We can generally agree that telling the truth is the right thing to do in most situations. Yet often we hold back, saying what we think others want to hear, or simply holding back an opinion or idea when we suspect it won’t be well received. Of course, not all opinions should be shared, especially when they would have no possible positive effect. We don’t need to volunteer our opinion of a relative’s cooking or a co-worker’s fashion choices, for example.
But when the truth could lead to positive change—such as more efficient and effective business practices, more meaningful communication in a relationship, or even social changes that rely on speaking out against injustice—we don’t do anyone any favors by withholding the truth or saying something different than what we really think.
One of the barriers to telling the truth is societal. Many of us, especially women, are taught to be polite, that we are responsible for other people’s feelings. Truth telling might upset the status quo, and we will be responsible for the chaos, real or imagined, that will ensue. We fear the consequences, which are unfortunately often very real. Women who are direct and truthful in the corporate world or in politics are often labeled as bitches. Women and men who are willing to tell brutal truths often encounter defensive reactions and sometimes downright hostility. On top of this, when we are nearing retirement age or fearing outplacement, we don’t want to make waves.
Too often, however, we don’t tell the truth because we imagine these will be the reactions, even if this isn’t true, even if telling the truth could in fact build trust and transparency, and free others—our colleagues, our employees, our friends and family—to tell us the truth. Sometimes, we don’t tell the truth because we lack the communication skills to do so in a way that focuses on solutions, not problems, eliciting feedback and fostering collaboration instead of competition. When this is the case, we do experience negative reactions, which only seem to provide evidence that we should be more careful about telling the truth in the future, when actually, they are evidence that we simply need to approach our truth telling more skillfully.
And sometimes, of course, no matter how carefully we communicate, and no matter how much being a truth teller is an expected part of who we are, we still face consequences. In some cultures—such as in many corporations, academia, and other hierarchal organizations and institutions—where truth telling is not the norm, or where politics make truth telling risky, putting ourselves out there might not always have the intended effect—at least not immediately. But visionaries look beyond the immediate situation to the bigger picture. They see that the more of us who tell the truth, the more we create an environment where truth telling is valued, where others feel comfortable stepping up and doing the same. This is beautifully illustrated in the Occupy movement, as truth tellers inspire others to stand up across the country and around the world.
But those first truth tellers do take a huge risk, and that is why this is an attribute of a visionary, a person who is willing to face the consequences knowing that the consequences of not being truthful—on the organization, on other people, on the world, on themselves—are unacceptable.
What, if anything, keeps you from telling the truth?
Image credit: Photograph by Bronwen Clune.