Burned by the Truth

Gerwig 2014-08-13

Have you ever been burned by the truth? You probably realize this, but you can be burned by the truth in many ways. Perhaps you told someone something that was true and they got mad at you. Perhaps someone told you something that was true and you got mad at them. Or perhaps you wanted to tell the truth, but were afraid, and got burned as a result. Regardless, if you’re reading this article, you have undoubtedly been burned by the truth to one degree or another.

The first challenge is to know what the truth is. The second challenge is to how to communicate the truth. And the third challenge is to know how to handle the truth. Let’s start with the first challenge. What is truth? Well, there’s no easy answer. Yes, there’s objective truth such as 5+3=8 and the planets revolve around the sun and force=mass x acceleration (F=ma). But there’s also subjective truth. Is he handsome? Is the sky dark? Is that a great painting? We have different views on someone’s appearance. Ask 100 people if a given actress is beautiful and you’ll likely get more than one answer.

Even if you know the truth (at least with high confidence), the second challenge is how to communicate it. If you know that someone weighs 568 pounds (because they stepped on a calibrated scale as you observed), would you communicate that truth broadly? Is there a point to sharing that information? What is your motive? As I believe you’ll agree, communicating the truth in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be hurtful to others. It burns them. You might argue that some people need to hear the truth no matter what. And perhaps there are times when this is true. But it’s also true that you don’t always have to share everything you know, even if it is true. Sometimes you need to use tact, judgment and discretion. Sometimes you need to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes you need to tell the other person (politely of course), “it’s none of your business.”

The third challenge is how to handle the truth. What if you’re on the receiving end of hurtful truth? Do you handle critical feedback well and with grace? Do you like it when someone points out an area you need to improve upon? What if they do it in front of others? Are you one of those people who “dishes it out but can’t take it?” Granted, it’s hard to receive critical feedback gracefully even when it’s true. It takes a lot of maturity. I once had someone tell me, “Robert, remember, not everyone can handle the truth.”

A few weeks ago when I was getting into my car after eating some great Vietnamese comfort food, I saw the storm cloud picture above. As I was thinking about this week’s article on being burned by the truth this picture came to mind. You see, I’ve experienced (as I’m confident you have) several instances where I was burned by the truth. I shared something at the wrong time, in the wrong way or with the wrong person. I didn’t demonstrate enough empathy or sensitivity. I gave way too much truth. Instead of giving 10 seconds of feedback, I gave 10 minutes.

So even if you’re sharing objective truth or qualify your subjective truth by saying “it’s only my opinion,” remember to check your motive. Remember to watch your tone and your timing. Check your heart and mind to ensure you come across with humility and tact. And set your ego aside if you’re receiving feedback. Listen and decide what to do with it later.

As I think back over the years I remember instances when I appropriately shared the truth and it was a blessing to another, either an individual or an organization. I also remember instances where the other party didn’t take what I had to share very well. They didn’t trust me, or they had a big ego, or they didn’t understand the context, or they lacked confidence. Or I didn’t say it the right way, or I didn’t care about them, or my timing was off, or it wasn’t relevant. Or perhaps it was a combination of the above.

But you get the point, communication is hard. It’s also important. And even when we have truth to share, please remember to ensure your motive is good, you say it with kindness and you mentally double-check your timing and the length of your message. And if you’re receiving truth from another, please remember to set aside your ego, listen, and evaluate.

When people get burned by the truth, negative consequences often occur. Say the wrong thing to your fiancé and the wedding is called off. Say the wrong thing to your boss and you lose your job. Say the wrong thing to the policeman and you go to jail. Say the wrong thing to your parents and you get grounded.

Don’t burn others by the truth and don’t allow yourself to be burned. Be thoughtful about what you say. Check your motive. Take the high road. If the truth is potentially hurtful (whether it’s your opinion or objective truth), does it need to be said at all.

A word of caution, few people and organizations can handle all of your truth without someone getting burned. If you’re going to share the truth, the full truth and not hold back, be sure to understand the potential consequences. There is a reason that people were afraid to tell the emperor that he wasn’t wearing clothes (even though this was an objective truth).

Lastly, if you put the truth in an email, text, tweet, hard-copy document or on a social media site do so assuming that others will see it. Whether by a breach of trust or negligence, few truths remain secret. Don’t get burned.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


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