As with many things in life we all have to manage a balance between politeness and honesty. Such balances will be personal to us and dependant on many factors.
(Did you notice I have been deceptive in this series? There were not nine parts to it but 14! However, if I told you that at the beginning you might not have been willing to read them all. I also know that most people are unwilling to read a long blog, so l try to keep each one to about 800 words. Some of my topics however ran well past this limit so I issued them in two parts, a and b, even c and d. Are you offended by my deception?)
The good news is that most people get the balance right most of the time – they have a strong moral compass, and they get their point across without offending. With practice and experience this becomes easier and more natural.
At one end of the spectrum, honesty is clearly a desirable attribute. But as the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza pointed out in his critique of Immanuel Kant’s famous treatise ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, ethical dilemmas can arise from the absolute adherence to the truth. Moreover, if you are always completely honest with people, telling them exactly what you think, you will probably be considered rude and be deemed to have poor social skills. This could well mean that you have fewer friends and less opportunity to meet new people or gain new social experiences. (Hmmm, I wonder if that is my problem?)
On the other hand, if you try to be ‘polite’ all the time you will probably not be representing a true picture of yourself. Your assiduous adherence to politeness may even be seen as obsequious, self-serving and deceitful. Does the image of Uriah Heep come to mind?
Generally, dishonesty and insincerity can be recognized by others and can affect your relationships negatively.
People may attempt to practice politeness over honesty because of problems with self-esteem, confidence or poor assertiveness skills. For example, some people find it difficult to say ‘no’ when they are asked to do something – worried that they may somehow offend and so, out of a false sense of politeness, or psychological need, say yes to requests they shouldn’t.
For example, being polite when you should be honest can be problematic if you take on too many tasks because you never say ‘no’; you will likely find yourself feeling overloaded, and resentful. Dissatisfaction with personal performance can be very stressful and negatively affect self-esteem, which in turn may make saying ‘no’ even more difficult and so the pattern is repeated.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln (unattributed, or was it P.T. Barnum?!):
“You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time – but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”
So we all have to get better at saying no, though tactfully.
All social situations are different and in each situation you need to use common sense and good judgment. And sometimes you are going to miss. Common sense and good judgment come with experience, from observing others and from making mistakes, learning what does and doesn’t work, what is acceptable and what isn’t.
The best advice when it comes to balancing honesty with politeness is that they are not mutually exclusive. Honesty is the best policy when it comes to matters of substance. But in delivering truth as you see it, it is still possible, nay necessary, to be delicate and respectful. Phrases such as:
“It seems to me that …”
“There may be other points of view on this but my sense is …”
“I wonder if I could give you my perspective on that point…”
can avoid a lot of unnecessary confrontation.
If you have the power to decide the outcome, you should tell the other, genuinely (in most cases) that you value their opinion but you’ve decided that …. You don’t have to strut.
If the other has the power, sometimes you have to cede the field. “I don’t agree with your decision but I know it is your prerogative and I’m fine with that.” Try to say it without sneering.
Of course it is never acceptable to agree to do something that you consider morally, ethically or legally wrong.
You can express a difference of opinion without permanently damaging the relationship. It is possible to do both. Practicing tact and diplomacy does not mean sacrificing the truth to the alter of preserving position. It does mean using good judgment; to stand on principle you must be certain you are correct and the outcome matters.
This balancing of honesty with politeness, communicating effectively while preserving relationships – practicing the art of tact and diplomacy – is harder than it looks: like Houdini on a high wire, avoiding false steps. I hope this series of articles has helped you think about honing those skills. But be sure to practice with a net first.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas further AFS Consulting has a program for you delivered in one-on-one coaching modality: Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy. Check it out here: https://afsconsulting.ca/executive-coaching/communicating-with-tact-diplomacy/