Honesty is not the best policy.
It’s a good policy. It’s the foundation of all productive relationships, but it doesn’t work on it’s own.
Honesty is not as productive by definition as we give it credit for.
When we ask people for their honesty, we are usually asking for their candour.
Candour = Honesty x (Respect + Empathy)
Candour is honesty charged with the productive forces of empathy and respect.
Candour insists that the sum of your respect and empathy must be positive if you are to expect a positive response from your honesty.
Ed Cartmul, the driving force and former President of Pixar (also the first person to render 3D animated movie on a computer), discusses how fundamental candour is to Pixar’s creative process in his book Creativity Inc.;
Candour isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.
Honesty is only risky when it’s cruel.
‘Brutal’ honesty is a self-serving practice which tears people down. This serves no practical use outside of stroking ones own ego.
People don’t like people who are unnecessarily cruel, especially when that cruelty is self-serving.
Don’t be brutally honest.
Instead, use candour to build people up.
Discuss the mistakes of others remembering that have made your own.
Mistakes usually feel awful. If someone knows they made a mistake, don’t waste your breath reminding them how awful they should feel.
Motivate them to fix it, to innovate, to work harder, to feel better.
Telling a stranger on a bus that they smell like cat food is rarely going to help anybody.
Firstly, you don’t know them and therefore have no rapport to soften the edges of your honesty.
Secondly, your chances of alerting them to something they weren’t already aware of are much slimmer than the chance that you’ll hurt them.
You don’t know enough about their situation to know that they shouldn’t smell this way.
Perhaps they know they smell like cat food because earlier in the day some other cruel person decided it would be funny to throw some at them.
You’ve been complely honest but no help at all, they still smell like cat food, and now you’ve further ruined their day.
If your best friend shows up to your house one day smelling like cat food, that’s a different story.
After waiting enough time for them to mention if something strange has happened to leave them smelling this way, you gently mention that they smell a bit off. You let them know about a great cologne which might suit them, and you speak kindly with them until you figure out how they’ve managed to collect such an oddly specific wretched scent.
This kind of honesty is more likely to be met with productive action. This is candour.