“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ~ Mark Twain

Recently, I have been thinking about truth and honesty. I love to watch holiday classics and Hallmark movies, and the theme of honesty seems to be woven through all of them. This Christmas, however, I came to realize that the themes of the holiday movies I love are rarely centered solely on honesty. They are often interwoven with other themes I frequently deal with as an executive coach — personal growth and reconciliation. Whether the movie is as sappy as a pine tree or has me rolling on the floor with laughter, it always seems to involve honesty, personal growth, and reconciliation.

Truth is a True Holiday Gift

Think about it. Whether your favorite Christmas movie is Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Elf, you will see honesty, personal growth of one or more of the leading characters, and reconciliation leading to deeper, more meaningful relationships. And the secret to a happy ending is always the truth, usually one or more painful truths — the essential ingredient for personal growth and reconciliation.

10 Tips for Breaking the Truth to Someone You Care About

This holiday season, I encourage you to be more honest, both in your personal and professional lives, for your own good, for the well-being of those you care about, and for the purpose of building deeper, more meaningful, and more productive relationships. Here are my 10 tips for telling the truth: 

  1. Let go of the outcome. If you’re concerned about how someone will react to hearing the truth, or if you’re worried about the fallout, you’re likely to let those thoughts and feelings impact the message itself or, worse, let fear discourage you from telling the truth.
  2. Take ownership of your role, if any. Before you are brutally honest with others, be brutally honest with yourself. If you are confronting another person about a bad situation, event, or behavior, try to understand what may have motivated the person’s poor behavior or choice. Then, ask yourself what the source of that motivation could possibly be. Maybe it was you, others, or another situation at the root of what happened.
  3. It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it. How many times did your mother or a mentor somewhere along your path remind you of that? And for good reason: how you share the truth matters. Consider how you’d like to receive the truth yourself, and then place yourself into the shoes of the person to whom you are about to deliver a potentially painful message. Let those inklings impact your delivery, but never allow them to impact the meaning of the message itself.
  4. Don’t sugarcoat it. When we have bad or difficult information to deliver, and we’re worried about losing someone who’s an important part of our lives or a critical member of a team or company, we may choose to sugarcoat the truth. Sugarcoating the truth is almost as bad as lying. Avoid at all costs “marketing” the message. People are smart and intuitive, and they’re just as likely to sniff out a false narrative as you are when someone does the same to you.
  5. Practice and roleplay. Difficult conversations can be made less burdensome by practicing aloud what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Go a step further by having someone else deliver the message to you beforehand in a roleplaying environment. Observe how the message feels as the recipient and adjust accordingly.
  6. Include HR/Talent Management. Often, when you have to deliver the truth to one individual in particular, it requires human resources or talent management involvement. This may seem obvious, yet some business owners revert to their primitive selves in these scenarios and choose to go it alone. Don’t do that. Have someone from your company’s HR/Talent Management team on-hand for the meeting. In addition to having a witness in the room, having another person present helps to hold you accountable.
  7. Think ahead to dispel myths. Before you deliver the truth, consider for a moment what the narrative is going to be after the meeting. How is the person on the receiving end of your message going to retell the experience? Assuming after-the-fact (interpretive) myths will be told about what you shared, can help to proactively short-circuit them and better enable you to refute them should they arise later. Going a step further, in a business environment, you could choose to develop FAQs (frequently asked questions) related to the specific news you have to deliver, so there’s no mistaking fact from fiction. Such a FAQ list can be used to prep yourself for the meeting, or it can be used as a takeaway by the person or team you’re meeting with to deliver a truthful but difficult message.
  8. Tell the whole truth, insofar as you are authorized to. Watch out for limited truth. You can dispense necessary information without harmful details that may be true but are not helpful or constructive to forward movement and improvement.
  9. Kind is clear and clear is kind. Speaking truth eventually moves everyone to a better place. In most cases, the damage was done in the past. Truth is merely a revelation that opens the door to positive change for everyone.
  10. Avoid including your take. Truth is reality that neither requires nor benefits from spin. Resist the temptation to offer commentary, describe the positive side of painful news, or recommend how the recipient of the truth should feel or act upon learning it.

Of course, the most valuable tip about the truth is never to lie in the first place. A lie — whether in business or in our personal lives — will almost always be revealed for what it is. It may not happen right away, but when you look in the mirror later that day (the day you told the lie), you will feel the pangs of guilt, or the truth will be revealed later accompanied by suffering with compounded interest. Just be truthful up front, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make you feel.

Bonus Tips

Here are a few bonus tips for disclosing difficult truths to others:

  • The truth doesn’t always have to be spoken. Actions speak louder than words. Show that you are a truth teller by the way you behave.
  • Keep calm and carry on. Remain composed and non-emotional in your delivery.
  • Dishonesty is a heavy burden. Disclose the truth to grant freedom to yourself and the people you care about.
  • Understand that telling the truth shows respect for an individual and supports the person’s autonomy and dignity.
  • Focus on the fact that “truth never damages a just cause.”
  • Speaking truth is courageous.
  • Those who cannot handle the truth, most likely aren’t a good fit for your company.

Over the next few days in this holiday season and into 2020, I encourage you to open up and be honest with yourself and others. Make it a way of life. You will release yourself from the burden of having to defend lies and withhold information while empowering others with the truth to make well-informed decisions. Truth is definitely a win-win for everyone . . . and a true holiday gift.

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About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball and NASCAR team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.