Taking the “Brutal” Out of Honesty

brutally-honestBrutal honesty. Now, there is a phrase that I’m sure we’re all familiar with. It’s the idea that one has to be ruthless when telling someone the truth as they see it. It’s not a practice that I agree with. In fact, I think it’s detrimental to the way our society communicates as a whole.

Nowadays, callousness is not only expected, but in some ways I think it’s lauded. The person offering the advice crows about how they really cut their subject down to size. How, “they were just telling the truth.” They’re the same people who say things like, “Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie.” Or, “If you can’t handle the truth, don’t ask me to be honest.” As if the concept of kind honesty is an oxymoron.

This practice can be found in any number of reviews, whether it’s on Amazon, Goodreads, Yelp…or really anywhere that caters to people’s opinions. What’s worse is it’s become such an accepted practice that people who are looking for critique actively ask for it. “Please, be brutally honest…”

I would argue that not only is it unnecessary to shred a person’s work while being truthful, it’s actually counter-productive. This lesson—how to give and receive criticism constructively—is a valuable one for me to learn. Especially considering I’m close to publishing my book. Once again, it seems my life is preparing me for the next stage and has given me a number of examples to consider this past week.

It started with a lovely twitter conversation I had with Aniko Carmean (@anikocarmean) who tweeted out, “Telling the truth and “brutal honesty” relay the same information, but only one of them is compassionate.”

So often in this day and age our society feels the only way we can be seen as honest or unbiased is to be ruthless in our truth. Why is that? It’s just as easy to tell someone the truth while still taking into account the person receiving it. Haven’t we all been in a situation in our life where we were being evaluated?

She went on to say, “Tearing someone down to ‘tell the truth’ ruins trust.” (By the way, you should check out her BLOG!)

The problem with being brutal with our honesty is it puts the receiver on the defensive. When people are defensive their “flight or fight” mode kicks in and their ears close. They are no longer receptive to hearing whatever gem of wisdom is being bestowed upon them. So, in the end, the person who is sharp with their criticism winds up being counter-productive to their goals.

Of course, there is a right way to offering up criticism or advice and it starts with empathy and compassion.

I read another article this past week from Ericka Clay titled, “How Book Reviews Make You a Better Writer” where she discusses some reviews written about her book that had been less than glowing. However, instead of being hurt by the critiques and getting defensive about them, she saw them as learning opportunities.

She may not have been able to keep such a healthy perspective if they had been delivered with brutality. But, as it was, they were constructive and civil and opened the door for future improvement.

I thought this was a perfect example of how to give and receive criticism. It’s a lesson that is especially pertinent as I come up to this next stage in my writing…which is to actually expose it to a variety of opinions. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in for any creator who has put a lot of effort into their work.

Luckily, the experience I’ve had through this first phase has been positive. My beta readers got back to me this past weekend and overall their responses were good. They all felt it was written well and they enjoyed reading the book. Many of them mentioned being interested in the characters and wanting to hear more about their stories. Additionally, I got some positive responses regarding my settings, especially a bed and breakfast that I describe in one of the scenes.

However, each of them also had some constructive advice they felt would improve the book. Three readers said they felt the pace at the beginning of the book was a little slow and felt it could be tightened up a bit. One person pointed out that I was apt to use the same word, and then took the time to highlight five instances for me. Another mentioned some scenes that she felt were unnecessary to the overall plot since nothing came of them.

In each example, they were kind, but also made sure to point things out that weren’t working. It was exactly what I needed to be a better writer and the perfect example of how to offer critique.

Other than my beta readers, I also received an email from someone following my newsletter who offered up some wonderful advice regarding my prologue. Not only did I find her suggestions spot on, but I was impressed with the way she broached the subject to me.

First, she took a moment to acknowledge that sharing an excerpt can be nerve-wracking. She relayed that she was in a similar position with her own work. Then, she asked if I’d like to hear her suggestions. She even gave me a way to opt out by mentioning she understood I was close to publishing and it may be too late to make adjustments. Basically, she opened the door for me, but gave me the choice to walk through it or not. (Of course, I did. I’m learning as a writer and want to be as receptive to improving as possible!)

Granted, this situation is a little different because I actively sought input and was already prepared to receive criticism. However, once I publish this book, I will be opening the door to everybody’s judgment…and not everybody is going to be so empathetic when offering their opinions.

I realize that I’m going to need tough skin for this job. It comes with the territory. I also understand that some people just enjoy being trolls, and are not offering their criticism because they’re wanting anything positive to come of it.

For those who are genuinely wanting to be truthful and still offer advice, the best way to accomplish your goal is to remain empathetic and come from a place of compassion. And, for those who are receiving advice, take the ego out of the experience and listen for the lesson. It’s what I’m going to try and remember as I enter this next stage.

What do you think? Have you been “brutally” honest before? Have you been on the receiving end of that type of honesty? Have you had experiences where the advice or criticism left you feeling more empowered because of the way it was offered?

4 thoughts on “Taking the “Brutal” Out of Honesty”

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sarah. 🙂

      I don’t honestly don’t know how thick- or thin-skinned I am going to be in regards to my writing. I haven’t been in a position where it was really exposed to a wide and unbiased audience. I’d like to think I will be able to maintain my objectivity and be receptive to learning and improving my craft. However, it’s a very vulnerable position to be in.

      I guess I’m going to find out soon enough!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. My day job is in software, and my primary function is to tell people who have spent hours or days working on something that what they did is broken and still needs work. It would be easy to be a tyrant. To become the kind of person people hate working with, despite not having a choice but to work with me (or someone like me). Instead, I’ve taken it as a challenge to be diplomatic and compassionate in delivering news. I always say what worked first, and if the feature is entirely broken, broach the topic in terms of perhaps I did something wrong. In both cases, I’m still telling the other person the truth, but I’m doing it in a way that doesn’t trounce their sense of worth or confidence (I hope!). I use these same skills when writing book reviews or critiquing people in workshops.

    I have been published for a few years now, and so far no one has written a negative review. This is largely a function of not having a large readership, which means that so far, everyone reading is in my target demographic. I expected them to enjoy my work. I have gotten some comments from people directly that, hmmm, *riled* me a bit – but once I got my ego in check, I realized they had a point. I fixed the issues I had in subsequent stories, and I’m a better writer because of it. I do hope to someday get a really negative review, one so bad that it shines with its own brilliance. I’d tweet the f*** out of it because, to me, that would mean I’d finally done it and gotten a statistically valid sample of readers, and that word had traveled widely enough to catch “mismatched” readers. Maybe someday!

    Thanks for the thoughtful post,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you get plenty of practice giving out compassionate criticism. Honestly? I wish there were more people that felt like you…especially if they’re in a managerial position.

      I think most people’s natural reaction is to feel defensive when receiving critique. But, if we can overcome that initial knee-jerk reaction, we have the power to learn so much! That’s what I’m hoping I keep in mind in the future.


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