Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How to Practice Radical Honesty


Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom. -Thomas Jefferson

You probably tell dozens of little lies and half-truths every day. And you probably spend a significant chunk of your time evaluating what's going on in other people's minds, because they're probably not being completely honest with you. What would happen if you stopped lying? Ditched the brown-nosing and diplomacy? Stopped walking on eggshells? Are you ready to find out?

The "radical honesty" movement was founded by a psychotherapist named Brad Blanton, who insists that everyone would be much happier if we were all completely honest, as in no lies--no matter how small and white they may be. It’s a pledge to see and verbally acknowledge things exactly as they are, to the best of your ability. If you have a habit of stopping short of saying what you really think, turning things around will take time, but the results can be shockingly refreshing.

1. Observe yourself lying. Most people lie throughout the day, every day. For example, 60% of people tell an average of two to three lies in a 10-minute conversation![1] So if you try to catch yourself lying, you may be surprised with how often you do it. It can also be enlightening to think about how often the people around you lie (see How to Detect Lies). And remember, the purpose of this step is to observe. Don't judge, or justify, like "Oh, well, I have to lie, or else blah, blah, blah." Rationalization is a product of denial, and denial is a deep form of dishonesty.

When people ask you how you're doing, do you respond honestly?
Do you feign interest in something that you're not really interested in?
Do you find yourself lying in order to avoid hurting someone's feelings?
Do you bite your tongue? Are you lying by omission?

2. Think deeply about whether you're really doing anyone a favor by lying. Should you really shelter someone from reality? Are you giving the recipient of your white lie enough credit? Do you assume they're too weak to handle the truth?

Consider that telling someone the truth presents the opportunity to help them learn how to not take things personally, which is a very valuable life skill to have.

In a way, it's manipulative and patronizing to pretend to be interested in what someone is saying, when you're really not. That's what we often do with kids, because we consider them too immature and inexperienced to understand that not everyone is interested in what they are interested in. If you treat the people around you the same way you treat children, then you might just find that the people around you act like children.

Is lying ever really the best way to express compassion? Or is it the easiest way for you to avoid confrontation, rejection, or discomfort? If you're going to lie, then perhaps you can be honest with yourself about why you're lying--don't tell yourself it's for that person's own good, or that you're being kind, when it's really because you don't have the courage to be completely honest yet.[2]

3. Confess. Once you see how often you lie, try fessing up once in a while. It's usually easier to be honest after the act than during, so this is a good stepping stone. You can start off with lies from the months or years ago (it's easier for people to forgive those, and see them as water under the bridge) and then start confessing about lies that you told days, hours, or even seconds ago. ("Um--actually, just now when I told you I'd be happy eating sushi, I lied. I really don't want sushi, I just wanted to seem cool. Can we get burgers instead?")

Some people will freak out, and some people will appreciate your candor. This is also a good way to get to know the people around you better - are they receptive and forgiving? Or are they dramatic and manipulative jerks?

Some confessions are best served with an apology. See How to Apologize.

4. Uncensor yourself. Now it's time to remove the filters between what you think and what you say. (See the Warnings below.) Can you really speak your mind? Try it. Think out loud for an hour when you're by yourself, and make it a point to say whatever pops into your mind, no matter how random, dirty, or stupid it might be. It's a good warm-up exercise, and you should do it regularly, just to reinforce the direct connection between brain and mouth. Try doing it with a friend (perhaps explain to them what you're doing, and invite them to do it too, like a game). And eventually, try doing it around everyone! Some ideas to jump-start your honesty:

Admit when you've forgotten someone's name, even if you're supposed to know that person's name because you've known them for years and seen them regularly and you know their kids' names, and even their dog's name.

Tell someone when you're starting to get bored with the conversation. "I stopped listening about a minute ago" or "I'm not really interested in talking about this" or simply, "I'm bored. I'll be back in ten minutes."

Express frustration with you co-workers, and even your boss. "I'm annoyed that you didn't respond to our memo earlier. But at the same time, I'm relieved, because then if we don't nail one of the things you want, we can blame any delays on your lack of response."[2]

Start sentences with the words "I resent you for..." or "I appreciate you for..."[2]

Read up on How to Practice Nonviolent Communication.

5. Inject the honesty with humor. This doesn't mean "sugar-coating" the truth by preceding and following it with a gentle reassurance (like How to Give a Feedback Sandwich or -gasp- How to Spin Bad News). This means that when you speak the truth, you express it in cheerful and lighthearted way, like you're giving them a gift, not cutting them with a knife. Take, for example, a waiter asking you how your coffee is (and it's bad):[2]

(Sheepishly, apologetically) "Uh, yeah. I always have to order espresso here, because the espresso tastes like regular coffee. The regular coffee here is terrible. Can't you guys make stronger coffee?"

"Yeah, man! This coffee tastes like $&!#!" Followed by a boisterous laugh.

Both statements are unabashedly true. But which one is more likely to be received well?

6. Take off the edge. Follow up your honesty with a reminder that you're not deliberately trying to break hearts, crush dreams, or hurt feelings. (Unless you are, in which case hopefully the person will read our article on How to Recognize a Manipulative or Controlling Relationship and leave you.)

Say what you were doing: "I'm just being honest" or "That's what popped into my mind."

Offer a return to the world of lies: "I want to be honest with you. If you want me stop being honest, I will. Do you want me to?" Or "I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable; I just wanted to express what was on my mind. If you want me to stop, I will."

Change the subject. In the example of admitting boredom above, try: "Can we talk about something else?" or "Let's talk about something we have in common."

If possible, express your honesty in person. It allows you to fully experience the ramifications of being radically honest, and makes it harder for the receiving party to run away--which probably means they'll still be there when the shock subsides, and your interaction can recover and move forward.[2]

7. Brace yourself for return fire. When you are radically honest, some people will respond in like manner. Welcome it. This is a good opportunity to open new dialogue, and discover things about a person that you might have otherwise never known, because you were both too scared of hurting each other's feelings. When you tell your buddy that he really is fat, he might tell you that your beard makes you look like a homeless lumberjack. Respond gracefully!

"Thanks for telling me."
"That's fine."
"That's true!"


8. Know where to draw the line. How honest is too honest? In the honesty business, there’s a fine line between radical and reckless. Reckless honesty is the result of pushing the authenticity envelope so far that you shoot yourself in the foot. The border between radical and reckless must be patrolled by your intuition. Sometimes that line is obvious, but sometimes it’s not.

The founder of the radical honesty movement readily admits that he lies to the IRS, in golf, and in poker.[2]

Kids are radically honest, but they may not be receptive to it. Their parents may not be receptive to it either. So you might not want to tell a child that their dog didn't really go to a farm, or that Santa Claus doesn't exist, or how you really made that baby.

You're likely to experience a little adrenaline rush before and during acts of radical honesty. You're breaking taboos and taking big social risks.[2] It might be addictive.

Radical honesty can be a good way to pick up the opposite sex. Example: "I didn't really want any tea; I was just trying to figure out a way to delay you so I could talk to you for a while, because I want to go to bed with you."[2]
Some people will be utterly disgusted with your honesty, but others will be shocked - and impressed - by your candor.
Address relationship problems in real time. Maintaining integrity in relationships means addressing problems that come up in real-time. Emotions are not chess pieces, and love is not a game of strategy.
If you sense that something might be wrong, seek to identify and resolve the issue on the spot.
If you’re constantly met with responses like the Solemn Downward Stare, followed by the Evening of Awkward Silence, and the Night Without Sex, then be warned: the game you’re playing isn’t worth winning.

Applying radical honesty in your work means creating things that are of value to you personally, and that hinges on solving problems. But you can't solve problems if you don't acknowledge problems; if you would rather deny them, ignore them, or avoid talking about them because you don't want to "rock the boat".
What most frustrates you about your work, and the world in general? Almost every answer to that question is a project or business idea with your name written all over it. Asking “What most frustrates you about the world?” is not only a means of identifying opportunities to create value in your life, it’s also a compass that directs you towards the people that will help make those dreams come true.

Radical self-honesty requires a matching dose of humility. Whatever score you give yourself in any category is almost surely inflated. If the currency by which we measure others is pounds, the currency by which we measure ourselves is yen.
Some of these feelings of superior knowledge, skill, or judgement are no doubt justified. But many, if not most of them, aren’t. The moment you become conscious of this, your self-awareness expands. You begin to ask yourself more honest questions and give yourself more honest answers.


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