I’ve blogged before on the tension between kindness and honesty: how, often, when we try to communicate honestly we sacrifice kindness, and when we try to be kind to others we sacrifice honesty. I concluded that it was important to find a balance between the two: holding that tension whenever we communicate with others, or indeed ourselves.
Lately, however, it seems to me that kindness and honesty are more inextricably linked than I previously thought. It struck me that kindness without honesty is not really kindness, and that honesty without kindness is not really honesty. So whether we are somebody who – in life – prides ourselves on our openness and straightforwardness, or on our compassion and generosity, we have to engage seriously with the other aspect in order to be truly as we are aiming to be (honest, or kind, respectively).
Kindness without honesty is not kindness
The first one is, perhaps, the easier to explain. If we are keen to be good for the people in our lives, and if we strive not to harm anybody, we may find ourselves sacrificing honesty for kindness. We pick up on what people around us seem to want from us and try to provide that for them, whether or not it fits with us.
So, for example, we might take on more work than we can comfortably manage in order to help others, claiming that we’re fine. We might say that we feel more for somebody than we actually do in order to make them feel good. In a conflict we might lie about what we find difficult about somebody in order to save them pain.
These are all examples of kindness without honesty, and they all frequently backfire.
Working too hard without taking time to look after ourselves often results in us working less well and/or eventually having to stop suddenly because we simply can’t keep it up. Such a situation is usually worse for the people around us than if we had been honest about the load we could reasonably commit to in the first place, or if we had said as soon as it was becoming difficult.
Similarly if we offer too much to people in our lives and then don’t follow through on that, they are left confused and hurt. If we keep trying to give what we have offered (in terms of time, emotion, or commitment) even when we don’t really have it, people generally pick up on this, or we end up so resentful that we pull away from them completely.
Finally, if we are never honest about our experience of other people because we want to save their feelings, we prevent them from learning things that may help them in the long term. Or perhaps we ensure that – when somebody does tell them – it is in a less supportive and helpful way which may be too painful for them to be able to hear.
So aiming to be kind rather than honest often ends up being unkind. Real kindness requires us to be honest with both ourselves and others, even if that is painful and hard.
Honesty without kindness is not honesty
This one is a little more difficult to explain and I am still working it through it myself. I think that if we are honest with somebody without thinking compassionately about that person than we are not being fully honest with ourselves, or with them.
So, for example, we might honestly tell somebody who we are struggling with that they are stupid, or lazy, or annoying. But it is not really honesty if we only see part of the picture and fix that as the truth. Full honesty involves seeing the way the person is being, but also having the imagination to understand the reasons why that might be the case. It also involves honestly looking at our own behaviour and how what has happened emerges from the exchange between us rather than being a matter of isolated individuals who could have internal characteristics such as stupidity, laziness, or annoyingness. Finally, full honesty requires us to see the whole person, rather than only the part of them that we are currently focusing on.
Bringing honesty together with kindness helps us to do all these things. Kindness encourages us to ask ‘what might be going on for this person that they are behaving like this?’, starting from the assumption that it makes sense rather than seeing them just from the self-centred point of view of our own desires and how they are blocking these. Kindness to ourselves enables us to look honestly at what we bring to the situation, without being overwhelmed by guilt and shame when we realise that we are also being imperfect people and contributing to conflict, confusion and pain. Finally, kindness opens us up to other aspects of the person – particularly the ones that are impressive – when our attention is in danger of being fixed on ‘negative aspects’. It allows us to see that what we are finding difficult may well be inextricably connected to things that we find valuable about this person (stubborness and being committed, for example, or flakiness and being easygoing).
Honesty plus kindness helps us to see more clearly – indeed honestly – the vulnerability which we all share which underlies much of our behaviour. Then, instead of moments of conflict making us feel disconnected, isolated and alienated, they actually have the potential to connect us more fundamentally, as we recognise the familiar fears and dreads, hopes and desires, that drives the very behaviours that we are finding so difficult. But we need at least a little kindness to cut through the sense that we are up against a bad, blameworthy, inexplicable individual who is just getting in our way.
Honesty, without the kind recognition that we are all suffering and defending ourselves against suffering, is not really honesty.
Find out more…
There’s more about conflict in my books Rewriting the Rules and The Secrets of Enduring Love
If you enjoyed this, you might also like my zines, Staying with Feelings and Plural Selves.
What if you try to be honest in a compassionate way and you take responsibility for your contribution to the conflict but the person remains too hurt to engage with the not so nice aspects of what they bring to the situation while picking up on your self-appointed imperfection to blame and justify? If you really feel you’ve done all you can do but that it hasn’t helped much, is it not better to resort to kindness sacrificing honesty, but knowingly doing so and actively finding some other way to manage your frustration with that person to avoid mistreating them? Or is that just having a pompous sense of superiority over that person when it comes to handling conflict?!
You raise an excellent question Alison – exactly the same one that I’ve been pondering myself since writing this in fact. It relates to another post that I want to do about how we balance believing/trusting people and treating them as sensible and explicable, whilst not being drawn into problematic ways of seeing things that come out of their struggling.
My experience is that generally if one person is able to be kind-and-honest with the other that frequently enables the other person/people to meet them there (although it can take time to get there if the other person/people are in a very vulnerable place, and – of course – it can work the other way that the stress of the situation takes us away from being in that kind-and-honest state).
I’m thinking that perhaps an ideal would be that – if we pick up on the fact that either we, or the other person, is not in a good place to engage kindly-and-honestly – that would be a good time to take some time away, alone or with supportive others, getting ourselves back into that state in order to engage well. However, in reality, it very rarely seems to work that way. Rather we tend to bash up against each other until one or more people do find their way to a more kind-and-honest place, perhaps because we finally see the vulnerability of the other, or the absurdity of the situation, and that punches a hole through the whole thing.
And perhaps that is okay and part of accepting that we are human and imperfect.
I think sometimes it probably is important to say to the other person that you don’t want to engage when they are in the place they’re in (because they seem to be finding it hard to hear you, for example). But it is also important to watch out – as you say – that we’re not taking the moral high ground imagining that we’re so much better at these things than they are. It is times like that that I find that I am most likely to fall on my face!
I can see that you can’t be kind without honesty, but I’m not sure about honesty requiring compassion. Sometimes being honest means not being compassionate. If we try to temper our honesty with compassion the surely we end up not being honest. I think this might put too much of a burden on being honest, such that compassion will always trump honesty. Which, on reflection, might not be such a bad thing.
Thanks for that. I think you are right that there is a real risk that compassion trumps honesty. I hoped perhaps that this more intertwined way of seeing them might help prevent that but it’s definitely worth keeping mindful of.
I think there may be a subtle difference between tempering honesty with kindness and informing honesty with kindness. The former, like you say, turns out to be kindness trumping honesty in the end. But the latter alters the initial appearance of the honesty, like when we rehumanise the other person/people we take the edge off our criticism of them, and when we rehumanise ourselves we remind ourselves of our role in co-creating the relationship issue hence re-shaping the honesty. It’s hard to explain but I guess I’m trying to say being kin-and-honest is alot more demanding than just being what we might at first glance think is honest. Sorry this probably isn’t clear at all!!
Thanks Meg – lots to think about!
A truly enlightening article! Thank you! I feel like I want to be a better person already.
Do I love someone enough to be truthful with them? If I love them enough to be honest (which I personally find quite difficult sometimes) then I hope they already know, because of my other actions, that I love them enough to then not walk away even if I take a little time out.
Kindness and honesty – Your Success 101
[…] I read an excellent article by Meg-John Barker, about kindness and honesty – it’s over here https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/conflict-break-up/kindness-and-honesty-can-we-have-one-without-t… and it has got me thinking about how we frame honesty in the normal scheme of […]