Sometimes, we may need to tell hard truths to our friends, but in an inoffensive way. Many of us, finding this tough to do, may resort to telling comforting lies—because they don’t “hurt anybody.”
In some cases, our friends never learn about our disingenuity. But in others, they end up learning the truth and feel betrayed. We wonder: Should I have just told them the hard truth?
I searched for a way to speak honestly—without hurting others or causing conflict. After reading on the topic,* I think I’ve found the answer in a third option—tactful truths.
Types of responses
“Sooner or later, someone would have told you, so it might as well be me.” — Sartre to Camus in a letter
Why we use them: We think it’s our duty as a friend to tell the unfiltered truth, even if it hurts.
What they can feel like: A flaming volley of porcupine quills with the potential to wound deeply.
“Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy?” — Heathcliff to Catherine in Wuthering Heights
Why we use them: We want to protect someone’s feelings, even if it means hiding the truth.
What they can feel like: A projectile whose recoiling force can do double the damage.
Tactful truths—that third option
“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” — Franz Luntz to the world in Words that Work
Choosing to tell tactful truths allows us both to stay honest and to show that we care about another person's feelings.
Tactful truths can come in this form:
1. Constructive beginning: Start with the positive aspects to make others more willing to listen.
2. Honest response with “I” statements: Be clear that it’s your opinion and that your goal is to be helpful.
3. Possible solution: End on a positive note and show that you care by suggesting a solution.
4 sticky situations
Here are some common scenarios where you may need to speak honestly about what you think—without being abrasive or deceptive.
If you have no opinion or prefer to be neutral, state that: “I really don’t think I’m qualified to judge.”
If you do have an opinion?
Scenario: Your friend painted something he/she wants to sell at a community art auction.
“Is that a tree stump? Oh, it’s a person? The colours don’t go well together and I really don’t think you’re ready to sell this. What if people laugh at you?”
“That looks beautiful and you’re just an amazing artist!” And then when you think they're out of earshot, “I feel traumatized.”
1. Constructive beginning: “Hey, I think you’re really passionate about art and that you’ve found a great hobby. I can tell how much you want to share this new artwork of yours, and I admire that about you.”
2. Honest response with “I” statements: “Personally though, I am having trouble getting used to the colours, which seem quite bold. It’s possible that someone else may feel that way, too. People who have very different tastes can say whatever crosses their minds, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
3. Possible solution: “This is just my opinion though, and I know that art’s super subjective. Maybe you want to see what a few other friends think before you submit this?”
Scenario: Your roommate, who has a different standard of tidiness from you, asks if you want to find housing together for next year.
“Oh what? Um, I think you’re a bit messy and I don’t think living with you will work out.”
“Yeah!” And then you flake after your friend has contacted the landlord.
1. Constructive beginning: “Thank you for showing that you care about where I’ll live next year. I love that you’re sharing this info with me.”
2. Honest response with “I” statements: “I personally feel like I want to try living alone and see if I’d like that better.”
3. Possible solution: “Is there any way that I could still help you find housing? Maybe you’d like me to ask around to see if anyone is also looking for a roommate?”
Sometimes you may want to provide feedback that you think a friend will benefit from—but you don’t want to sting him or her.
If your friend won’t be negatively impacted in the near future, begin with: “Could I tell you what I think?” End it there if the other person doesn’t want to listen.
I recall my Socials 10 teacher taking that approach when offering me critical feedback. When I said I was all ears, she said, “You have great ideas but you need to be more concise. It’s a tough skill to learn, but it’s helpful later on, so I hope you can start practicing early.”
What if there is a sense of urgency?
Scenario: Your friend is heading into an interview and there’s something stuck in his/her teeth.
“There’s, like, spinach in your teeth. Don’t go yet. What if you gross out your interviewer?”
“Oh um...uh...never mind. You look great. Here, let me get the door for you. Best of luck out there!”
1. Constructive beginning: “I saw you practicing for the interview this morning and I think you’re ready to crush it.”
2. Honest response with “I” statements: “Let me tweak your looks. Wait, I think there is something in your teeth—spinach maybe?”
3. Possible solution: “Here’s a mirror. Now you’re absolutely prepared! I wish you all the best!”
Scenario: You learned that your friend’s SO’s been cheating on him/her.
“Hey, I heard that X likes someone else now. Don’t feel bad if you get ghosted; it happens all the time.”
1. Constructive beginning: “You’re a strong person, but what I want to tell you can be hurtful. Do you want to hear it?”
If your friend prefers not to know, respect the choice by going no further. If they're open to hearing more, continue.
2. Honest response with “I” statements: “I have a reason to believe that X has been seeing someone else. I didn’t want to tell you unless I was certain, but I am.”
3. Possible solution: “I don’t know all that you’re feeling, but I’m here to support you and I promise that this stays between us. Maybe you want to talk about it with X and see where you stand?”
Although truths and honest opinions can be hard to swallow, coating them with the honey of comforting lies won’t remove the bitterness that often seeps through in the end.
Instead, extract the wormwood, that very source of bitterness, altogether from your words by choosing tactful language that is at once honest and caring.
*Sources that informed this post: Why All Your Little White Lies Aren’t As Harmless As You Think, The Art And Science Of Giving And Receiving Criticism At Work, and This is exactly when and how to tell someone they are wrong.