Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Reader Seeks Clarification on Honesty

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I found your column about the three sisters and your comments about honesty very interesting. To think about honesty being, in your words, nuanced makes me both uncomfortable and intrigued. I have always tended to be very black or white about honesty: you’re either telling the truth, or you’re not.

I have to say that my honesty has often caused problems for me, but I always chalked these problems off to people just not being able to handle my honesty, making it their problem and not mine. In fact, a boss once asked me to stop saying, “In all honesty . . . ” He said I should instead say, “Here are my thoughts . . . ”

Anyway, it never dawned on me that there are several ways to answer the question, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” all of which can be “honest.” My first response is either “Yes, that outfit does make you look fat,” or “No, that outfit doesn’t make you look fat.” After much discussion with my wife, I am beginning to understand what you are saying about honesty being nuanced. (In fact, it was at my wife’s suggestion that I read your article and contact you. For years she has been urging me to think before I speak.)

So, I would like to know any additional thoughts you might have about honesty.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

I find several important points in what you write, starting with the boss who suggested you stop leading your responses with “In all honesty . . . ”, and instead say, “Here are my thoughts . . . ” When someone opens with “in all honesty,” it sounds like an admission that the speaker has thought about not being honest and has opted, lucky for you, to be honest. This raises red flags that honesty could be replaced with dishonesty at any time. The phrase “Here are my thoughts” keeps the focus where it should be: on the content of what the speaker has to say.

When you say that your wife has consistently urged you to think before you speak, I suspect she is trying to get you to think about the intent of what you say. It sounds like your first inclination is often to respond with your first thoughts, whatever they might be, and that’s been okay with you because “you’re just being honest.”


The role of intent addresses whether you care about the relationship with the person with whom you’re interacting. If you don’t care about the relationship, then using what I call blunt honesty can be appropriate. If you do care about the relationship, then using diplomatic honesty can be a better approach. Here are some examples.

Example #1: Blunt Honesty

If a stranger arrives on your doorstep next to a sign you have posted that says “No solicitation, please” and this stranger starts to proselytize about something religious or political, and you are put off by this behavior, you are completely justified in using blunt honesty: you may tell the person that the no solicitation sign applies to them and you would appreciate them leaving your property and not returning. Your intent is to be firm, polite, and to shut down any further dialogue: you do not have a relationship with this person and you are not interested in having one.

Example #2: Diplomatic Honesty

However, let’s say your new neighbor next door arrives at your door and says — while standing next to the “No solicitation, please” sign — that he would like to introduce himself and invite you to a coffee he and his family are hosting for some religious or political cause. In this situation, you may elect to use diplomatic honesty: “Hey, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the neighborhood. Just so you know, my family and I are very private about our religious and political beliefs, so we won’t be attending your coffee. But another time we’d enjoy getting together for coffee so our families can to get to know each other.” Your intent is to be firm, clear, polite, and to leave the door open for neighborly relationships to develop.

Example #3: A Combination of Blunt and Diplomatic Honesty

And to round out these hypothetical examples, let’s say your beloved aunt arrives and wants you to join her for some religious or political event so she can convince you to change your stand on certain things. You adore her and your relationship is important to you, so you tell her that you’re pretty sure nothing is going to change your mind about anything, but since it is she who is asking you to join her you tell her that yes, you will attend with her. You are open to exchanging views and ideas with her. Intent? Accommodate her request, but underpinned by using both blunt honesty (“I’m not going to change my mind”) and diplomatic honesty (“I am going along with this because I want to please you”).

In all three situations, honesty is maintained — that is, the message that “the solicitation of products, belief systems, and causes are not welcome here.” But how that honesty gets expressed is determined by the intent of the interaction, based on the status of the relationships involved. In the first case, there is no relationship with the stranger nor is one desired; in the second case with the new neighbor, the intent is to leave the door open for potential relationships; in the third example with the aunt there is a strong relationship is in place and loving accommodation prevails.

In summary, if you focus on your intent, that is, on how you want your response to impact your relationship with the other person, then it might be easier for you to decide when to use blunt honesty, diplomatic honesty, or a combination of the two.

I hope the guidelines and examples I have presented help you better understand that honesty is not always a simple concept to apply. How honesty is expressed is typically based on the relationships involved. This model may help you continue to be honest and to think before you speak. It’s easy to be blunt. Being diplomatic is more difficult: it requires considered forethought.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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