You probably remember a conversation you’ve had where someone said something harsh to you and then justified it by pleading, “I’m just being honest!” It’s like they were saying,

“I’m just being a good person, in the service of Honesty, so if it hurts you, it’s not my problem.”

Perhaps they think you’ll take less offense because they’re attempting to embody a noble characteristic, but most of the time that isn’t the case. In fact, if you’re like me, any time someone says, “I’m just being honest!” after saying something harsh, I take double the offense.

Why is that?

Well, the reason those “just being honest” people bother us so much is because they’re only taking responsibility for what they think is a noble intention and not taking responsibility for the impact of what they’ve said on us. They’re over there on their side of the conversation in their white gloves, meanwhile we’re feeling hurt.

So what do we do?

In the New York Times Business Bestseller, Difficult Conversationsthe answer is to disentangle intention from impact. It says,

“Intentions strongly influence our judgments of others: If someone intended to hurt us, we judge them more harshly than if they hurt us by mistake. We’re willing to be inconvenienced by someone if they have a good reason, we’re irritated if we think they just don’t care about the impact of their actions on us.”

In the the case of someone who keeps pulling the “just being honest” card, here are five steps to assure that when you talk to others, you can leave the conversation with more understanding on both sides:

1. Ask if they have any other intentions than being honest. Human intentions are complex and maybe they have a legitimate heartfelt worry but aren’t saying it. Their intention for themselves was to be honest, but what was their intention for you? Maybe attached to their intention of seeming self-righteousness is something more benevolent.

2. Communicate the impact of their words on you. Acknowledge that although their intention is to embody noble characteristics like honesty, which you support, that what they said really didn’t leave you feeling empowered. Describe how it left you feeling. Hurt? Angry? Disrespected?

3. Briefly explain to them the idea of intention vs. impact. What we intend when we say something might not end up being what the other person experiences when we say it.

4. Make a request about a new way to communicate. Ask that each of you consider the impact of what you say as much as you do your intention. Make a commitment to being better leaders, which involves being responsible for other people’s experience of what we say and not just our intention behind what we say.

5. Throw the ‘just being honest’ card to the wayside. Now that you both get it that ‘being honest’ is not enough as a guideline for deciding whether or not to say something, decide to remove it from your language.

How about you? Do you ever catch yourself justifying what you say with seemingly good intentions and don’t take responsibility for how it lands on the other side? How can you up your game of leadership and take full responsibility for your intention and the impact of what you say?


Do you understand the impact of your communication, or lack thereof?

Download the Cost of Conflict Avoidance Paper

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