Being brutally honest – without the brutal part


Most of us appreciate someone’s honest feedback and opinion about us and what matters to us. When delivered with care, honesty can be a way forward for us, a catalyst to becoming a better leader and human being. Although it may sting for a moment, if we take a deep breath and understand that the honest criticism is being given with our best interests in mind, we know there might be something to learn in what we hear.

Yet brutal honesty may elicit a different reaction. An opinion given in a manner that is blunt or delivered with the heat of strong negative emotions has no heart. It can hurt for a very long time. Brutal honesty can be heartless, bruising the recipient’s psyche with hidden injuries that are every bit as damaging as physical blows.

We need more honesty and less brutality in the conversations that happen in our organizations. More often than not brutality escalates and spreads leading to dysfunction just as it would in any other setting (was your family “brutally honest” with each other? If so, you know the negative impact it can have).

You are a leader who is being watched. The behaviors you model will become accepted by those around you, becoming inhumane if that’s what you model. Brutal honesty is not acceptable. Honesty delivered with respect and care is what you want to exhibit and – frankly – what you want to get. Try these for modifying your brutal delivery:

If your emotions are getting the better of you, walk away and save the honest feedback for later when you can be calm. Recognize when your emotional state may take over, with words that bruise and power that delivers venom. Notice the physical sensations that begin the process of brutality in you (heart racing, flushing, etc.), and excuse yourself, with the comment that the discussion should continue later.

Don’t make excuses for your own cruel or demeaning behaviors. There is no excuse for being cruel. Explanations – to yourself or those you’ve harmed – only serve to self-justify the harm you cause. The only way to deliver the message in a way that keeps you and others whole is with civility.

Deliver the message with respect for the individual(s) who need to hear it. There is no guarantee you’ll get the same respect in return. You may still get pushback, defensiveness and bad behavior. Take some deep breaths and understand that those to whom your message is intended need to hear what you have to say, but do it with kindness and their reaction may moderate over time. Simply listen to their pushback and defensiveness, even if it’s hard to do so.

Notice your own defensiveness when it arises, threatening to wash over you. Defensiveness is a natural protective mechanism, but that doesn’t mean you have to express it out loud. Be aware of your thoughts of self-righteousness and consciously encourage them to drift away. Return to your focus on care and respect for the person(s) in front of you.

Honesty is essential, but delivering it with brutality is unacceptable. You can learn to stay calm and deliver your messages and feedback with respect and care, becoming a model for others in your organization to follow.


Hey! While your pondering the mountain of Monday morning work that’s staring you in the face, why not take a break and head on over to this month’s  Leadership Development Carnival at Great Leadership? A little bit of procrastination to read a few good posts is recommended if it feeds your brain!

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

6 comments on “Being brutally honest – without the brutal part

  1. Interesting blog post. A quick thought. There is a word that gets tossed around from time-to-time, this being “Carefrontation.” This is made-up word, although its in the Urban Dictionary seems to perfectly matched with your prescription.

  2. YES!!!! My favorite line is “An opinion given in a manner that is blunt or delivered with the heat of strong negative emotions has no heart.”

    You are right. Somewhere along the way, brutality has been substituted for being honest. Some people proudly proclaim, that they “tell it like it is” or they are “just keeping it real” or that they are a” straight shooter” when in fact these are usually excuses used to be mean.

    I always say brave communicators use respect as the foundation for all communication activity. Being respectful enough to be honest AND deliver your view in a respectful manner is a skill set that transcends any job or industry.

    Well said!

  3. Well done as usual, Mary Jo. I find what constitutes “brutal” varies depending upon geography. Here in the land of “Midwest Nice” what passes for normal interaction in, say, Boston or New York might be seen as pushy, harsh, or confrontational in the Upper Midwest. At the same time our softer communication style might seem wishy-washy to those from the East Coast. Still in all, your point is well taken.

  4. Thanks for that additional point, and so true. If we widen our geographical lens, there are also differences in what’s acceptable in every culture across the globe. This can make for very tricky communications for a global leader!

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