Scary honesty

aboutI don’t think that I’m alone with the fear of speaking “my truth” to others. In fact, when I conduct interpersonal communication workshops, this is the number one fear that many of the participants express, especially in the workplace. At home, it’s another story. Many admit not having any problems in being honest with their significant other or with their children, but admit coming across as “blunt and of not being heard as they intended.

So, it seems that one way or the other, we pretty much all struggle in being successfully honest with one another. By successful I mean, being heard as we intended and getting our needs met. Why is that?

Again, most people say that they either don’t know how to speak honestly or are afraid of doing it “wrong”. They fear hurting the other person’s feelings or damaging the relationship. In short, they fear not being liked or loved anymore, and being abandoned or rejected by the other.

So, we often chose not to speak up in order to remain connected with the other. The problem with that approach however, is that our silence often turns into resentment, which can insidiously escalate into hatred. If we remain silent for too long, we often end up reaching a boiling point where we then explode. Then, we end up hurting even more acutely the one that we initially did not wish to hurt! We’re caught in a vicious circle!

Social psychologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists have put interesting hypotheses forward. One of these makes a lot of sense to me. It is that we have a strong drive to “belong” and being “rejected” is not only painful but also dangerous!

According to Professor Dacher Keltner and colleagues (1), from Berkley University, we are born with a “compassionate instinct”. Without this instinct, we would not have survived. We are a physically weak species compared to some of our predators. We’re pretty small and slow. We have no strong jaws or teeth. Put Einstein alone in front of a sabre-toothed tiger and the poor man, despite his high IQ, would have been breakfast. So, it is the fact that we rallied our forces and collaborated that enabled us to survive our predators.

To return to our fear of having an honest conversation, it seems that our need to belong is therefore more important than getting some of our wishes granted. Also, researchers (2) discovered that the feelings of pain experienced when we are socially excluded are as strong as those experienced through physical injuries. This is because the neurotransmitters of pain are located in the same location in our brain. So, not only is it dangerous to be “rejected” but it is also painful. Which pain is the greatest? Not having my wish granted or being “rejected”?

So, can we do anything about this? Can we have both? Can we speak honestly in order to get our needs met AND keep our connection with the other? The answer is “yes”. In fact, if we do this skilfully, we can even get more than that. We can build trust and reinforce our connection with the other. Here are a few tips.



  • Be clear about your deeper need versus your wish or want, e.g.: “I need support” versus “I need you to support me.” This way, you open up the door to many other strategies to obtain support besides getting it exclusively from the other person.
  • Make observations, not interpretations. Use the exact words that the other said or recall the behaviour as if you held a video camera, e.g.: “When I heard you say that you did not have time to help me out…”
  • Own your reactions and feelings, e.g.: say: “…I felt hurt” versus “You never seem to have time to help me”.
  • Take the time to check that you have been understood as intended: “Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
  • Make a simple and doable request: “Are you willing to ….by … Friday?” Watch out for “demands” in your tone of voice. Demands do not leave room for the other to “choose” or to say “no”. They tend to stimulate feelings of guilt in the other or imply that there will be retaliation or punishment.


Further Readings

Einsenberg, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion, Science, 302, 290-292.

Keltner, D., Marsh, J., & Smith, J. A. (Eds.). (2010). The compassionate instinct: The science of goodness. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved