Brutal Honesty Vs. Speaking Your Truth With Compassion

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What does it mean when someone describes themselves as “brutally honest?” It’s not as simple as many people think.

The idea of brutal honesty has been placed in a positive light in today’s world. Perhaps because of the word “honesty.” Because honesty is a good thing, right? Of course, it is.

We all agree that it’s important to be honest and truthful. But, in reality, the truth often hurts.

Many times in our lives we are faced with situations in which we need to share a message that may hurt the recipient. And there are many possible ways to manage those situations.

Brutal Honesty

Declaring yourself brutally honest is perhaps the easiest way around the “truth/hurt” quandary. It’s essentially a free pass to say what you think or what you feel in the moment you think it or feel it.

Chances are high that you know someone like this, who goes through life unfiltered:

You’re the most thoughtless person I know, Marcy says to her husband Edward.

What made you buy that coat? Jenny says to her friend Lori.

Only an unintelligent person would make that argument, Bill says to his colleague.

Looks like you’ve been eating a few too many cheeseburgers, Grandma Bea says to her grandson.

The upside of brutal honesty is that you seldom have to guess what the brutally honest person is thinking. The downside is that you don’t always want to know what the brutally honest person is thinking.

Brutal honesty hurts people. Long after the “honest one” has had his say, the recipient will be suffering the damages.

There is another way to deal with the conundrums of life. It involves no potshots, far less damage to the recipient, and far less hurt all around. Yet it still communicates the necessary message. It’s called Truth With Compassion.

Truth With Compassion

Truth with compassion is a way to express your truth while reducing its hurtfulness as much as possible. Hurting others immediately and automatically sparks their defenses. And once the defenses come up, you’ve lost their open ear. They will no longer hear you.

3 Steps to Speak Your Truth With Compassion

1. Clarify your message within yourself before saying anything to the other person

Example: Marcy’s You’re the most thoughtless person I know becomes: You should have checked with me before taking on that giant project at work.

2. Think about the personality and nature of your recipient. How emotionally fragile is he? How will he best hear this message?

Example: Marcy knows that Edward is normally a thoughtful person, but that he is also somewhat of a workaholic. When he’s absorbed in his work, he tends to think of nothing but the job.

3. Identify the best time, place, and words to communicate your message

Example: Marcy tells Edward she has something important to talk with him about. They agree to talk when they both get home from work. Marcy says I’m hurt that you took on this big project when I hardly get to see you as it is. Did you think about me at all when you made this commitment?

By wording her truth this way, Marcy is avoiding a common barrier to communicating difficult truths: she is not sparking Edward’s defenses. Starting with “I’m hurt,” is a good way to let the recipient know that you are talking about yourself, not him. Asking a question is a good way to open a discussion without making an accusing assumption.

While Jenny and Grandma Bea should keep their “honesty” to themselves, Bill should use a question with his colleague instead of such a blunt and shaming declaration.

Why do you think that?

What makes you say that?

Have you thought about…..?

All of these are possible ways to express doubts about a colleague’s argument. They will not spark the recipient’s defenses, and they will not hurt his feelings. Nor will they likely damage the relationship.

So speak your truth. It’s important. Express yourself and be honest. But pause first to think about the other person. Filter, filter, filter. When you respect the other person’s feelings, your message will be far more likely to be heard.

To learn much more about the importance of speaking your truth and how to show compassion for the other person, plus how to share emotions in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
JLTM - July 20, 2023 Reply

I believe people who assert they are “brutally honest” may not be aware of the other’s rights to have boundaries. I don’t want someone shaking their wet umbrella on me when they want to get the rain off of it. Just like I don’t want a person unloading their thoughts and feelings on me unexpectedly and uninvited.

I interpret this brutal honesty as comfort neglecting boundaries. This is one way parents neglect kids, they don’t allow them to have their own psychological and emotional safe space. In this way, this can replay in adulthood with thinking that everyone should be able to handle their “brutal honesty.”

It’s helpful to include “honesty” when describing the communication style because the speaker does identify with the unfiltered nature of their truth. But the forceful, aggressive, unsafe nature of the communication gets downplayed if we’re thinking about the recipient. It’s a lot to take.

Thank you for your good work.

Tina - November 13, 2020 Reply

I often call myself “brutally honest”, thinking it’s a good thing. After reading this article, I realized I can be honest, just add more of the compassion I have into my truth. I mean we all could use a little more compassion, right?

    Jonice - November 15, 2020 Reply

    Right, indeed, Tina!

Kate - November 13, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice,

Great article. The idea of truth with compassion really sits well for me. As someone who experienced CEN with parents who both worked in emergency-response and had mental health challenges, I developed an all or nothing approach to honesty. I either hold it all in, for fear of rejection or conflict, or blurt it all out if I’ve been holding it in for too long.

I am slowly but surely getting better at setting and maintaining compassionate boundaries, so I think truth with compassion will fit in nicely.

As a relatively new therapist myself, I am looking forward to seeing how this concept fits into my therapeutic work as well as my personal relationships. I love how the work I do for myself creates a ripple effect to the people I meet in my life and in my work. It reminds me of the quote by Maya Angelou – “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Thank you!

    Jonice - November 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kate, yes, I love that Maya Angelou quote too. It says so much. I’m sorry you grew up with CEN, but now, as a new therapist, you are in a unique position to help other CEN people from a deep and personal place.

Dannielle - November 11, 2020 Reply

Amazing how many people there are who are compassionate and considerate of each others feelings. Pity the politicians do not read these pages!

    Jonice - November 12, 2020 Reply

    Yes, I agree, Dannielle, there are so very many people who are living in the world of brutal honesty. It’s an unnecessarily harsh world.

Khanyisa - November 10, 2020 Reply

This was very helpful, thank you Dr for following your purpose and call. I read your articles often and wonder what drives you but whatever it is may it grow stronger and your legacy shine. Ever since I came across your work my mindset has shifted and so much makes sense and the weekly emails are God sent. You’re amazing Dr Jonice.

Sharon - November 9, 2020 Reply

Thank you for the article. I never knew that truth with compassion existed. My father was diagnosed with Aperger’s Syndrome late in his life. My mom was dysfunctional from having NO support from her whole life. There was non communication, no talking in our home. Expectation and grounding: yes. Until I read this, I always thought that brutal honesty was good, because it was communication. Now I have to learn to be truthful with compassion. Maybe you could do another article with more examples of how to say it right?

    Jonice - November 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sharon, you are in the company of many, many people who think brutal honesty is good. I’m so glad you are motivated to learn truth with compassion and I’ll definitely try to write another article about it.

    Sue - December 27, 2021 Reply

    I think I can relate…My husband was diagnosis with Asperger’s a few years into our marriage. I was blunt, and sometimes hostile due, to not understanding his withdrawn nature but we got good counseling and opened up world of wonder between us. Unfortunately, he passed away but I am still working on learning to be honest with compassion. I am currently studying with Non violent communication coaches. We cant talk too much about this so more articles will be wonderful.

amy - November 9, 2020 Reply

This is a really important topic. My parents both had mental illness which has resulted in difficulty for all of their children. It has made relationships among the children difficult. My parents used the ‘divide and conquer’ style of parenting, pitting the children against each other, instead of cooperation. Both of my brothers have extremely fragile egos. Even speaking carefully, is close to impossible without them reacting. For example, simply mentioning my sister’s suicide is a topic (over 30 years later) for them. I feel as though I have to walk on eggshells (not just with my mother, who had BPD) but my brothers. I have had lots of therapy, but my brothers don’t believe in it. Any suggestions or insights about my situation will be appreciated.
Thank you

    Jonice - November 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Amy, good for you for the work you have done on yourself. Sadly, it’s not possible for us to save our family members. They must save themselves. The best thing you can do is continue to set an example for them by healing and strengthening yourself.

tim - November 9, 2020 Reply

Thank you Dr Webb. Thank you for sharing another insightful article.

I’m not the type of person who would be brutally honest in any situation. I avoid saying anything in disagreement, or that might cause offence or upset, no matter how carefully crafted. Is this just the other side of the same coin, or a completely different characteristic?

Thank you for all the help your work provides. Each time I learn a little more, mostly about me..


    Jonice - November 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tim, it is the other side of the same coin. It’s all about the skills; you just tend to hold back instead of blurting. You can start working on learning those skills you missed so you can speak up in a compassionate way.

Diane - November 9, 2020 Reply

I had a situation recently where I was asked a question about my children when they were younger (they were present). Caught
off guard, I responded truthfully, without compassion and Immediately regretted it. I know they were hurt. What can I do?

    Jonice - November 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Diane, there is nothing more meaningful than receiving an apology from your parent. I recommend you talk with each child and explain yourself in a way that will help them understand what happened. You could also make it a teaching moment by telling them you are working on communicating in a more thoughtful way.

Maria - November 9, 2020 Reply

Dear Dr. Jonice,
Thank you for the perfect timing on this vital topic.

Some times processing chronic toxic grief can manifest as anger; urging one to express their pain in black and white colors; due to their long suffering and their tendency to put other’s needs before their own.

Would it be advisable to take time in addressing the emotional charge before one is capable of “authentic compassionate communication” ?

    Jonice - November 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Maria, yes, definitely. that’s an important part of truth with compassion. Managing whatever negative feelings you are having well enough to speak in a way that the other person can hear.

Richard - November 8, 2020 Reply

An added dimension to people being brutally honest is that sometimes the people in the family think the brutally honest person cannot change and so the recipients of the brutal honesty are made to put up with it. I had a grandmother who was very emotionally spoiled and would speak her mind and we lived in a household where there was a taboo around any sort of argument or vocal tension. This meant that when there was eventually an argument it would be a mega one – which was of course proof that all arguments were terribly destructive. In the end when my sisters asked my father why my grandmother was so mean to me he said “Well can’t you see. Its all part of the dementia” The rule of silently putting up with things existed long before the dementia started. Long after my grandmother died some of the hurtful things she said still rattled around my brain as though she was still alive. I learnt a very good technique though from a book called “The happiness trap” which is not to answer the “grandmother voice” back which I sometimes did when alone leading into a fantasy argument. Instead you say – not in a sarcastic way “Thank you mind”. Another thing I can say is “Its amazing what the brain comes up with” This has proven very effective – also with other bullying voices from the past. I hope this technique will help other people who read this paragraph.

    Jonice - November 9, 2020 Reply

    Thanks for sharing that, Richard. It’s important to disempower those old voices which mean nothing and have no value.

Arlyn - November 8, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice … All morning I have been composing an email for a friend who appears to have a handful of addictions — spending, eating disorder, and quite possibly a sex and “love” addiction. I have been approaching this with as much deliberation as I can, and with all the guidance that I’m pretty sure Higher Power is giving me. Yet, I have still been questioning myself. But then your email and blog came 2 hours ago, and that was the last reminder and confirmation I needed from Higher Power that I am doing the right thing, and that my email needs to be sent. I’m sure many people say you are a godsend. If ever there was an absolute and Divine example of that happening through you, it is right now. If I’m lucky, I might even be coming through for her at just the right time, Indiana Jones like. Time to get out the fedora and leather jacket!

    Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Arlyn, it’s very caring for you to express concern to your friend. Just remember that it will be up to them what they decide to do with it. Situations like this can be disappointing. Just be kind and honest and compassionate and you will have done your part.

      Arlyn - November 9, 2020 Reply

      Thank you Jonice. I appreciate the extra guidance. It’s very timely too.

Tim - November 8, 2020 Reply

This advice is good for dealing with people who you care about but who just may lack the ability to express themselves any other way. But setting boundaries with and addressing the abusive behavior of toxic people is a completely different subject matter. With the toxic comments of two examples here, Jenny and Bea, you don’t offer any insight on how to deal with those comments or those types of people. In the world many times we don’t have the luxury of ignoring abusive and toxic behavior by people in our lives, as evidenced by this charade of an election cycle – its there in our face every time we turn around. it’s clear in America neither the left nor the right know how to deal with the abusive and toxic behavior of people in their lives, whether it’s Bea, Jenny or, for example, Donald Trump, other than booting them out entirely. As many times we can’t vote the pain producing people out of our lives, what are some things we can do to respond to these types of people when we can’t just give them the boot?

    Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

    Yes, this article is written to help the speaker rather than the recipient. Jenny and Bea should keep their rude comments to themselves. Dealing with toxic people is a separate-but-related topic that deserves many articles on its own. One time-tested response that works in many situations is to say to Jenny or Bea, “I’m not sure why you’d want to say something hurtful like that,” and then remove oneself from the situation. The problem is that we can’t control the behavior of toxic people. All we can do is try to protect ourselves from them.

      Nhu - November 8, 2020 Reply

      Thank you so much for the article and appreciate the comments and questions. I’ve been following the email subscriptions because I know I’ve been dealing with CEN parents for a long time and I know that I do not want to be one. It has been a struggle from young to adult age and reading these helps me understand myself and how to deal with them. I do like to learn more on how to handle as the recipient from CEN – along with a community of CEN people who are significantly affecting their peers as well. As always, I’ll always try to be honest but compassionate about my experiences and perspective.

        Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

        Dear Nhu, it’s great that you’re aware of this at a young age. You can do so much to affect your own life and be a different kind of parent to your children. I wish you all the best!

      Julia - November 17, 2020 Reply

      Hi Tim,
      I thought the same exactly. My ex narcissistic partner could say to me (and this was projection, which is what they typically do) “you are crazy”, “you are wrong, as always”, “you are stupid”, “you are fat”, “you have pimples, don’t eat chocolate” (yeah, and that pimple problem is actually hormonal).
      So those comments were not brutally honest…they were just brutal. Brutal lies. When he was clearly wrong, he quickly turned it that way that it was me who is wrong etc. This is what toxic, manipulative people do.
      I don’t know if there is any good way to respond to those.
      If I tried, he quickly reacted with “no, you!” -defense, making me feel I had done something that made me “deserve” those comments. BS. Run away and don’t look back! I think that’s the only sane way to deal with those people!

Olivia - November 8, 2020 Reply

Thanks for a brilliant article. I hadn’t realised that my CEN was making me brutally honest. People often recoil from me when I blurt out what I’m thinking, then it’s the end of that friendship. Now I know I’m like this because I was brought up by a mother who was brutally honest because she had no emotional skills. She never, ever talked about emotions, they were forbidden, things to be suppressed and dismissed, and she got angry when I had emotions. Thanks to your 3 steps advice, I can now practice speaking truth with compassion 🙂

    Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

    I’m sorry you grew up this way, Olivia. And I’m so happy you’re on a good path now. You will learn these skills and it will be worth it.

Bernardo - November 8, 2020 Reply

Everything is helpful.
But, because my first language is spanish, I am not absorbing the maximum benefits of your help.
¿Is there any razón,why you have not published you knowledge for speaking Spanish people?

Write a list…10 por cent of your article for those that we speak and read primary spanish.

Muchas gracias

    Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Bernardo, I do not speak Spanish myself, unfortunately. If a Spanish publisher would like to publish my books translated they can reach out to my publisher to request the rights. I would love that. All my best and I wish I could help more.

Mark - November 8, 2020 Reply

Thank you Dr. Jonice, your timing today is excellent.
I have been battling the last few months in my head about writing a letter to my family , asking them to reconcile with me, or if they refuse, to make a clean break with them. Today was the day to begin writing it up. And I was seeking advice on HOW. I am one of the more damaged from CEN, and other things. Have spent 25 years in inner healing, counseling and deliverance trying to find normality without much success, until I found you. Your books and articles are key for me. I truly wish I could afford your services. But the world has seen fit to keep me broke and broken. So instead, may I ask you to point me towards resources on the subject of delivering difficult messages to ears that have steadfastly refused to hear?
Thank you in advance.

    Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mark, you can find lots more help on this by reading books on assertiveness and starting to practice it. It’s a complex communication skill that is worth the effort to master.

JANET MARIE - November 8, 2020 Reply



    Jonice - November 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear JM, you may have hurt your sister in law’s feelings. But the good thing is that most mistakes like this can be fixed. If you care about this relationship, you and/or your husband may have to reach out to them and try to smooth things over.

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