Have you ever heard someone pass a derogatory comment then follow it up with, “I’m only being honest”? In a situation like this, I’m tempted to question if honesty is the true motivation, or is it more accurately described as rudeness, insensitivity, or carelessness? Do these type of people really want to “put it out there” or simply put down someone else so they feel superior and better about themselves? Does their need to be heard supersede the feelings of the recipient and the potentially negative impact of their words?

Your “honesty” is a matter of perception

If you find that you offer raw “honest” opinion, without the benefit of tact and diplomacy, chances are your message is being lost in the vehicle in which it’s delivered. People won’t remember the essence of what you’re saying or the potentially good suggestions; they’ll remember only the sting. But you’re “only being honest” you tell yourself. Think again.

You’re being hurtful if your “honesty” translates into harsh criticism.

When you communicate with both barrels blazing, people will shun from considering and implementing your feedback. It’s tough for them to rise up when you’re crushing them. I’m not suggesting that you excessively sugar-coat or be dishonest. or unauthentic. Quite to the contrary. What I’m advocating is that if your intent is to come from a place of support, make sure the words you choose are supportive. If you’re not coming from a place of support, then best to keep your comments to yourself.

I present to well over a thousand people a year, and let me tell you, the vast majority of them are absolutely wonderful at offering useful, constructive comments and suggestions. I personally read every feedback form and share them with my client who hired me. Every now and then, I get a comment or rating I don’t understand. In the name of “being honest”, some people are simply over the top. I figure they forget that a real, live human being is reading these critiques, and wonder how they would respond if they were the recipient. Ouch!

It’s difficult to bite your tongue when you feel unfairly judged by someone “just being honest” — and maybe you don’t have to. Next time you feel the sting of someone “just being honest”, try these tips instead:

Consider the source. 

I once had a sole attendee critique one of my presentations pretty harshly, rating it overall as a “5” out of “10” while the other 85 attendees rated the very same session as a “9” or “10”. I was puzzled because this rating didn’t reflect the rather positive handwritten comments this person provided. There seemed to be a disconnect. Perplexing, right? I was stumped too, so I called her to learn more. She asked if I wanted her “to be honest”, as she was a Toastmaster and accustomed to offering “honest” feedback (I didn’t bother telling her I was an award-winning Toastmaster speaker and evaluator). Of course, I sad yes. She then said that she learned nothing new from my session. Hmmm. That was odd as this was one of my most popular presentations that routinely received outstanding evaluations. It didn’t make sense. Then, the next day, in reviewing the conference agenda, I recognized a name. It was this woman’s. She was a life coach and, I then learned to my surprise, she was also the hired backup speaker for the conference. If I, or another presenter, didn’t show up, she was hired to be on call and fill in as required. Now I understood why she rated the session so poorly — as a life coach, she was not my target audience — the conference attendees were professional project managers and IT pros, not coaches, so of course she knew many of the concepts I was sharing.

TIP: Here’s the take-away: before you consider people’s “honest” feedback, ask yourself if they’re your target audience or if they have an incentive of any sort to knock you to your knees. 

If they’re not your target audience, their “honest feedback” is irrelevant.

Honesty is sometimes a matter of opinion. 

Some things in life are black and white. What date did you send that email? What age are you? What city were you born in? Other things are a matter of opinion and “honesty” sometimes falls into that category. Feedback is opinion, and as such, is highly subjective. It’s founded on perception, not fact. It’s people connecting the dots in a way that makes sense to them — it may not make sense to you.

TIP: In this case, take what you like and throw the rest away. How you or anyone connects the dots is a matter of interpretation, not “the truth” and the only way. Their “honesty” is how they see the world. It may not be how everyone sees it, including you.

Considering the input doesn’t mean agreeing with it.

You will find value in stepping back and considering the essence of what someone is telling you. Get the message out of the mess.
TIP: Even though the way that they’re communicating may not be the most eloquent, there may be a grain of “truth” in their “honest” comments. Pull out that seed, that kernel of useful input, and throw the rest away.

Don’t let someone else determine your value. 

Just because someone says something, in the spirit of “being honest”, doesn’t mean it’s the truth. You will believe what they say only if you already have the wee bit of self-doubt about that point already. If you have lots of evidence to the contrary of what someone is saying, take his or her comment in perspective. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission”.

TIP: Don’t give them your permission. No one determines your value but you… and you’re worth it!

Be supportive.

Next time you’re at a training session or a conference and you’re asked to fill in a feedback form, know that your “honest” comments, suggestions and perceptions are always appreciated. That’s how people learn and grow. I sure do! Use your communication savvy to present your ideas in a supportive manner, and yes, be honest with your ratings.Come from a place of support and let your remarks be constructive — being destructive accomplishes very little.

Or if you’re doing employee appraisals or responding to comments received on your appraisal from your supervisor, your honest input is again appreciated and required. Consider it another opportunity to hone your tact and diplomacy skills, while expressing your opinion.

If you for a moment think that “being honest” gives you permission to vomit toxic verbal waste on someone, think again. That’s being aggressive and is not a productive way to communicate. Instead, grab the occasion to assert yourself and instead of knocking someone down, help them rise up with constructive and supportive suggestions.

Being honest or hearing someone’s version of “being honest” isn’t always easy. With a little practice and the tips above, it really does get easier. And that’s the honest truth.

Marion Grobb Finkelstein
COMMUNICATION CONSULTANT www.MarionSpeaks.com 
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4 Comments

  • Great column on how to be honest in a way that is constructive and supportive. Like you, I pay attention to outlier comments on workshops, trying to figure them out. Never actually called a participant to ask; that took some courage. I remember one that rated everything about a workshop low when everyone else was high and realized he was the one who refused to participate in the small group case study because “unicorns don’t exist”. I explained I needed a fake organization to make sure no one at the public workshop could recognize their organization, and could he just think of a donkey rescue group instead – didn’t work.

    I’ve also explicitly practiced finding something to say when it’s clear an honest opinion isn’t really wanted. A co-worker arrived in new suit he was very proud of, that looked terrible. I told him it suited him well and he went away happy. He’d already spent the money and was unlikely to be able to afford another suit anytime soon.

    • Brilliant response, Jane! I really related to your comment about refraining from a negative when a decision had already been made (your colleague’s suit). If it’s going to help in present or future, sure. If it’s not going to change anything and only serve to insult, best to refrain.
      PS: and thanks for the remark about bravery to call a participant. Yup, sometimes pulling up those big girl panties and hearing what people have to say is a huge learning lesson — not just for the comments received, but the process of facing your fear and doing it!

  • Melanie Pereira says:

    Insightful article Marion! Totally agree, like you I’m a Distinguished Toastmaster too and realize the value of constructive and supportive feedback and also how to receive it without taking it personally. Thanks for the tips on how to receive feedback.

    • Melanie, thanks for your honest opinion ;). Well said. I like how you led with what you liked, followed by what we have in common. That really builds relationships. It’s clear you have strong communication skills so your input especially is valued. Glad you found the article useful. What point in particular really jumped out at you?

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