Is honesty the best policy?
In one of the comments on my first blog entry, reader “James” wrote something that struck a chord, because it is an idea I hear a lot: namely, that it is acceptable behavior to sharply criticize someone in some line of work and if that person does not take it constructively, it is their fault.
I am aware James probably meant something more nuanced, such as upon occasion the direct approach works, and I agree with that. But to those who spout honesty as the overall best policy, I cannot disguise my disgust and contempt for such an idea.
Let me say this about people who believe in just being honest and straightforward with criticism: their motives are generally not pure and honest at all. There is often an undercurrent of hostility directed at the target; they themselves feel insecure, or in need of asserting their power. A person who truly cares about expressing a criticism in a way that is constructive looks at the individual he or she is facing and decides, strategically, what will work, what will improve the target’s performance in the long run. Running someone down does not work, unless it is part of a plan to criticize and then build up–what I call strategic harshness and kindness. The sadistic editor I was facing was not being strategic.
To truly communicate with another person, sometimes you need to apply reverse psychology (works well on the stubborn), sometimes you need to disguise your criticism by starting with a bit of praise, like sneaking a pill inside a piece of candy. And sometimes a bit of directness can work, as a wake up call. But I think we can all sense, in retrospect, when someone was being strategically direct and waking us up, or simply being sadistic.
Some of you find this too touchy-feely, too sensitive? Fine. Be as brutally honest and direct with others as you like and see where it lands you in business, in personal relationships, etc. If my books are about anything, they are about having an effect on this world, not spouting out feelings just because that seems the easiest route to take.
We have all encountered this in relationships: that irritating person who believes it is okay to criticize us in as upfront a manner, telling us why we are such assholes, dissecting every bad thing we have ever done etc. We all know this doesn’t work, doesn’t make us suddenly repent and surrender. And it doesn’t work because we know that life is not black and white. I am not a terrible writer, I am not a hopelessly bad person. When people are so direct, the shades and nuances are missing. They are exaggerating. They are putting us down. They are making us feel bad. And they get to disguise it all with the superior pose of being honest and upfront.
Take one thing from my books and one thing alone: in communicating an idea, whether for power or seduction or war, you must consider the form in which you express it, not merely the content. The form is critical and must be strategic, designed to get through people’s defenses. Those who fail to understand this will fail to communicate and will deserve the deadends they find in life. Believe me, I know: I have seen many such “honest” types hit those power cul de sacs. Think before you talk, or criticize.
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