How to Deal with Bullying When it’s Called Honesty

In these times of fake news and alternative facts, how could we not be in favour of honesty? Honesty is a core value which is essential to human interaction. We have to be able to trust each other.

So let’s be on our guard for communication which, in the guise of honesty, presents negative comments masquerading as helpful feedback, and which raises questions about the motives of the speaker.

Supporters of ‘radical candour’, a management concept which promotes the virtues of direct challenge, say feedback should be immediate, honest and regular. Anecdotal examples of such feedback include:

  • Your team don’t respect you because you come in late
  • You communicate badly and need to get to the point more quickly
  • You should stop making decisions which are based on emotions

These examples may be ‘honest’ in that they reflect the feelings of the speaker, but they say more about the speaker than about the recipient. The comments may be ‘immediate’, but had some time and thought gone into formulating them they may have been properly focused and more carefully expressed. If this kind of critical feedback is ‘regular’, heaven help the people who are constantly subjected to such observations.

You might well challenge these observations:

  • Who exactly does not ‘respect’ me? What do you mean by ‘respect’?
  • What do you mean by ‘badly’? Sometimes I choose not to get to the point too quickly. Many powerful communicators choose to build up to the point. Perhaps you think I communicate badly because your understanding is limited.
  • What evidence do you have for how I make decisions? Why is it wrong to include emotions?

In a radically candid environment, challenging directly is balanced by caring personally. Without personal care, criticism is ‘obnoxious aggression’ (what, as opposed to that pleasant aggression loved by all?).

Actually, managers and most of our colleagues don’t care personally. And they shouldn’t. They (probably) aren’t family. They (probably) aren’t trusted friends. They aren’t trained therapists. They may be low in emotional intelligence. They may not know how to deal with emotional responses. They are not entitled to know more about you than you want them to know.

Attempts to cross the boundaries of common humanity, fellow-feeling and the normal duty of care come dangerously close to the borders of emotional bullying.

Being honest doesn’t mean we are honour-bound to say what we really think. If someone asks you how they look in their new outfit, it isn’t a virtue to share your opinion that it makes them look fat/washed-out/puts years on them. You can use your judgement and choose an appropriate ways of giving helpful feedback.

Sometimes people signal their intention to give feedback that they know will be hurtful. They sound concerned:

  • Do you mind if I say something?
  • Can I be honest?
  • Can I be absolutely honest?

Of course, they may be rock-solid in their intention to be helpful, and they may be speaking out of genuine concern. But sometimes, they aren’t. They are using honesty as a mask for indirect aggression. They are pushing you into a corner where you have no option but to hear what they are going to say.
But you do have an option. When you find that you are dreading what’s coming, cut it off. You can do it gently:

  • You know, I’d actually rather you weren’t honest right now. But thanks for the offer.
  • I’d prefer you not to say it, in fact. But thanks for the offer.
  • Whatever it is, I think I’d prefer not to hear it at the moment. But thanks for the offer.

The most helpful, already well-established formula for giving criticism or negative feedback has three components:

  • Describe the ‘fault’ in terms of behaviour, not personality
  • Be precise
  • Say why it matters/what impact it has
  • Suggest/discuss ways of putting it right

This framework makes it possible for feedback to be appropriate, constructive and focused. It prevents the use of vague and personal comments. It challenges and calls to account in a measured way and respects the dignity of those involved. It’s a framework which can be adapted for any situation, professional or personal.
Working through these elements before you bring up the subject helps you to be clear about what you want to say and why you want to say it. It helps you to be honest about yourself and your motives. It will reveal any hidden agendas.

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