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Your Brand of Honesty: Brutal or Radical?

Every once in a while, a certain phrase is uttered on my couch: brutally honest. Often, it’s claimed as a point of pride as a client tells me that they believe one of the reasons they struggle in relationships is because they’re “just brutally honest, and some people can’t handle that,” (this is not a direct quote, but you get the idea). Brutal honesty is telling people exactly what you think about them, their choices, etc., with little or no regard to their feelings. For example, if your partner asked you if you liked the way an outfit looked on them, a brutally honest answer would be, “no, you look fat in that.” 


People who identify as brutally honest often have a sense that they’re helping others with their honesty; that others will benefit from hearing the truths they have to offer, even if they don’t enjoy it. I also often find that these brutally honest individuals are not open to much negative feedback about this trait; after all, how can one be criticized for honesty?


It’s pretty easy to see why this brand of honesty can be problematic—the brutally honest person isn’t taking the time to care about others’ feelings, and those close to them are frequently caught in the line of fire, and being damaged in the process. The word brutal is an apt descriptor. There isn’t much that we would describe as brutal and choose to subject ourselves to.


There’s another phrase you may have heard recently: radical honesty (or radically honest, or even radical candor). At first glance this may seem like nothing more than a new label on an old concept—we think of “radical” things being the most extreme possible version of themselves (for example, we think of a “radical mastectomy” as the most aggressive possible treatment for breast cancer). But I’m here to tell you that this word is more complex than it seems, and worth reconsidering.


The word “radical” comes from the Latin word meaning “root,” or the fundamental essence of something. We know it is used more colloquially to mean other things, like “extreme” or “amazing;” but in this instance, it refers to the root or essence of something. Radical honesty is a philosophy developed by Brad Blanton, with the goal of helping to form more authentic, intimate connections for those who practice it. Radical honesty is not simply saying out loud whatever you’re thinking; rather, it is sharing authentically what you notice, which may fall into one of three categories: sensations, thoughts, and your external surroundings. Getting to the root of what you notice, and sharing it openly and without judgment, allows the radically honest person to share and be understood deeply. 


Of course, to be effective, radical honesty needs to be mutual within a relationship. If one partner is sharing openly about what they notice, and the other is closed off or defensive, the system falls a little flat. Radical honesty has gained some traction in the business world, with many companies adopting a principle of radical honesty in their broad relationships with each other. For example, a company might decide that they want their employees to give each other regular radically honest feedback, and then share pieces of that feedback at weekly meetings—encouraging each person to share something they were asked to examine about themselves.


There is one major thing that, in my opinion, distinguishes radical honesty from brutal honesty: focus. That is to say, is the honest statement focused on the speaker, or on the receiver? Is your statement about the other person, or about yourself? Brutal honesty is about someone else, often critical of something they are doing or a characteristic you believe they possess. Radical honesty is about yourself, and what you notice about yourself and your own experience. 


Imagine your partner is preparing a speech to give before a large crowd, and asks you to listen/watch them practice and give them feedback. Imagine that they stumble a few times and make some obvious mistakes. Then, it’s time for you to give feedback. A brutally honest statement might be, “That sucked. You need a lot of work. Better get to it or you’re going to be laughed off the podium.” This statement is focused on your partner and your experience is barely part of it. A radically honest response would be something like, “While you were speaking, I noticed myself being distracted by um’s and ah’s, and it made it hard to focus on what you were saying.” Still true, but look how much more of you is in there. And, notice how much easier that feels for the other person to hear.


Here’s another example. Imagine your child has broken an important rule, and you’re having a discussion with him or her about consequences. You’re upset, and so is your kid; the situation is ripe with potential for some tough but honest things to be said. A brutally honest statement might be, “you’ve really screwed up this time. I can’t believe that after I’ve done for you and all the trust I’ve given you, you did such a stupid thing. You are a spoiled, ungrateful brat!” This might feel like an honest statement at the time, because in your anger, you might believe that these descriptors of your child are appropriate. But a radically honest statement might sound more like this: “I notice myself feeling sad about what’s happened. I work really hard to make a good life for you, and when things like this happen I find myself feeling unappreciated or taken advantage of. That hurts.”


The truth is that most of us probably straddle the line between brutal and radical honesty sometimes–and that we’re sometimes off in a totally different part of the truth spectrum, holding back parts of what we think, feel, or notice because we’re worried they’re not acceptable to others or that we’ll be judged in some way.


My challenge for you this month is to consider how a radically honest approach to your important relationships might change things for the better. It’s not all that different from much of the communication-focused tips we discuss on the therapy couch, really — it’s about identifying, labeling, and articulating the root of what’s going on for you, and giving the other person a chance to come through in their part of the conversation. Will you give it a try?


Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT/LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.