Brutal Honesty1

Posted In Fear

Brutal honesty can grant us an amazing level of freedom and power that most people rarely experience. It allows us to connect with other people at a deeper level and it can make us more aware of our own vulnerability.

Brutal honesty, also called radical honesty, is simply telling the truth…all the time, even when it’s uncomfortable and especially when it’s uncomfortable. Brutal honesty is about complete openness and the willingness to be whatever we want at all times. We tell the truth even when it isn’t to our advantage.

In one word, brutal honesty is candor.

The power to connect with people and deliver what no one else does

When people know — I mean when they really know — that everything you say is what you believe, they will often open up to you. You can make breakthroughs in communication very rapidly.

Most of the time we walk around posturing with each other; we censor ourselves regularly and outright lie in many cases both small white lies (“Oh, I’m doing great, thanks” when your day is actually really awful) and big lies (“I love you, too” when you can’t stand to be around that person). A classic example is our tendency to only post what’s good on Facebook. We care very much what others think of us and we want to only show the best version of ourselves.

But, perhaps, we truly want to not care so much about what others think. We certainly tell this to children. It doesn’t matter what the other kids think.

But saying it and doing it are two different things.

Brutal honesty gives us a way to practice this concept. Brutal honesty forces us to let out some of what we would otherwise hide and when we do this, we find that others don’t respond as negatively to us as we expected. Others are going through the same things we are. They identify with us when we’re honest about how we feel.

Slowly we lose the sensitivity to offending others, to disappointing others, or looking bad.

Losing this sensitivity gives us greater freedom. We are more able to do what we want without worrying about what others think.

Brutal honesty allows us to connect with others at a deeper level.

We are free to talk about the things that we never get to talk about.

Think about what we talk with to total strangers. It goes something along the lines of

“the weather sure is nice today”

“what do you do?”

“I do [insert something boring]”

The very question of who we are becomes this superficial nonsense about our job. Rarely do we have deep meaningful conversations with strangers, because we are rarely open with them. These conversations are rarely satisfying as a result.

The more connected with are with people, they more we tend to open up, and the deeper our conversations can become. Brutal honesty allows us to move towards deeper conversations faster as people reciprocate our honesty with their own.

Brutal honesty teaches us about ourselves

By focusing on complete openness, when we aren’t honest, we can feel it. It makes us uneasy. It sticks out.

Why am I not telling this person what I think? Why am I avoiding this?

By answering this question we discover how we really feel about situations or other people.

What consequences am I trying to avoid by being dishonest or less open than I’d like?

Perhaps I don’t trust this person.

This self awareness can lead to better decision-making.

I got my first formal exposure to the idea of “radical honesty” in 2007 reading a copy of Esquire magazine in the airport. A.J. Jacobs did a nice feature on Brad Blanton, a psychologist who popularized the concept of radical honesty as a movement with workshops and weeklong retreats.

“In his book, Blanton talks about the thrill of total candor, the Space Mountain-worthy adrenaline rush you get from breaking taboos. As he writes, “You learn to like the excitement of mild, ongoing risk taking.” This I felt.

Experimenting with radical honesty you will find this initial relief or excitement. What we would normally suppress we let out and it’s exhilarating and even somewhat cathartic. It’s small taste of a greater degree of freedom.

You can try it. Say what ever you are thinking. Ask whatever questions come to mind. If you resent someone, tell them why. Though, purely deal with facts.

A tiny example: the other night I went out for Brazilian BBQ and the waitress mentioned that they have “Brazilian lemonade.” Everyone was too afraid to ask the question “So is Brazilian lemonade just regular lemonade?” So I did ask, ordered it, and it was delicious (it’s made with lime and sweetened condensed milk).

“I didn’t share your blog because it didn’t make sense to me, you should revise it.”

“I’m not going to your uncle’s hairdresser’s birthday party because I don’t like them and I’d rather sit in a hammock eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Radical honesty, or as I call it, brutal honesty is not about the excitement of breaking taboo though. It creates a power much stronger than superficial novelty…


We walk through life in fear. Fear of what others think. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of doing the things we want to do. Fear of failure or success.

This fear seeps into our minds so deeply that we oppress our most sacred thoughts and feelings.

Brutal honesty is simply a way to expose ourselves to the things we fear on a regular basis.

I call it brutal honesty rather than radical honesty because it is just that, brutal. The time when it counts the most, is the time when it is most difficult to be totally honest and the time when it is most important to be honest.

Often we have to say something no one else is willing to say. Perhaps we have to do something no one else is willing to do. This is what brutal honesty is about.

By making it a hard rule, something we must always do, even in casual or unimportant situations, we allow ourselves the opportunity to become stronger.

If we tell a white lie, we are telling our brains that we are afraid of very small consequences or confrontation. We make a habit of yielding to very weak levels of resistance or stress.

How then will we stand up when the time comes for something far more important?

Just the same is the act of omission. We don’t say something when we know we should. We don’t feel the same guilt about this as we do a blatant lie, but the consequences are the same; we condition ourselves to be weak.

This is how people spend a lifetime in fear, working jobs they hate for people they don’t like, doing things that don’t satisfy them and that don’t bring them meaning or fulfillment. Fear.

We are held down by only a small amount of resistance, unwillingness to have awkward conversations, take hard stances, or disobey anyone with even a mild level of authority.

Ultimately our inability to tolerate this discomfort limits our success and our happiness.

“A life of radical honesty is filled with a hundred confrontations every day. Small, but they’re relentless.” – A.J. Jacobs


Too much of the discussion surrounding radical honesty is focused on speech. If we tell our boss we resent him, yet we go on to work in this boring job, do a bunch of things we aren’t really interested in, or that we don’t feel is really who we are, then we’re not being honest. Our actions are far more important than the things we say.

Just as we may say things others can’t say, we are free to do what others cannot do. Honesty frees us from shame. This is what I like. I will not deny it. If you have weird religious beliefs or a lack thereof, you are free to believe them. If you are gay, be gay. Whatever it is that society or your peers may not like, you are free to do it anyway.

This all starts by being brutally honest with yourself.

Broadcasting our every thought becomes a bit exhausting.

While Blanton seems to focus on opening the floodgates between our brain and our mouths, not every idea that pops into our head is worth repeating. Crazy ideas pass through our head all the time. These are not always well thought out, nor do we necessarily truly believe every thought that comes to mind.

We don’t need to constantly stream our thoughts through the air to be honest.

We can increase our actual honesty by thinking carefully about what we say, or do, so that we say and do things we really believe in, rather than just whatever comes to mind.

The important part though, is that when we do feel strongly and when our mind is made up, we need to have the freedom to be the person we are. This means saying things and doing things others may not like.

So if we are to take on brutal honesty, how do we do it without being mean?

My girlfriend struggles with this; she wants people to like her.

She was on the receiving end of some radical honesty, only the advice wasn’t just mean, it was patently wrong.

So my girlfriend asked me about radical honesty, knowing that it’s kind of a thing I do. I’ve always been naturally prone to it (I’m a very low self-monitor) and since being exposed to it as a formal practice, I’ve made a point to employ it.

How can you be so open without constantly being mean to people?

This brings about an important point about brutal honesty.

Brutal honesty requires us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Not just that we must be honest, brutal honesty requires a higher degree of enlightenment, knowledge of how people operate, and vigilant watch over our own actions, thoughts, and feelings. When we deal with other people we must see their perspective; we must be able to empathize.

If you aren’t coming from the right place, brutal honesty simply exposes the fact that you’re an asshole. *cough* story of my life *cough*

It starts with a bit of perspective

  • While we can see our own circumstances and motivations, we cannot see the circumstances or motivations of others, only their actions.
  • People are doing the best they can with what they have. We must accept that.
  • We must give up our expectations of other people and realize that they rarely intend us any harm.
  • Most people aren’t out to get us. People make mistakes and we should forgive those mistakes.
  • Other people don’t owe us anything.
  • We want to help others first and foremost.

Focus on positive rather than a constant focus on the negative

Just as we fear delivering bad news, many of us are uncomfortable giving compliments or telling others how we feel when those feelings are positive. We fear looking weak or giving others our power. All of these things are important and require honesty, too.

If we are in constant search for what could go wrong instead of what we can do to make things go right, we’re not going to have a lot of positive things to say. This requires a shift in thinking and is easier said than done.


Saying the right thing when it counts is important, but how you deliver that message is important, too. This didn’t necessarily mean softening or bending the truth. It can be as simple as reminding people why you are telling them things that are uncomfortable. You care about someone or you care about some end result. You want everyone to succeed or be happy. This requires dealing with reality, and reality isn’t always nice.

Sometimes people are going to be offended. The real test of brutal honesty is the delivery of information or taking of actions that are quite difficult. Telling people things they don’t want to hear, sometimes things that are devastating, is quite uncomfortable. I think people really appreciate this in the long run and eventually they will thank you for it…but in the short term they will often feel that you are attacking them.

It’s also important to recognize that although you may be honest, much of what you say is your own opinion and perhaps not an objective truth.

One key to delivery and life in general, is to not judge people. If we come from a place of judging, trying to hand down right from wrong, our message will go unheard. If we want people to really connect with people, our advice has to come from their own perspective, which requires that we take their perspective and empathize. People really do care about themselves. What is best for this person in their circumstances, not necessarily best for me?


Delivery is also a function of timing. Is this person ready to hear what I’m about to say? Again, sometimes we have to just act and sometimes we have to prepare.

Seeking the truth

One of those higher standards that we must meet as honest people is the responsibility to seek the truth, yet remain detached from it.

This also means we can’t be lazy. If we are to broadcast our opinions and put ourselves out there, we need the facts. We have a responsibility to hash out our own thoughts, find the right information, seek the truth.

We concern ourselves with the truth, not with transient opinions and feelings that dominate the short term.

We must also admit that we don’t always have the answers, that we are wrong.

Honesty allows us to stop wrapping our own self-esteem in being right. When we find new information, we let go of that old idea and move on to the truth. We no longer have to tie ourselves to a particular opinion, style, method. As soon as something no longer suits our purpose we reject it. Our only concern is the facts.


All these things are skills. Delivery is a skill. Understanding your own emotions is a skill. Perspective taking and empathy are skills.

Brutal honesty gives us an opportunity to practice those skills, and if we come from the right place, eventually we will get better at them.

So give it a try. It may not always be easy, but in the long term it will make your life more satisfying and improve your relationships with other people. Just be honest.

Image courtesy Bradley Gordon.

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