It seems to be a desired value, we are regularly encouraged to speak our minds. But should we?
I tend to see the fullest and clearest displays of human values and emotions in movies and books. In our story telling we always seem to end up with the same range of characters, and it’s where our moral battles are told. So I am sure you can think of more than one movie that features the leading character persevering through some kind of struggle for what they believe in. And voicing their opinion and beliefs regardless of the consequence.
It also seems to come up in the workplace quite a lot. Where its less about your own choice to speak or not, and more about what the company and others need you to do. If you have ever been involved in providing feedback or performance reviews for others then I suspect you are also encouraged to provide honest feedback for example.
Where does the value come from in the first place?
I can only assume it comes back to general honesty and therefore trust as the reason we value honest speech. We want to know people will act in a way that is consistent with what they say. If they do then we can feel safe with our relationship to them. That could be as simple as establishing them as an acquaintance or as far as trusting them to look after our interests or even care for us. Underneath the need for trust is our survival instinct, which these days plays out more in social and professional survival rather than life or death.
What is it to speak honestly?
It’s about integrity – one of my favourite topics; say what you do and do what you say. From that perspective it goes far beyond just speaking honesty, it starts with knowing who you are and what is ok by you. It extends into thoughts, actions and words.
To speak honestly is to speak what is true to you. Your own thoughts and beliefs on topics, in expression, on desires, on limits, on what is right and wrong etc. And I think it is also about consistency; you can change your mind on things, but flip flopping or following the crowd will never be perceived as honesty. So again, first you have to know your own beliefs and then be clear on why you have them to some degree. I don’t think you could speak honestly if you don’t know yourself.
This is usually the thinking I regularly find myself revisiting; the ‘who am I and what do I stand for’ question. I guess because I always find myself tested or challenged.
So what’s the big challenge? Is this ‘essential value’ appropriately/justifiably applied to every aspect of life?
I think it is safe to say that we are generally always asked to speak honestly. And it would be frowned upon to either not speak honestly, or to withhold the full truth. Sometimes it can be used to coerce people to talk.
I see two conflicts; who defines what is honest, and where does honesty sit in relation to other values.
I’m not sure there is any answer to the differing views of honesty. If you are comfortable then that’s all you can offer and be open to explaining it. We just need to check-in on out reasons though. Like this article for example, have I managed to select the right info and perspectives to be comfortable I am as honest as I can and need to be? So I can continue to act as I have been. Or have I really explored all my thoughts and motivations to know this is my truth as best I can establish.
In terms of honesty in relation to other values; I don’t think you can always care for yourself and/or others by always speaking honestly. Personally, I hit a conflict around the impact my honesty will have, and I often choose to either withhold or find an approach that enables both honesty and the wellbeing of others if possible. And sure, part of it is about self-preservation. We all know of situations where the truth only impacts you. So I don’t see the point in crashing through life for the sake of honesty. There has to be a purpose or greater need requiring honesty. If someone else is being impacted or hurt for example.
Example A: Take any social conversation on politics. If you know your opinion in going to create more than a healthy debate, if it was to create conflict then what’s the benefit?
Example B: Your involved in a social conversation about someone who isn’t present. The conversation is generally negative and you have the same view. Sharing it only propagates negativity and again isn’t achieving any positive outcome for anyone – you’re not discussing how you can help the person.
Example C: Workplace feedback or reviews. These can lack the control and ownership required for meaningful and truly helpful feedback. They may be used for more than somewhat anonymous improvement points for someone, they could also be used to grade and compare performance. Valuable, but these and other uses/motivations have to be considered. Your also passing responsibility for the feedback to someone else to manage. Can you be sure it is accurate and delivered with the same intent.
Example D: You think someone is a complete idiot. What value is there in sharing that with them, or anyone.
For me, it all comes back to the outcome intended/required. It’s about how what you stand for relates to the situation you’re in. And if you have a value that conflicts with the need to be honest then you need to explore and decide which is more important. For example, if you valued the wellbeing of others and speaking honestly put them out of a job, aren’t you being dishonest to yourself about valuing the wellbeing of others.
Sometimes you pay a price personally for not speaking honestly. It does tend to leave the door open for others to form and share their own assumptions. But again, depending on your other values, this could be the lesser of two evils.
To me, honesty mostly serves my other core beliefs and values. An enabler if you like. It isn’t a value unto itself that should be followed blindly. And if you are clear with yourself on why you are or are not sharing your honest views, you are still being honest to yourself and doing what you think is best. And that’s integrity.