With the new year about to begin, it's a good time to share a unique and potentially difficult discussion on the differences between honesty and brutality.

Numerous friends and peers have mentioned honesty as something they struggle with in varying capacities. That struggle might emanate from people not being honest enough with themselves, with others or with members of their business.


Ironically, honesty tends to be one of the traits that many martial arts schools teach as part of their value system. But what makes honesty such an important topic for leaders is that we need to remember the distinction between being honest and being brutal.

One of my pet peeves concerns people who say they like to "keep it real" or "tell it like it is." They see no problem with being abrasive or insulting, all in the name of honesty. However, they lack a true understanding of the concept. Now, I agree that honesty need not be sugarcoated, but I have good reason for my dislike of "brutal honesty."

In my old neighborhood, people were tough, blunt and at times thuggish. Many of the "good" ones I knew while growing up would be giving me a life lesson about listening to my elders one minute, curse someone out the next minute and then brutally assault a person a moment later. Afterward, they would turn back to me and carry on in the same caring tone of voice despite what they'd just done.

My point is that these were people who could take offense at the slightest thing, be it a nuance in a spoken phrase or a fleeting facial expression. The result often was emotional and physical violence directed at the offender.

Consequently, I struggled with honesty. When I wanted to tell friends or peers something that I wasn't sure they would like or agree with, I'd dance around the topic.

One day, I was at a Chinese restaurant. I opened a fortune cookie that said, "Honesty without compassion is brutality." For some reason, that simple message became sunlight on a dreary day.

I realized that my problem stemmed from worrying too much about how my words might hurt someone's feelings — even if my intention was to help them in the long run. I also realized that no one was going to assault me as a result.

That day when I read the fortune cookie, I finally understood that my fear of other people's hurt feelings and the experiences of my past were holding me back from growth.

Honesty vs. Brutality

The following guidelines will help you have those difficult conversations with people — without dipping into brutality. Let's use the example of a team member who's been demonstrating some attitude issues with clients.

1) Ask yourself, "Does this issue truly need to be said? And does it need to be said by me?" Perhaps your staff member has an attitude related to you. If you're the source of the person's poor attitude, addressing it might turn into something ugly. Check around and ask others to see what you can discover. Someone else may be better suited to help the afflicted person.

2) Focus on actions and the consequences — but not the person. Suppose that your staff member was rude with a parent and that resulted in an email outlining the dissatisfaction. Cite the team member's actions and the results, but avoid making it personal. Consider how "You were rude" and "You had a poor interaction" can bring about different emotions. Likewise, "You offended that parent" and "That parent felt offended" can carry different emotional weights.

3) Think before you communicate. Whether it's a verbal message, a text or an email, consider what you're saying before you say it. Remember that reprimanding someone for acting like you is hypocrisy. There are times when you have to be blunt to be effective, but your words are like your techniques: You have to commit to a technique before changing to something else. Try to never let your emotions defeat your judgment.

Nguyen "Tom" Griggs is a professional consultant/speaker on subjects that include teams, leadership and conflict. To contact him, send an email to tom@ntgriggs.com.

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