, "taking offense" is a means of manipulating others. For such people, who claim to be "outraged" at almost anything that they don't like or feel uncomfortable with, there is always a risk that honesty will bring out a backlash. Sometimes, you may need to be prepared to weather the whining but provided you have been truthful, kind and you have objectively assessed the need for the truth to be told, then don't feel you need to back down or retract what you've said. Honesty is not to be cowered into submission by people who do not like what they hear and respond with threats of suing or blogging.
  • Some people confuse nastiness with honesty. This happens where a person decides that he or she has a mandate to correct the ways of another person and says nasty, undermining things constantly, then excuses the nastiness by saying things like: "It's for your own good" or "I only want the best for you." Appointing yourself as the judge and jury of another person's way of living or being is not about honesty but about enforcing your preferences over someone else who has less power than you (such as a parent over a child, a teacher over a student, a boss over a subordinate, etc.). Honest guidance is kindly and respectful of the other person, no matter their age, and does not seek to abuse the other person into submission.

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Sources and Citations

  1. These questions are attributed to a host of people including Buddha, various spiritual leaders and a host of embattled forum moderators.