Monday, August 15, 2011

Honesty Isn't Always the Best Policy

How many times have you witnessed one person reaming out another and then justifying their rant with the tag line, "At least I'm being honest"?

I want to object to such moments, when a person chooses to wield the truth as a weapon. While I think honesty is generally the best policy, I don't think it's the Prime Directive.

Ma'ikwe and I were discussing this over the weekend and were excited to discover that we both had thinking about this. What follows is a commingling of our reflections.

The most interesting case is honesty in connection with things that aren't going well. (I'm not talking about hiding joy—though that happens, too.) I want to touch on five flavors of honesty in conjunction with distress, not all of which are delicious or nutritious.

1. Honesty with Oneself
Once you become aware of distress, are you willing to look openly at how you're contributing to what's not working? Even if your contributions were inadvertent, what culpability do you have in why the dynamic went south? What part can you own; what part can you do something about; how is it in your interest (or in the interest of the ongoing relationships involved) to engage with others about what's been difficult, or to change your behavior?

These are the kinds of questions that a person being honest with oneself asks. At a deeper level, you can examine not only what your patterns and preferences are, but whether or not they serve you. You have the opportunity to consider whether it's a good idea for you to work on how you've been responding to situations in a patterned way.

Sometimes this work is done alone; sometimes with the help of others (either on an informal basis with friends or partners, or with professional counselors). When attempting this alone, there is always a question of how clearly you can see yourself and what might still be masked or distorted, which is why it's often useful to get reflections from others as well.

The personal work you do of this kind may or may not be shared.

2. Disclosing About Your Part in What's Hard
This can follow from the former. After reflecting on a dynamic that didn't go well, you may be willing to own some (or even all) of what didn't work about a difficult exchange, and then choose to share that analysis with the other people involved. While you may be hoping that this will be the start of a quid pro quo (where they own their part in return), that's outside of your control.

So long as you don't slip across the line and start delivering unsolicited analysis of what parts they were responsible for, this kind of offering almost always is conciliatory and helps deescalate tension. Of course, if the other party thinks you're going too easy on yourself they may not to be very impressed (your gift may come across as more of an olive twig than a branch). Still, this kind of reaching out rarely fans the flames, so long as it's given without strings and authentically.

3. Sharing Hard Feelings
Moving up the ladder, another kind of honesty is letting the other players in a difficult dynamic know your feelings when you're in distress. While this may not be pleasant, if done cleanly it can be helpful (both because it gets hard stuff off your chest, and because it offers insight or clarity to others about your reaction, helping them understand the context of your response).

What do I mean be "cleanly"? There's a world of difference between these two statements about the same sequence of events:

Version A: "I'm furious with you for leaving the car windows down when you parked the car yesterday, allowing last night's rain to soak the seats. Now I have to drive to a job interview on a wet seat. Ugh!"

Version B: "You fucking asshole, the car seats are soaked this morning because you were an airhead about rolling up the windows when you parked yesterday. Now I have to sit in your stupidity and look like I wet my pants at my job interview!"

This is an important distinction. If you can separate the expression of hard feelings from hard judgment (dumping, blaming, attacking, etc), it has a much better chance of being heard constructively. While I'm not guaranteeing a happy landing here, I fully support this kind of honesty.

Now let's cross to the dark side.

4. Attacking with Hard Feelings
Essentially, this is Version B, and the kind of thing I was referring to in the opening line of this essay. While it's honest in the sense that the speaker truly feels that way in the heat of the moment, it's also indulgent and not likely to be helpful. In particular, it can be damaging to relationship, and that concerns me a great deal.

Some people have been reinforced in their use of bluster and attacking behavior because it sometimes works in getting people to back down and give them what they want (in the same way that a three-year-old will keep throwing tantrums if it results in an ice cream cone). Mostly though, it's a pain in the ass and is more something that needs to be survived than will be looked forward to.

Still, there is nuance here that I want to probe more deeply. Occasionally a person may be consumed with fury or fear and it literally may not be possible for them to get past that unless there is an opportunity to express it. Even though they know it is ugly and hurtful, once that particular demon is in their head the only way they know to expel it is through giving it voice. (journaling or walking the labyrinth just won't cut it). In this dynamic, the possessed person is not thinking about relationship; they're just trying to not drown in their distress.

I have a lot of sympathy for people who wrestle with this demon, and I think it's helpful that they have outlets for exorcism. That said, I think it typically works much better if this venting happen in a structured environment, expressly established for that purpose. Lots of things can work, including:
o going on a long walk and screaming in the wind
o taking time with a partner or close friend who will just listen until all the poison comes out, and then start exploring constrictive responses
o co-counseling
o therapy

In my view, this kind of honesty is dangerous when brandished in a moment of rage or anguish, and I urge people to be conscious of this risk when embracing a culture that condones its expression. While it's important (even essential) to have ways to express emotions pertinent to what's happening—and I recognize that in the midst of their eruption it can be damn hard to disentangle feelings from judgment—we can commit to helping one another in that effort, all the while being compassionate with those who fall short.

If the choice is between no expression of feelings or their coming out raw and full of venom, then I think the latter is better, because you don't have to guess what's going on and it's easier to correct for exaggeration than to accurately divine the meaning of what's not expressed. Still, you have to clean up a mess and repair damage to relationship, and that can be expensive. Best, in my view, is to do what you can to encourage the previous kind of honesty (I statements) while deflecting the attacks (you statements).

5. Disclosing With Intent to Harm
There is yet another kind of honesty that is also malignant. This is when a person makes the conscious choice—not in a moment of active distress—to disclose accurate information that is calculated to cause harm. (To be sure, people also use misinformation to cause harm, but I'm narrowing my focus here to accurate information being harnessed for nefarious ends.)

This could be the indiscreet sharing of private information—either by making public a private thing about the person you want to hurt, or by making known to the person you want to hurt new information that is embarrassing or dismaying. (During a group check-in, saying "How is it for you that your husband's cheating with the woman next door every time you're out of town?")

This could be sharing information callously or disrespectfully. ("I hear that ancient cat of yours finally got hit by a car. Now you don't have to worry about it escaping the house any more, and you'll save a bundle on kitty litter.")

While the perpetrator may try to hide behind "But it's true" and act innocent, they aren't. In this instance the person has made the chilling choice to present information in such a way as to make life more difficult for others, purposefully misusing honesty to inflict punishment. This perversion is hard to forgive and causes great damage to relationship.

• • •
While I think honesty of the first three kinds can be promotional of healthy relationships, I think honesty of the last two kinds undermines it.

Honesty can be usefully thought of in dynamic tension with discretion. When looked at through the lens of what is most helpful to building healthy relationship, it isn't always the right choice to act on honesty at the expense of discretion. Sometimes, discretion is the better choice. Thus, one way to view the art of relationship is learning discernment about where to place yourself on the honesty/discretion spectrum in any given situation. Being consistently diligent about this analysis is a great way to have a healthy relationship with honesty.


Abe Karl-Gruswitz said...

Good article, Laird! I found myself reacting to the line about Honesty not being the prime directive. Honesty is incredibly important to me. I quickly feel a huge build up in myself for not sharing my thoughts and feelings. It's important to me to have relationships that allow for a deep level of sharing. I completely agree with the idea that how information is shared is important. I think what thought I come to is that, for me, Honesty is one of three prime directives, the other two being Love and Happiness. It is important that information is shared in a loving way that helps the recipient move toward their own happiness. You'd be hard to find me ever advocating for the holding back of information. I really wish we had a much more honest society with open and empathetic ears. I will always advocate for the loving application of honesty, though.

Honesty, Love, and Happiness are different sides of the same thing, to me. You can't fully separate them out. A person who is sharing information to hurt someone, as in your last example, really has dishonest motives. Hurtful intentions also damage the way information is received.

There was one moment in my marriage where my wife had stated to me that she thinks it is often greedy and self-centered for a spouse to tell their spouse that he or she have been cheating on him or her. She said that the person would only be sharing that information to let the guilt out, but that it would hurt the spouse. That really got me that my wife was saying that to me. I believe it may have been coming from her telling me to not tell her that I had been cheating on her (though I have never cheated on her). In hearing that I thought, "Well, when is my wife being honest and when is she not being honest." I even thought, "Is she trying to tell me without telling me that she's been cheating on me?"

For me, it important to have relationships where Honesty is a base value. I'm even talking about some really radical honesty, too. I don't want my marriage, relationships, or friendships to be based on a performance. I want everyone involved to feel that they can fully share of themselves.

So, in agreeing with everything you wrote, except for finding an emotional reaction to the statement that Honesty is not a prime directive, I'm going to say that Honesty is one of three prime directives for me. That may be exactly what you meant, though. It can't stand alone.

Jacob Corvidae said...

Hey Laird,

I still believe in being radical honesty in the sense of being willing and able to talk about anything, but over the years have come to appreciate a variety of ways in which honesty is sometimes better replaced with subtlety or silence. Certainly the most solid example of this idea is the idea that you need not speak unless what you say True, Kind and Necessary. I've heard several variations on this and seen it attributed to a variety of people and traditions -- but in any case, it's a useful filter, and relevant, I believe to your post here.

Jacob (in Detroit)