Not just anyone can do the bomb disposal job. It requires an expert. Someone with a lot of training. And nerve.
I think the same way about honesty. People who pride themselves on being honest, on saying exactly what they think no matter the consequences, are not only disliked, they fail to achieve their objectives.
Instead of defusing the bomb, they blow it up, maiming themselves and many others in the process.
The point of such radical honesty is supposedly so the recipient can see the error of their ways and improve them. In theory, it makes sense. When a defect is pointed out, you don’t waste time bitching, you fix it. But in practice, human nature is not that simple.
If we do something wrong, make a mistake, act like an idiot, we don’t want to be told that straight up. No one likes hearing that they’re wrong, misguided, inconsiderate. So rather than accepting the message, we challenge it. We feel affronted, so we react with either passive aggressiveness or open hostility.
I wish it weren’t so, but radical honesty harms more often than it helps. Not many can take a straight shot of it.
This is where tact comes in. My definition of tact is the ability to deliver an unpleasant message with courtesy and grace. To make someone aware of their error without offending or humiliating them.
Or, there’s this great description from Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to his Son:
“Tact is the knack of keeping quiet at the right time; of being so agreeable yourself that no one can be disagreeable to you; of making inferiority feel like equality. A tactful man can pull the stinger from a bee without getting stung.”
I’m not saying don’t be honest. Honesty is good. We need to learn to separate our ego from feedback about our performance. But for the most part, honesty is ineffective unless it is coupled with tact.
More honesty requires more tact.
Here’s one technique which makes it easier to deliver a criticism. I call it sandwiching. The filling is your message, your honesty. The bread is a compliment and an assurance that you understand why so-so and did this or that.
Why does it work? Because feedback and commentary, especially of the negative sort, is easier to swallow in a sandwich of understanding and empathy. Without them, without tact, radical honesty is useless.