Compassionate Honesty?

When someone says, “Be honest with me,” what happens to you? Do you tighten in your gut?  Do you hold your breath?  Are you at once nervous about the impact of your honesty and tempted to let free a host of judgements, criticisms and opinions that you have been keeping to yourself?  “Here is my chance,” you think to yourself, “they are asking me to be honest.”   Still, there is something tugging at your mind, perhaps a memory of the last time you were “brutally honest” and the conflict that ensued.  You hesitate while trying to predict if what you are about to say will lead to connection or argument.

Why does brutal get matched with honesty? Does it have something to do with the way we learned to think and speak?  Has someone ever asked you, “Can I be brutally honest with you”?  Did you gleefully reply, “Oh sure.  Please, go right ahead.  I am always deeply grateful for an opportunity to find compassion and acceptance in the face of brutality.  I can’t wait to practice cultivating connection in myself and between us while you let loose your judgements, criticisms and blaming.”
Honesty without compassion makes it challenging to maintain a loving connection; it is more likely to alienate.  When honesty is brutal it is because it is based on moralistic judgments and the intention is to tell people what we think of them, why they are to blame, and what they can do to become “better people”.  When we express evaluations, judgments, blame and criticism to another, it can be very difficult to create connection because the other is hearing that they are at fault, they are wrong or bad.   When we express brutal honesty, I believe we are hoping that the other will agree with our judgments, take responsibility for our feelings, and accept blame.  This would be very satisfying to our egos, but it doesn’t support connection and compassion.

So what might brutal honesty sound like? “Eric, your ideas are weak and you are a lousy writer.
What you are talking about would never work.  Your column is the worst column in this magazine.  The classifieds are more entertaining.”  These statements give me judgements and evaluations to agree or argue with but no clear information about why my writing doesn’t work for this hypothetical person.   My initial urge may be to respond with a barrage of my own brutal honesty.  Or, I may agree with what is said and start beating myself up until I get in touch with my needs.  Brutal honesty means there is more work to do to find the needs that are alive beneath the alienating words in order to cultivate a connection that inspires mutual understanding and giving from the heart.

How would you feel if someone asked you, “Can I be compassionately honest with you”?  I’m guessing there would still be some anxiety.  Many of us have heard precious little compassionate honesty and may still expect to hear judgmental, hard-to-hear honesty.  Expressing compassionate honesty means that we express what feelings and needs come alive in us in relation to something we experience.  Our intention is to connect with the other so that they will want to contribute to meeting our needs.  What does compassionate honesty sound like?  “Eric, when I read the part in your article about expressing feelings and needs, I felt concerned because of my need for authenticity – I want people to hear the real me when I’m speaking, not a communication model.  Would you tell me if there is a way to express compassionate honestly and still sound genuine?”

In this honest expression this person has a feeling of concern which was stimulated by a clear observation, “the part in your article about expressing feelings and needs”.  This feeling of concern is pointing this person toward his or her need for authenticity, and there is a doable, positive action request for how I might help meet this person’s need.  I have some clear information about what is going on for this person in reading my article, a suggestion of how I could meet his or her need, and there are no judgments or evaluations.  If I heard this response, it would be much easier for me to connect with this person and contribute to his or her needs than a person who expresses his or her criticisms and opinions.
I want us all to speak honestly about what is going on for us.  We lose energy, empowerment, and authenticity when we hold back our voice; and I believe we hold back for a very good reason: we’re trying to meet our needs for peace, harmony, and connection.  We have learned to speak a language of judgements, evaluations, blame, and criticism so we hold back our honesty because we doubt that this kind of honesty will contribute to peace, harmony, and connection with the other.  However, my experience is that when I hold back my voice, I create inner turmoil because I am not being authentic.  I am very grateful for the Compassionate Communication process because, although it has not always been easy, it has allowed me to speak up for myself authentically and honestly and connect to others no matter how they respond.