Lots of people think that because they know the words “radical” and “honesty” they know what “radical honesty” means. It has a nice ring to it, and since honesty is a virtue that’s a good thing, right? If you haven’t done a workshop or at least read the book, you probably have some misconceptions. Radical honesty is not what you think. As a certified radical honesty trainer this question comes up often, so I’m going to explain what I mean by the term, and list some of the common misunderstandings that arise.
First of all, radical honesty consists of not saying things we know to be false. That part is easy.
Secondly, it entails saying the truths we normally withhold. The second part is often harder. We can, with some effort, minimize uttering outright falsehoods, but sharing what we really think and feel can be much more challenging. We often find ourselves thinking things that others would find offensive if we were to say them out loud, or feeling things that might occasion discomfort in others. As a result, we engage in self-censorship, selectively sharing or withholding our truths. This process eventually produces a system in which lying is so commonplace it is barely noticed. The system then acts on the individual forcing conformance with established ideas of what is and isn’t a socially acceptable thought of feeling. Saying something that is simply an honest description can end up being interpreted as hostile.
Society, with some cultural variations, by and large encourages us to minimize truth telling when it might offend others.
People sometimes come to radical honesty with the hope that it will reduce conflict, but that is not its goal. In fact, when you first start being more honest you will initially experience more conflict. It’s not about becoming better adapted to a dysfunctional system that encourages lying. It’s about disrupting the dysfunctional system itself.
However, the side effect of engaging in—and working through—conflicts is that eventually you get more skilled at it. Conflicts can be dealt with as they arise, and as a result you have fewer lingering conflicts festering in your life. In short, conflict leads to contact. This also liberates us from the constant process of evaluating what we should or shouldn’t say.
As one radically honest person commented on her experience:
Since I started radical honesty, my husband is divorcing me, my father won’t talk to me, and I’ve never felt freer in my life.
— a Radical Honesty participant
It’s also kind of a social filter, in the sense that people who appreciate honesty will be attracted to you, and people who are honesty-averse will run the other way.
Whether you actively deceive, or passively allow someone to believe something that’s false, it’s as if you are creating two different worlds. They live in their world, in which their actions are based upon what they believe to be true. And you live in your world, acting from your knowledge of what is actually true. This creates a schism that makes connection difficult. It’s a case of “same planet, different worlds.” Meanwhile, there are probably things you believe to be true that they know to be false.
This is the barrier that radical honesty dissolves. When both individuals participate in a conversation in which they can express withheld information they end up living in the same world and having a genuine connection. What is that one world like? Well it’s not ideal. That’s a joke, get it? It’s not our idea or concept of a perfect world, it’s the actual world we live in.
In one sense, it’s more intimate because you are relating as your genuine self, without the defensive shield created by lying. However, there is no guarantee of mutual affection. It’s simply that whether you end up liking them or disliking them, it will be authentic. It will be them you like or dislike. And if they like you, you will know it’s really you they like, not the facade you created in order to look good and be liked.
Generally, mutual understanding on this level creates the possibility for a positive relationship of some kind—but there are no guarantees.
Lying is just shorthand for the active or passive creation of false narratives about reality. Counter-intuitively, we need to de-stigmatize lying. For most people lying has a negative moral connotation, so when you point out how common it is, or point out when someone is doing it, there can be some resistance. Okay. A lot of resistance. Lying serves a purpose, so when you start being radically honest you are going to discover what purpose it serves for you pretty quick, and that can be confronting. However, when we understand how pervasive the behavior is, and how often we engage in it, it’s easier to be compassionate, both with ourselves and others.
Whether lying involves inventing something false, shading the truth or withholding it, the underlying reason we do it is control. It’s a manifestation of our desire or aversion. We want to control our experience so we get what we desire or avoid what we don’t want.
Since radical honesty can lead to conflict, and conflict leads to uncomfortable bodily sensations and anxiety, it is something we tend to avoid. Radical honesty runs against society’s rules of polite behavior.
Truth telling can be particularly challenging for people who have had the experience of being honest and having their candor returned with anger or even violence. If being honest becomes associated with danger, then it’s harder to be honest about one’s actual thoughts and feelings.
The mind so much wants to stay in control that it will play tricks on you. You may know perfectly well that there is something you are withholding, but the mind will come up with all kinds of excuses for why being radically honest is a radically bad idea.
Another form of resistance is avoidance. If you can avoid putting yourself in a situation in which you might be forced (or tempted?) to tell the truth you can avoid the confrontation entirely. This is the realm of ghosting, vague promises, and forms of communication that allow equivocation. (More on that here.) We need to be on the lookout for the phony excuses our mind comes up with. They are usually exaggerations, and a red flag that we are trying to control a relationship instead of experience it.
If you are going to hang out with people who are radically honest you will naturally end up hearing what they really think and feel about you. (This in itself may be a reason to avoid the whole radical honesty thing to begin with!) As much as radically honest speech is a skill we can cultivate, radically honest listening is also something we get to practice. It goes with the territory, because honesty isn’t a one-way street, it’s a back and forth. It’s not a destination it’s a journey, an ever-changing exploration of “what is.”
The foundation of radical honesty is simply that reality and what we think about reality, are two different things. There is the “what is” and then there is the story we tell ourselves about it. Radical honesty is the practice of making that distinction. When speaking, we are careful to distinguish between what we noticed and our interpretation of what we noticed. That is very useful for the person doing the speaking, but also for the person listening.
When we listen, we also are making the distinction between what we noticed and the interpretations made by ourselves and the speaker. What they are saying isn’t necessarily true, it’s their interpretation, which allows us to hold it lightly. This skillful listening is even useful when the speaker is failing to make that distinction themselves.
But this combination of radically honest speaking and radically honest listening is critical for relationships.
What Happens Next?
So, when you tell the truth what does happen next? Well, really this article’s title was just a teaser to get you to click on the link and read what I wrote.
I will say this. Radical honesty is not a panacea. We live in a society full of liars, our own minds are constantly seducing us into lying, and being honest is swimming upstream.
But on average, radical honesty will lead to more intimate relationships. In fact, it is what makes a genuine relationship possible.
That’s why I say that telling the truth is an evolutionary act.
When you are radically honest you are rebelling against the existing system in which lying is commonplace, and helping create a new system in which to experience more intimacy by telling the truth. That’s beneficial for you, for your relationships, and for the society we share.
That’s what happens next.
Liam is available for coaching individuals, couples and groups. For individuals and couples, an introductory half-hour online session is free.