Constructive criticism is essential for professional growth. As a business leader, it is up to you to provide meaningful feedback to your direct reports. But how you do that can make a big difference to employee satisfaction and workplace culture. Learning how to be honest without being brutal is an essential emotional intelligence skill that will empower your employees’ growth and development.

Why Being Brutally Honest Isn’t Good for Business

When you are being brutally honest, it means that you are communicating your “truth” without regard for the listener’s feelings. Often, when you say you are being “brutally honest” it is because you want your own feelings heard. Unfortunately, that does not translate into a good working environment. When employees feel they are being unfairly targeted with criticism and negativity, their productivity can plummet, and they may even begin looking for a new employment opportunity.

An emotionally intelligent leader knows that their employees’ emotional states are important to their longevity and productivity. Hurting an employee’s feelings to build yourself up will almost certainly backfire and impair your employees’ investment to the company. By being conscious of the emotional impact of your words, you learn the value of being honest without being brutal.

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Don’t Use “Honesty” as a Shield for Negativity

“Honesty” can be brutal when it communicates negative events or criticism. As a business leader, sometimes you do need to communicate negative events. However, you should avoid using phrases like “I have to be honest” when, in fact, you are simply being negative. The fact that you are experiencing negative emotions does not justify cruelty, harassment, or abusive behavior, by shouting, being insulting or other forms of “brutal honestly.”  Avoid using the “honesty” as code for your negative feelings. If you have to express negative feelings or criticism, be transparent about what you are communicating and why.

Distinguish Facts from Your Personal Opinions

All too often, when you are being “brutally honest” you are not actually expressing objective facts, but instead expressing your feelings and opinions. There is nothing wrong with emotional honesty at work. But it is important to distinguish those emotions and opinions from the facts on which they are based. When something has gone wrong or your workplace experiences an obstacle, focus on the facts of what has occurred, rather than dwelling on your opinions about how the company got there, or how the situation makes you feel. When you do state an opinion or feeling, make sure you communicate that is what you are doing, using language like “It seems to me…” or “I feel…”

Communicating Honesty Without Being Brutal

If you want to find an emotionally intelligent way to be honest without being brutal, it starts with building compassion into your communication strategy. Clarify for yourself what it is you are trying to communicate, and anticipate the emotional impact your words may have. Then set yourself up for a positive conversation, even when communicating negative events, by asking yourself:

  • Do I have positive intentions from this conversation?
  • Is the criticism welcome or necessary?
  • How are my feelings affecting my perception of the events?
  • What are my requests of the other person?
  • How can I help correct the problem?
  • What can I do to validate the negative feelings my statements will have on the listeners?
  • When and where should the communication occur?
  • Who does and does not need to be present for the conversation?
  • How can I make the listeners comfortable to receive the information being communicated?
  • How can I communicate the issue in a compassionate way?

Consider what you know about the listener’s position in the office, as well as any personal history you may know. When possible, cushion the blow of constructive criticism by pairing the negative statements with complements or offers for support. Focus on solutions to the matter of concern, rather than lingering on the problem or blame regarding the cause. When an employee expresses concerns, you should take their statements seriously, and adjust future communications appropriately. Finally, be prepared to receive honesty, as well as give it. Make yourself available to hear your employees’ opinions and criticism about your work, and thank them when they communicate honestly with you.

Get Help Developing Emotional Intelligence Around Honesty

Delivering bad news is one of the hardest parts of a business leader’s job. But using emotional intelligence can improve your ability to communicate with your team honestly without being brutal.

David Stanislaw is a leadership and executive coach with over 30 years’ experience helping managers and leaders develop emotional intelligence skills and handle job stress. Contact us to meet with David to strengthen your leadership coping skills to