"How do I express my perspectives, thoughts, and feelings honestly, without pissing people off?"
Sometimes, it feels very hard to be completely honest.
When I talk to someone who is struggling to express their deepest thoughts and feelings with another person, they give all kinds of "reasons" why they cannot be fully honest.
Often, those reasons include these three...
- I'll hurt them
- They'll hate me
- It will destroy our relationship
I used to hold back on deep honesty for all of these reasons, and all of my reasons made good sense to me...
But since then, I've learned a lot about honesty, what it means, and why it's absolutely essential in relationships.
Why Honesty Matters
In relationships, dishonesty does not protect the relationship. It limits it. It makes your relationship fake because it's based on deception and manipulation.
In the end, dishonesty will likely destroy that relationship, the friendship, that person's respect, and your own self-respect as well.
And even more importantly-
Practicing deep honesty in your relationships is the perfect filter..,.
It strengthens good relationships because you both become more vulnerable & open, and can trust each other fully - and it weakens bad-fit relationships because the truth exposes the problems and value conflicts that were always there.
Don't fear honesty.
When you're honest, there may be big changes, yes- but no matter what happens those changes will ultimately be for the better, for everyone involved.
The key is to learn how to deliver honesty well, and that's what this article is all about.
What is Honesty?
First, let's talk about what honesty is.
Before we can discuss how to express honesty well, it's important to have a clear idea of what honesty is, and why it can provoke strong emotional reactions.
Truth, Perspective & Honesty
For this article, let's work with these three ideas-
Truth ( noun ). Something that is objectively true, with or without us being there. "Truth" refers to the complete truth - involving every aspect in full detail, with nothing missed.
Perspective ( noun ). Your subjective understanding of a truth. Because truth is usually multi-layered and multi-faceted, It's unlikely you'll ever fully understand a truth completely, from all angles. The closest you can get is to develop a very well-informed Perspective on the Truth.
In the end, your perspective is your best understanding of a truth. This is important to understand because none of us ever knows the whole story, and that's an essential part of how we deliver honesty.
Honesty ( verb ). Is the practice of fully revealing your perspective to someone, or to the world as a whole.
Honesty and the pursuit of truth are essential to authenticity and good relationships. if you're interested in this topic, I'd also highly recommend my buddy Dan Munro's spectacular book The Naked Truth ( on Amazon ).
When do we practice Honesty?
Honesty is the practice of revealing your perspective of a truth to someone.
That truth can be about something outside of you, such as relating a past event, a present situation, or a future expectation- or it can be about something inside of you, such as revealing your feelings.
We practice honesty ( and fail to practice honesty ) far more often than we think.
- When we share our opinion about a situation
- When we share our accurate recollection of an event
- When we share how we accurately feel, with someone, about something
- When we answer a question, as fully and completely as possible.
- When we teach someone, correct someone, or give critical feedback to a student, child, coworker or friend.
- When we reveal information that we know, that we believe someone else does not
All of these involve us revealing our own honest perspectives to someone who previously did not know them... and as such, all of these are practices of honesty.
Why People Can React with Strong Negative Emotions to Honesty
If we were all robots, being honest would be so easy.
We'd share full and accurate information to the best of our ability, and that information would be received by someone and ( hopefully ) duly processed into an improved understanding and better decisions.
But we're not robots.
Why Do People React Emotionally?
Expressing honesty means giving someone new information that they probably don't already have. That new information may change everything they thought they knew- including things that are very important to them...
... and that sudden adjustment can feel painful.
Our view of our world at any given moment is comprised of our perceptions of now, our predictions of the future, and our beliefs of the past.
Learning new truths can shake all three of those in a big way.
- You thought your relationship was great, but surprise, your partner is cheating on you.
- You thought your job was secure, but surprise, the company lost a lot of money last quarter and is now doing layoffs.
- You thought someone was happy, but surprise, somehow you've pissed them off and they're angrily confronting you.
- You thought you were heathy, but surprise, that medical test didn't come back so great.
- You thought you turned the stove off, but surprise, your house burned down while you were at work.
Not all surprises are negative...
- You thought you were going to be paying that mortgage forever, but surprise, you've just won $100 million in the lottery.
And many depend very much on the individual, and their current situation...
- Surprise, that pregnancy test just came back positive.
What's in that Emotional Reaction?
The type and degree of emotional reaction someone has to new information depends on a lot of things, such as how emotionally mature that person is, whether this new information is entirely unexpected, what the impact is to their lives, and how attached they were to their future plans, or their past beliefs.
Here are some specific negative emotions you'll see often;
- The sudden adjustment to the new information - creates shock, surprise & confusion.
- The feeling of loss around a fantasy that they had - creates grief.
- Fear and discomfort of change - creates fear.
- Feeling attacked, judged, or harshly criticized, unfairly - creates anger.
- Being criticized in front of others, or other people knowing about their private life - creates embarrassment and resentment.
- Feeling stupid, like they were naive and taken advantage of - creates embarrassment and shame.
- Feeling overwhelmed at the stress of having to deal with this now, when there are other things needing attention - creates anxiety.
There are emotions surrounding the sudden adjustment to new information. There are emotions about how it was delivered. There emotions about where and when it was delivered. There are emotions about who else knows, or was present. There are even emotions about the emotions.
That's a big pile of emotion isn't it?
Expressing Honesty, with Respect & Compassion
Honesty is essential in building good relationships- but in order for it to be effective at improving your connection, it must be delivered well.
A person who is overly emotional can't absorb your Honesty well, and if you piss them off, they'll feel attacked and reject your honesty entirely.
This is why practicing Respect and Compassion are essential when you deliver Honesty.
You don't control other people's reactions, and you are not responsible for their emotions... but there is a lot you can do to make their reactions easier for them to manage - and this makes your Honesty far more meaningful.
Your goal isn't to remove emotion - it's to remove unnecessary negative emotions, that are not part of the Truth you are trying to express.
Use your own best judgement to determine how much care and preparation are needed in expressing Honesty in a specific situation, to a specific person.
Consider how much of a surprise it will be, and how much it will affect their future, as key factors. With a bit of empathy, you can probably guess fairly closely how they will feel.
I divide this process into three stages...
- Create a Safe Space
- Prepare them to Receive Honesty
- Deliver Your Honesty
I've included a lot of detail in each of these, so bookmark this article as a reference that you can return to when you need to consider a specific situation.
First, Create a Safe Space
Often, this can be as simple as...
"Hey can we go for a walk? I have something I want to talk about."
Or, it can involve more careful planning and preparation.
Get a handle on your own emotions first
If you're feeling emotional about the situation, make certain your anger, grief, etc. are well under control first.
If they're not, then they're likely to surface during the expression of honesty, and it can quickly become an accusation, or a heated argument, rather than a friendly discussion.
That won't help either of you, and it detracts from to entire point of honesty - to communicate, and to come to a better mutual understanding.
Plan to deliver it privately
Be very aware of who you deliver the Honesty around.
When someone receives critical new information, they often want some control over who else knows, when they know, how they learn of it. They also deserve the freedom to have a healthy emotional reaction, without others watching.
Whenever possible, deliver honesty in private, with no one else present. It avoids embarrassment and anger.
- Criticizing a student's work in front of the class is usually unhelpful
- Chastising an employee in front of their peers, will win you enemies fast
- Reprimanding your child in front of their friends, or siblings, won't earn their respect
The critical exception to the privacy rule is an angry reaction.
If you're delivering honesty to someone who has difficulty controlling their anger, in a situation where their anger may well target you - don't do this alone. Do it in a public place, if needed, where other humans aren't far away. Or if you must, have a trusted friend present.
- Breaking up with an abusive partner
Choose a good location & time
Choose a location & time which is not only private, but one in which they can feel free to cry, yell, and express emotions safely without judgement or embarrassment.
For something with a very significant impact, make certain that they have adequate time afterwards to process what they're feeling safely. Don't put them in a position where they're not needing to do something important or dangerous immediately after - such as a critical work meeting, or being forced to drive home while grieving or angry.
Allow adequate time
Allow time for your delivery of your Honesty, and also time for them to process, respond, react, and ask questions. That part can easily take 10 times longer for something significant.
Respect their privacy
Understand that they may not want anyone else to know the information that you're about to reveal to them- or that they want to reveal it in their own time, to the people they choose to.
When possible, avoid revealing a private truth to others who do not need to know about it. Respect this person's right to manage that themselves.
- Choosing to break up with someone- don't tell their friends first.
- Choosing to fire an employee- don't announce it to their peers beforehand.
Second, Prepare Them to Receive Honesty
Invite the person
Don't force your honesty on someone.
Ask them if it's a good time to talk.
"Hey there's something very important I'd like to talk to you about. Are you able to meet at [place] on [date/time]?"
Suggest a time and place that you think would work. Allow them to adjust that to their needs and schedule.
If you feel like the person is avoiding you entirely, explain that it's important to talk about this soon, and that if they prefer, you could write it in a letter for them.
That is not an optimal way to communicate honesty, because it makes the question & answer part difficult. However- some people may prefer to receive big news in this way, where they can process it in complete privacy.
Let them decide.
Warn them of the magnitude
For a smaller thing, this can be as simple as-
"Hey Bob, do you have 10 minutes? I want to talk about something, let's go for a walk."
For something much more significant, or with someone who is less emotionally-mature;
"I have something important to talk about, and it's a big thing. Is now a good time? Great... You might want to sit down. (closes the door)"
If the person is prone to grief;
"Before I share this, I want you to know we're here for you."
For very significant adjustments, like the loss of a close family member, or the ending of a relationship, make certain they have space to process the truth after you deliver it.
For some people this may take a few hours of reflection, for others it could be weeks or months.
Make certain there are no immediate obligations you're putting at major risk- for example them needing to drive home right after, or go deliver an important business presentation.
As much as possible Respect and Compassion means giving their natural emotional reaction space.
Also make certain that they have close friends or family to support them, over the coming months- and depending on the situation, you may not be able to be that person.
Third, Deliver Your Honesty
Deliver gently, and with empathy
Avoid overly abrupt expressions of Honesty, without permission.
You might leave the person feeling like they've fallen off a cliff, and that they were pretty much pushed off, by you.
Besides causing unnecessary pain, a provocation of anger will work against you in a big way, and actually prevent them from accepting your Honesty. More on that below.
Express it as your subjective opinion,
Remember that your view is always incomplete.
"I think that... X"
"I feel that... Y"
You are not the judge and juror, and you are not here to prove your superiority. You are here to share, and to learn.
Start with your feelings.
How are you feeling about expressing this ?
Are you feeling nervous? Express that.
"I have something important that I want to talk about, and I'm feeling nervous."
Are you concerned with how they will react?
"I feel a little worried how you'll react."
See how it works? So complicated, isn't it?
The first thing you're being honest about, is what you're feeling right now, in this moment.
Make it a conversation
Truth is a process of investigation,
When you deliver honesty to someone, you must allow them to deliver honesty back. In that discussion, you'll learn far more too, and be able to make better decisions together.
If you express your truth, and run away, you'll leave people feeling like they've been hit and run in a traffic accident.
Pause, and check-in, when necessary
Deliver your Honesty it carefully, with no rushing.
Watch carefully to see how they are responding. If they are beginning to look emotional, pause and check in with them midway to see how they're doing.
Focus on feelings over thoughts
Are you feeling emotional as you sit down for the discussion?
If yes, express that first. It provides important context, and will allow you to relax about the emotions you're feeling.
"I've been feeling very frustrated lately."
"I'm worried about how you're going to react to this."
"I'm feeling a bit angry right now."
Sharing your emotions will help the other person understand your perspective far better than facts alone.
Watch your Own Emotions
If you're experiencing strong negative emotions when you deliver Honesty, that emotions will be a huge part of what you're delivering. There is no way to hide that.
If you're experiencing positive emotions, that's great, it will add weight and enthusiasm to what you are saying. While that doesn't mean that your Honesty will always be received well, it often helps.
Be Particularly Careful of Anger
Anger presents a significant added challenges that are important to understand.
When you deliver Honesty while you are feeling Anger, the person you're sharing with is very likely to feel attacked.
If the person you're expressing Honesty to feels attacked, they will feel Anger as well, and they will effectively see you as "the enemy"
If someone perceives you as trying to hurt them, you lose all sense of trust and nothing you are saying will be taken as "true."
Chances are they will reject your Honesty outright, and you will have accomplished nothing except pissing them off.
The more you can remove those negative emotions from the situation, and practice respect and compassion, the more likely to listen to it seriously.
Be Cautious Around High-Impact Topics
In general, the more important something is to someone, they more they're affected by news about it. Individually anything that affects our future in a big way, is probably going to impact us emotionally.
These topics will affect most people dramatically;
- Major health news, such as a medical diagnosis
- Relationship changes, particularly those that feel abrupt
- Impacts to their family or very close friends
- Significant Impacts to their career, or finances
Be particularly cautious around these.
Be Cautious in Parenting, Teaching, and Mentoring Situations
In situations where you're recognized as the authority, it's easy to think that you know what's happening, and you can quickly make incorrect assumptions about a situation without knowing the facts properly.
Classroom situations are particularly high-risk because they are group environments, and it's tempting to "correct" a student publicly in front of their peers - often with no opportunity for them to respond to your mistake.
Recently I had an experience like this in a new Kizomba dance class, where the teacher asked me to show her a particular dance step. I led her, and she could not see my feet, while I began to create the dance connection needed to execute the move.
In about 3 seconds, before I even had a chance to begin the move, she stopped me and told me that I was doing it incorrectly.
In that moment, I felt a surprisingly strong negative emotional reaction, and the sudden desire to clarify her mistake, and redeem myself. I didn't get that chance, and I'm OK with that.
When I reflect on what I felt, here's what was involved in my emotions-
- She had her information wrong. I wasn't dancing the step incorrectly- I just wasn't dancing the step she was expecting at that moment.
- She delivered the critique publicly.
- She didn't give me any chance to correct her misunderstanding.
It's important to consider these things.
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Circles of Influence
On top of these emotional factors are other things..
For example, your level of emotion, or even your lack of emotion - as the person delivering the Honesty- can trigger and amplify them further. This will especially be true if you're personally involved in the situation.
And to make things more interesting, their own emotional reaction can generate further emotional reactions, such as embarrassment about crying.
Truth v. Honesty
What is Truth?
The Objective, Complete Truth of any situation is something most of us will never know, even in the simplest case. We only have our subjective view.
Even something as simple as "Is the weather good today?" will get a very different perspective from someone planning a picnic, vs. a farmer whose crops need rain.
Being honest means making a best effort to express the most accurate Truth possible, within your awareness and understanding. However it's important to understand that you may never know the Whole Truth, ever.
Most things in life are multi-faceted, and how you see them depends entirely on your Perspective.