Telling the truth: is honesty really the best policy?

We’re always being told that being open, honest and truthful is the best policy. Some extremely practical people say it’s because they don’t have to remember what they said to whom.

love heart with honesty trust and respectBut there’s nothing straightforward about being truthful. Let’s start with the first hurdle: we tend to lie to ourselves most of the time. We pretend something doesn’t matter when it does, that we can handle ‘it’ even though we’re struggling, we pretend that we’re feeling one thing when we’re feeling something else entirely – usually so we don’t have to confront anything painful or even unpleasant. The list is loooong!

The point of this observation is that it’s hard to tell somebody the truth when we don’t even know what that truth is. Of course, we are very clever at sidestepping this challenge. We agonise about trivialities like which ‘little white lies’ are OK and which lies are a step too far.

But let’s assume that you really want to be honest and truthful – with your partner, your family, your friends. Here are some of the factors that you need to consider:

How self-aware are you?

When I was married, especially in the early years, I would withhold from my husband anything I believed would worry him or cause him discomfort or anxiety. For a very long time I held back to protect him from challenging realities.

I deeply believed that this was a loving thing to do. So you might say I was totally dishonest – but with good intentions!

What are your values and beliefs around being truthful?

I was brought up having it thoroughly impressed upon me that I must never, ever deliberately hurt anybody’s feelings. I was often plagued with the fear that, if I told somebody how I really felt, it would damage their feelings. So I kept my pain to myself.

But surely you must tell the truth!

Ahhh! The truth, yes. Except that there’s rarely an absolute truth. Everything else is either my truth or your truth – not the truth. Every single one of us brings to the exchange our own background, experiences, values and beliefs, which colour our perspective.

Every single one of us believes that our viewpoint is the right one and so that becomes our truth. I believe that recognising that single fact could make us more understanding, accepting, compassionate and open to another person’s views.

The level of self-awareness of the other person

Here we get potentially into hot water because we have no influence over somebody else’s stage of insight. You may be highly self-aware but, if the other person is lower in the self-awareness stakes, being truthful might be received less than enthusiastically.

How we express our truth

When ‘our’ truth is based on some resentment, most of us go on the attack: “You are thoughtless and a slob!” That may very well be your perception based on your actual experience, but will they be able to hear your truth and will it make a positive difference to the situation or relationship, or will it just make them feel defensive and under attack?

Expressing your truth in a way that the other person can hear starts with you taking responsibility for your perceptions. This means that a better approach might be to use ‘I-statements’, for example “When you forgot my birthday I felt really hurt!”

So, what needs to be in place for us to be able to be totally honest, open and truthful?

Both of you need to:

  • trust – in yourselves and in each other
  • be authentic 
  • be willing to listen without interrupting and share – the key is it needs to be reciprocal
  • be willing to be honest, open and truthful
  • be non-judgemental and accepting
  • be willing to make yourselves emotionally vulnerable
  • be caring – watch your language and beware of the need to be right

About Sue Plumtree

Today, at 72 I am totally fulfilled and purposeful. I call myself The Life Enhancing Coach, working with people over 50 who are ready to create a meaningful and rewarding future – regardless of their present circumstances. You can read more about me on my website.