safe honesty real honesty

by Nate Regier, PhD

Have you ever been in a situation where a simple conflict escalated into finger pointing and blaming? Have you ever given someone feedback and they got defensive? Have you ever left a conversation realizing that good intentions resulted in unintended consequences?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may gotten tangled up in safe honesty when real honesty could have changed the outcome for the better.

When Honesty Matters Most

You might get by with safe honesty in some situations, but the difference between safe and real honesty matters most during conflict. I define conflict as a gap between what I want and what I am experiencing at any given point in time. Maybe I want to be at work at 8 AM and I am experiencing a really long line at the Starbucks drive through. Maybe I want to properly complete all my documentation paperwork for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan, and I am experiencing changing rules every time I call my accountant. That’s conflict.

Conflict is emotional. Everyone has emotional responses to conflict. I call it gap energy. Conflict is neither good nor bad, but how we spend gap energy can certainly make a big difference in how things turn out.

Safe Honesty

Safe honesty during conflict may sound something like this:

How I feel: I’m really disappointed.

What I’m experiencing: You’re late.

What I want: You need to be on time.

Let’s imagine I try safe honesty with my accountant about the PPP.

How I feel: I’m frustrated.

What I’m experiencing: They can’t get their act together.

What I want: I’ve got a business to run.

Safe honesty comes in four flavors: Facts, Opinions, Accusations, and Demands. Facts are descriptions of what you see, e.g. “You told an off-color joke.” Opinions are your evaluation of what you see, e.g. “That’s disrespectful.” Accusations are your assumptions or conclusions about someone or something, e.g. “You’re a racist.” Demands are about the behaviors or conditions you think will close the gap, e.g. “You need to apologize.”

What makes it safe?

Four things about safe honesty make it safe. First, it focuses on what’s happening, not how people are doing. Second, it comes from the head, not the heart, so it’s disconnected from the authentic emotional aspects of the situation. Third, it conceals our own vulnerability. Safe honesty avoids anything that would expose us. Fourth, the result of safe honesty is that the other person is more exposed afterwards. Even something as basic as telling your friend his zipper is down fits all four of these criteria of safe honesty.

Excuses we make

How do people justify their safe honesty? Here are some of the excuses we hear from leaders;

“I’m telling it like it is.”

“Someone needs to say it.”

“It’s my job.”

“Hey, I’m just being honest.”

“We need more radical candor around here.”

“At least you know where I stand.”

The Consequences of Safe Honesty

Safe honesty hurts relationships and workplaces in a variety of ways: interaction safety disappears, trust drops, people get defensive or shut down, false assumptions get amplified, and morale suffers. Above all, people begin to question each others’ motives and start to play it safe by withholding what’s most important.

Real Honesty During Conflict

Consider this type of response to a person arriving late to a meeting: “I’m feeling discouraged. I didn’t see you until 30 minutes into our meeting. I really want to feel confident we are on the same page.”

Or that call with my accountant: “I’m anxious. I want to feel secure I’m doing the paperwork right and I haven’t been able to get response to my first question.”

Real honesty takes things one step deeper by focusing on our emotions and emotional motives during conflict. When we are being really honest:

  • We identify and own our emotions about the gap without blaming anyone or implying that someone else caused our feelings. e.g. I’m feeling discouraged.”
  • We describe our own experience of what happened without pointing fingers, e.g. I didn’t see you until 30 minutes into our meeting.”
  • We disclose our emotional motives, e.g. “I really want to feel confident we are on the same page.”

Real honesty is different because it focuses on how you are doing instead of what happened or needs to happen; it comes from the heart, it reveals your own emotions and emotional motives, and it leaves you as exposed or more exposed compared to the other person.

Why Practice Real Honesty?

Real honesty builds trust and connection. It demonstrates personal responsibility for your emotions and reactions to a situation, it shows real courage to be fully authentic, it bypasses assumptions, reduces defensiveness, improves interaction safety, builds connection, levels the playing field, shows respect, and can open up connections between people they never knew they had.

Next time you recognize the gap of conflict, try practicing safe honesty and make the first move to a build more safe, trusting, and collaborative workplace.

About the author

Nate Regier is CEO and founding owner of Next Element, a global leadership development firm dedicated to bring more compassion to every workplace. You can reach Nate here and check out his new book.