Honesty Versus Tact

Some people pride themselves on being open and honest.  Some even brag about being “brutally honest”.  And while honesty is definitely a desirable character trait, is there a point at which you can be TOO honest?

Sometimes I think we use honesty as an excuse to be overly harsh and critical towards another person.  Indeed, you may need to point out when someone has done something that really bothered you, or made you feel bad in some way.  But rather than lash out at them and point out their character flaws in a heartless manner, how do we express how they have hurt us without hurting them in return?

I would generally consider myself an open and honest person.  I am usually not terribly shy about expressing myself, or letting you know how I feel about you.  But I do have a tendency to want to avoid conflict, and to try to avoid hurting someone else, often to the point of not telling someone when they have hurt me or in some other way upset me.  This is not necessarily a good thing.  By not letting someone know that they’ve done something I didn’t like, not only do I increase the chances of them repeating the offense, but I tend to start developing a negative attitude towards that person, because they repeatedly do aggravating/thoughtless/selfish things.  Is that really fair to them?  Of course not.  I have not expressed how much their actions bothered me, so maybe they don’t realize that their actions are aggravating/thoughtless/selfish.

Instead of stewing over the immature, selfish actions, we should go to the person who has wronged us and let them know how we feel.  But we have to strike a balance here.  While we should not hold everything inside and stew on it, neither should we harshly blurt out what a horrible person we think they are.  This is not an opportunity to attack everything that we think is wrong about the other person.  Hopefully, we can use it as an opportunity to mend and/or strengthen our relationships.  It is sometimes very difficult to express that someone has upset us in a tactful way so that they do not perceive it as a personal attack.

And what if we are on the receiving end of the correction?  No one really LIKES being told that they’ve done something wrong.  Most people don’t like having their flaws pointed out to them, even when it is done in a relatively gentle manner.  Even if we are willing to admit that we HAVE flaws, it can get pretty uncomfortable listening to someone enumerate them.  And when someone starts pointing out our flaws in a critical, unloving way, it’s hard not to snap back with every time they’ve wronged us.  And it’s hard not to excuse our own behavior by making it the result of the other person’s behavior.  “I only did “y” because you did “x”.”  True, much misbehavior is reactive, but that doesn’t excuse what is, in fact, misbehavior.

As I’ve said before, “simple” does not necessarily mean “easy”.  We all know that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated, and that is one of the simplest of all ideas of human interaction.  But that does not make it easy to do.  I have said many times that I would like to know if I did something that upset someone else, so that I could avoid doing it again, but I often do not offer them that same opportunity.  Often I simply don’t know HOW to broach the subject without having a negative outcome, so I just try to avoid it altogether.

Do you struggle to find this balance between being honest and being tactful?  Do you have a tendency to lean more towards avoidance or blazing honesty?  How do YOU find that middle ground?  Would you be willing to share an instance in which you were able to gently let someone know that they hurt you, and they responded positively?

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