“It’s discouraging,” the writer Noel Coward once said, “to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
That insight captures so much about what we look for and what we offer in relationships — especially the relationships we have with our friends.
For many of us, our friends’ brutally honest opinions are a source of great anxiety. We often feel threatened by them, injured by them, betrayed by them. And knowing how difficult it is to be on the receiving end of difficult feedback, we often withhold it from our friends in return. We justify this as an act of kindness, when in reality we’re contributing to a dynamic that is, despite our best intentions, inauthentic and deceitful.
We all know that honesty is the bedrock of a healthy relationship. But to really live by that principle is an intense proposition. It requires a great deal of trust and confidence — in ourselves and in our friends — and it implies a whole new conception of what friendship actually is.
Over the years, with the help of the incredible guests I’ve interviewed on the show, I’ve come to understand just how powerful radical honesty is — in friendships, in families, at work, and in our inner lives. I’ve also come to appreciate the limits to that philosophy, which is something radical-candor evangelists don’t talk about very often. Most importantly, I’ve learned how leading with honesty can genuinely transform our lives — if we balance it with the right intentions, ideas, and self-awareness.
So that’s what we’ll be talking about in this piece: why honesty matters so much — and how to lead with it in the right way.
Starting with the fact that being totally honest with our friends is usually the most compassionate thing we can do.
Honesty is a form of kindness.
For many of us, being brutally honest with our friends seems like the opposite of kindness. Sometimes it can feel aggressive or downright cruel.
That’s because, from the time we’re young, we’re generally taught to censor our opinions to protect other people’s feelings. That agreement usually starts with our parents, which creates a template we take with us into adulthood.
And to be fair, there are some good reasons for that. We have to get along in society, we don’t want to alienate our friends and family, and we obviously shouldn’t be monsters.
But the cost of that self-censorship is depriving the people we care about of meaningful criticism. In doing so, we elevate their short-term feelings above their long-term success. We assume a weaker version of them — a version that can’t handle a challenging conversation — and, by withholding, confirm (and sometimes even bring about) that weakness. Our worst assumptions about our friends then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By holding back the truth, we also put our own need for comfort above our friends’ need for guidance. We prioritize our desire to avoid conflict over their desire for growth. We censor difficult messages to make things easier, but in the process, we almost always make things harder.
Sam Harris, the renowned philosopher, author, and podcaster, touched on this idea in an interview I did with him years ago. When we talked about the value of giving real feedback, he questioned the validity of the whole “making it easier for the person” idea. Because sure,
it’s often “making it easier” in the sense that you’re telling them what they want to hear, or telling them something more pleasant than is in fact what’s true. But you might also be causing them to waste a tremendous amount of time or encouraging them to waste a tremendous amount of time, where you could be helping them to get their life on track in a way that other people around them aren’t.
In other words, when we talk about protecting our friends’ feelings, we tend to think very narrowly about what “protection” really means.
Is our job to protect our friends’ feelings in the short-term, or to protect their chances of success long-term?
And if we spare them some difficult feedback now, are we really protecting their feelings? Or just coddling their vulnerabilities and indulging their mistakes?
And which feelings are we setting them up to have down the road if they never get the feedback they deserve?
True kindness is candor. When we’re honest with our friends, we’re implicitly saying, “I value you, I trust that you’re able to hear the truth, and I want to see you succeed.” That is a powerful message to send. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of it, you know how loving that can be.
Honesty avoids pain down the road.
Honesty might sting sometimes, being it can save people from even more adversity and dysfunction down the line. Here, too, we often think that withholding a tough opinion will spare a friend from some difficult feelings. In reality, we’re just kicking the can down the road.
To take another example from Sam Harris, imagine that you’ve read your friend’s manuscript, and you think it’s terrible. Obviously, it would be nice for everyone if you loved it. Then you could just give them props, validate their efforts and rest assured that your friendship is intact.
But if a friend of yours comes to you with something they spent a lot of time working on and you think it’s terrible, if you think you’re helping them by sparing them this momentary discomfort of you not supporting their rosiest conception of themselves, I think you really need to look more closely at that. Because I’ve been on both sides of this. And I can tell you that the people who didn’t give me honest feedback or just didn’t have good critical feedback to give were far less helpful to me than the people who said, “Listen, you have to tear this thing down to the studs. This is awful. You’re lucky only I saw this.” Other people who aren’t their friends are not going to spare them their criticism.
This is an excellent point, and it’s something we tend to overlook. The truth is, if you don’t offer your unvarnished opinion to a friend, someone else eventually will — and the consequences of that feedback will be much tougher.
As Harris went on to explain, once that book (or company, or product, or movie, or whatever it is) enters the world, it’ll encounter a wave of brutally honest opinions from the public. At that point, he points out, there’s little or nothing your friend can do to improve it. “Then you’re having a different conversation,” he pointed out, “which is arguably harder.”
But this principle doesn’t just apply to career moves and creative pursuits. It also applies to major life decisions and relationships — including your friendship with the person in question.
Let’s imagine, for example, that a friend opens up to you about their tumultuous relationship with a toxic person, and you bite your tongue.
By not telling them that they’re in a dysfunctional relationship and need to leave, you’re essentially validating them, coddling them, and maybe even enabling their poor choice.
Eventually, down the line, they will get that message — but when it comes from a police officer or a divorce attorney, the costs will be much higher.
To take another example, let’s imagine that a friend tells you about a clearly shady self-help program they’re involved in. You know they’re caught up in a scam, but you don’t speak up because you don’t want to seem judgmental or unsupportive.
At some point, however — probably after burning a ton of money, energy, and self-worth — they’ll come to that conclusion themselves. But you could have saved them all that trouble by being forthright with them from the start.
Being honest with a friend when they can benefit from your feedback the most is the right thing to do. It also avoids other negative experiences — such as regret, resentment, confusion, disillusionment, and emotional distance.
Here, too, your honesty is a form of kindness. You’re risking short-term discomfort to give someone the gift of greater success down the line.
Honesty deepens relationships.
It’s clear that being honest leads to better outcomes all around. But approaching others with candor also has the magical effect of strengthening your relationships.
When you self-censor to spare a friend’s feelings, you also chip away at the intimacy of your relationship. You put distance between the two of you by treating certain topics as off-limits. You build a relationship that is designed to protect their ego and your comfort, rather than to empower both of you to grow. You also create a dynamic in which you let yourself off the hook for difficult conversations, instead of leaning into those uncomfortable but meaningful exchanges.
The friendship then becomes a way to service you and your friend’s vulnerabilities, not to build each other up — which, as we just talked about, is actually a form of love.
That makes you even less likely to speak up when you have an opinion, which in turn deprives the other person of even more valuable feedback. Then, when things go sideways, your friend will know that they won’t get meaningful feedback from you, which will erode the friendship even further. On some level, they might even resent you for not helping them in the way they truly need, even if they can’t consciously articulate that.
Whenever there’s tension or distance in a friendship, dishonesty is usually the culprit.
As Harris explained in our interview, being honest with people signals that you’re on the same team. Contrary to what we’ve been taught, honesty doesn’t have to be adversarial. In fact, quite the opposite is true:
You’re trying to have a better relationship. There’s a psychological cost that you are paying for having to conceal how you really feel about something in this person’s presence. And you don’t wanna pay that cost anymore because you want to have a better relationship with them. You know, you respect them too much or you love them too much, or you’re like: This is intolerable, this is so weird that you can’t talk about how you feel…
That “psychological cost” to dishonesty is steeper than most of us realize. We tend to avoid honesty because it’s uncomfortable. But what we’re really doing is trading one form of discomfort for another.
Instead of possibly hurting someone we love by being honest, we settle for the pain of a hollow relationship. The resentment and awkwardness that build up in these avoidant relationships are almost always worse than the temporary discomfort of just being open. But that’s the tradeoff most people make on a daily basis.
But what you’re really doing when you shy away from honesty, Harris explained, is “in large measure avoiding relationship with that person.” When we shy away from being open — even to spare ourselves — we’re really shying away from the messy, difficult, but essential work of intimacy.
The more you censor yourself in a friendship, the more the friendship shrinks. The more you lead with candor, the more you open up new territory for the relationship to explore.
Just as important, you also signal to the other person that they’re deserving of your honesty. And that you have confidence that the relationship can withstand the temporary discomfort of an honest exchange, because there’s something more important at stake.
The very act of speaking up strengthens the relationship — if, of course, the other person values that openness, too.
Honesty attracts people who share your values.
An interesting thing happens when you start being more honest with your friends. You’ll draw people into your life who also value candor, and you’ll distance yourself from people who aren’t interested in an authentic relationship.
The reason, of course, is that being honest with a friend assumes that they’re equipped to receive that honesty. It invites them to rise to the occasion of your honesty, and it pushes you to stick with people who can tolerate that healthy discomfort.
As Harris points out,
if the person you’re dealing with is at all an adult and actually wants to be spared future embarrassment, well then they’re gonna be grateful for your candor. And they’re actually gonna find the friends who just gladhanded them and sent them on their way totally useless.
It’s natural to seek out people who prop us up and coddle our feelings. The healthy narcissism in all of us craves that recognition. And there’s nothing wrong with appropriate validation — we definitely need that, too.
But we all know, deep down, that selective praise doesn’t truly serve us. We need meaningful criticism. We need unvarnished opinions. It might sting sometimes, but we need to choose to seek out difficult feedback from people we trust. We have to work up to adopting that value, because for most of us — including me! — it doesn’t come naturally.
Once you do, your relationships become much clearer and much more productive. You seek out people who embody that value too — and who want you to embody it with them.
If you’re honest with people who don’t value honesty, on the other hand, you’ll know that the relationship isn’t working pretty quickly. If someone gets rattled or offended by your honest feedback, if they lash out or shut down, then they probably don’t share the same values, and they’re looking for a different kind of friendship. And then it’s much easier to know where they stand in your life.
In fact, being forthright is a great shortcut to transforming your relationships in general.
The more honest you are — especially from the beginning of a friendship — the more you’ll attract people who share your values. Not just the value of honesty, but the values of growth, transparency, generosity, curiosity, and kindness. It’s a great way to make sure you’re keeping the right people in your life — in fact, to define who the “right people” even are.
Honesty secures honesty in return.
When you’re honest with the people in your life, you also signal to them that they can be honest with you. There’s no implicit promise that both parties will tiptoe around uncomfortable facts or withhold important feedback. You create space for the other person to reciprocate your openness.
Harris talked about this in our interview, too — how being honest with other people fundamentally changes the dynamic of a friendship. You don’t just share valuable information when you’re honest; you also teach the other person to value honesty, too. Or, as he put it,
you train the people in your life. They know what to expect from you. I don’t find people coming to me anymore who don’t actually want to know what I think, and that’s also very helpful. And then people return the favor. If you’re someone who was really honest in criticizing what somebody was doing, and then you need criticism of your own work, well then you could get it. You know, there are people who are locked and loaded and ready to return in kind.
For many years, I struggled to find the feedback I needed to level up in my life and my career. Eventually, I realized that I was withholding that same feedback from my own friends. For all the reasons we’ve been talking about, I wasn’t offering the very thing I wanted.
So I decided to start. And once I did, I was amazed to find that I began receiving it in kind. Not in some woo-woo, nonsensical, “law of attraction” kind of way, but in a very practical way. As soon as I took my friends seriously enough to offer my honest thoughts, they took me seriously enough to repay the favor. I also found myself gravitating to people who were already much friendlier with candor.
When you tell someone the truth, you create a tone for the relationship overall. By being honest, you’re basically saying: “I take you seriously enough to share my honest opinion, and I trust that you’re ready and willing to hear it. I’m also making it safe for you to treat me the same way.”
That is a healthy dynamic in a friendship. It’s also a very powerful ethos for companies, communities, and families, although many of them still struggle to embrace radical candor. The ones that do, however — like Ray Dalio’s hedge fund — have generated remarkable results.
Right about now, you might be thinking, “Okay Jordan, I agree with everything you’re saying in principle, but can I really be honest with everyone in my life 100% of the time? Can I really be radically honest with my friends without hurting them or driving them away?”
It’s a fair question. Because as we know, honesty might be powerful, but it’s not always easy. And it’s also not always possible, given the circumstances.
So what’s the line between honesty and thoughtfulness? And how do we balance our need for candor with the practical realities of life?
How to Be Honest Without Being Honestly the Worst
This is more art than science, but here are a few principles to guide you.
Share in a spirit of openness, kindness and humility.
Deciding to be honest with a friend doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily right. It just means that you’re willing to share an authentic response, and then explore it with the other person to arrive at the best possible conclusion. There doesn’t have to be a presumption of superiority. You can be honest without claiming the intellectual high ground.
But we all know that a lot of honest people aren’t like this. The truth is, many people who describe themselves as “radically honest” are just a-holes. They use their radical honesty to justify being harsh, smug, and unkind.
Obviously, that brand of honesty won’t generate any of the benefits we’ve been talking about in this piece. In fact, it’ll almost certainly work against you.
Being productively honest means sharing your candor in a helpful spirit.
You can give a friend tough notes on their manuscript and be respectful. You can offer a friend some tough relationship advice and be compassionate. You can tell a friend how they upset you and remain open to looking at the conflict through a new lens.
Honesty doesn’t imply righteousness or superiority. In fact, Harris pointed out in our interview that you don’t even need to assume your opinion is correct in order to be helpful. As he put it, “You can always give it in a way that acknowledges that it’s just your opinion — you know, you’re not omniscient, you’re not the ultimate arbiter of what is good in the world.”
Another word for that position is humility.
So as you become more honest, balance your candor with an appropriate degree of respect and thoughtfulness. Don’t assume that your radically honest opinion means that you’re automatically right, or better than the other person. Be willing to revise your position in light of new information. Remember that your opinion is just one perspective on the issue at hand, and that other viewpoints might be equally true or lead to more accurate judgments. In other words, use your candor to open up the conversation, not to shut it down.
Which brings us to another important principle — making sure your honesty is in service of the other person’s growth.
Get clear on your intention.
Honesty can be wielded in different ways. You can use it to empower someone or to cut them down, convince them or deter them, build them up or — as is all-too-common with “radically honest” people — to build yourself up.
Which is why it’s so important to know why you’re being honest in the first place.
Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to be candid with a friend. You might want to validate them, help them, or critique them. You might want to acknowledge an injury, resolve a wound or repair the relationship. You might want to warn them, educate them or challenge them. You might want to get something off your chest, clear the air or go on record. Or you might just want to have fun letting your opinions fly, being honest in that casual way that’s one of the simple joys of friendship.
But whatever your reasons for opening up, there’s one intention that will always serve you well: to deepen the relationship, open up new territory to explore, and help the other person succeed.
If you’re always embodying that intention in some way, it’s hard to go wrong. Because then you can be sure that you’re not being honest for purely self-serving reasons.
I find that the best forms of honesty open up a conversation in which both parties collaborate to arrive at the best conclusion.
Instead of convincing a friend to immediately break up with their partner, you can share your perspective on their relationship in a way that helps them get more clarity and make the right decision for themselves.
Instead of ordering a friend to rewrite their novel in a way that would please you, you can share your impression as a reader so they can appreciate how their writing is coming across. They might even double down on their original choices, but do so with a better grasp of their work.
Instead of insisting that a friend recognize and apologize for something they did, you can share your experience of the injury as a way of appreciating what it was like for both of you. This is also how you can be radically honest without prematurely breaking up with a friend.
Embracing your honesty is less about recruiting people to your side — although that can be a powerful use of honesty — and more about contributing ideas that empower both parties to find the best solution.
Which means those ideas also have to be solid in their own right.
Share high-quality ideas.
Being honest isn’t enough to create value in your relationships. You also have to have informed and meaningful perspectives. We all know plenty of uncensored people who are straight-up wrong. Being candid doesn’t do much good — and actually does real harm — if your candid opinions don’t hold any water.
So as you increase your capacity for candor, keep investing in the quality of your ideas.
If you’re going to become more vocal with your boss at work, make sure you have a good grasp of the issues at hand, a solid understanding of your industry, an appreciation of what your recommendations would actually require to succeed.
If you’re going to weigh in on your friends’ relationships, make sure you understand the nuances of their lives, their needs, and interests, and the implications of your advice.
If you’re going to give your friend detailed notes on their novel, make sure that you have a good understanding of their subject matter, the principles of storytelling, and their goals as an artist.
In other words, know what the hell you’re talking about. Or, if you don’t, qualify your opinion and balance it with humility and curiosity. In fact, most opinions would benefit from saying, “I’m not an expert here, and there might be things I don’t fully understand yet, but here’s my honest take at this moment, and we can talk it out.” That’s a great way to begin any conversation.
If you’re going to be honest, you have to be honest about something, and that something should be thoughtful, sound, and well-informed. But if you have a thoughtful, sound, well-informed view on something, it also won’t do much good if you’re not willing to share it openly with other people. Being radically honest and having high-quality ideas are two sides of the same coin.
Consider the nature of the relationship.
Different relationships and circumstances call for different degrees of honesty.
Your best friend for 20 years, for example, probably deserves a high level of candor from you. To deprive them of your honest opinion (or vice versa) would be a betrayal of the terms of that friendship. Indeed, many old friendships hit a rough patch when one or both parties stop being open. (Or when one party decides to open up after years of holding back, suddenly rewriting the dysfunctional terms of the relationship.)
But if you’re just getting to know someone, you might not want to hit them with your most unfiltered opinions right off the bat.
For example, it would probably be inappropriate to tell an acquaintance you just met to quit their job, stop talking to their mom or leave their partner. You need a foundation for that kind of candor, and assuming it too quickly will probably come across as presumptuous and pushy.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be authentic with new people — as we talked about, leading with candor from the jump sets a tone for a friendship and weeds out people who don’t share your values — but it takes time to build the trust and gather the information necessary to support certain kinds of honesty.
That said, taking a chance and being open with someone new can be precisely what deepens the friendship.
So it’s a balancing act. Every situation is different. Just one more reason that leading with the right intention and spirit is so important.
At the same time, you also have to take into account your friends’ unique personalities.
Some people have a naturally high tolerance for candor. They can engage in difficult conversations, metabolize tough feedback and easily process their feelings around criticism.
Other people have a harder time receiving honesty. They’re more easily wounded or demoralized by criticism. With these folks, you might have to move more slowly, or frame your comments in a more digestible way, or wait for the right moment to speak up.
Circumstances matter too.
If your best friend is going through a major crisis, for example, you should probably be tactful about how you give them advice. Whereas a new acquaintance might be in a very secure place when you meet, and that gives you license to be unusually direct.
So you also have to consider all the variables at play in your friendship — your friend’s current mood, outlook, capacity for conflict, willingness to change, ability to make decisions, and — maybe most importantly — what they need most at this moment.
Does tailoring your message in this way mean you’re self-censoring?
Does factoring in the other person’s experience make you inauthentic?
Not necessarily. Like we talked about, being radically honest doesn’t let you off the hook for being sensitive. And if you want your opinions to land the right way, you definitely need to take into account how the other person is receiving them. It doesn’t do any good to inflict your radical honesty on another person if they’re not in a place to make good use of it.
But there’s a very fine line here. Once you find yourself biting your tongue to protect a friend’s feelings — or you’re withholding to spare yourself some discomfort — then you’re in dicey territory again. Then your artfully-delivered candor has probably tipped over into dishonesty.
Recognize that there are times when it’s okay to not be honest.
For all the benefits of radical honesty, there are situations in which honesty will not serve you well — or where total candor just isn’t appropriate.
Take work, for example.
If you’re part of a large organization with established politics and conventions, letting your uncensored views fly in a meeting probably isn’t a good look. Your boss might benefit from your no-holds-barred opinion, but that doesn’t mean you should give them management feedback in front of the whole team (or even in private). Obviously, you have to pick the right moments to be candid, frame your message carefully, and know that your opinion might not always win out. In fact, as an employee, your job is often to accept decisions you disagree with and still deliver.
To consider another delicate scenario, imagine helping a friend get through a bad breakup.
You might have some very strong opinions about their relationship, the way they handled the breakup, or maybe even their choice of partners in general. But it would probably be hurtful to start dissecting their mistakes while they’re grieving the relationship. In that moment, what your friend needs most is compassion and comfort. In a few weeks, when they have more perspective, then your candid opinions will be a lot more helpful. You have to pull back on being radically honest in order to do something more important: be there for your friend.
Spending time with family is another tricky arena.
Here, too, your impulse to be radically open — to tell your uncle why his political views are insane, to hash out your childhood trauma with your mom, to put your weird cousin in his place when he starts pushing you to buy his lame NFTs (we all have that one cousin, let’s be honest) — will often conflict with the need to keep the peace.
Harris touched on that in our interview too, when he recognized that there are some circumstances where radical honesty just isn’t practical — such as having Thanksgiving dinner with your family, where
your job is just not to ruin it. You know, you’re not gonna change anybody. You’re not going to perform an exorcism that’s going to make your aunt or uncle a fundamentally different person.
But in those cases, I think you can just be tactful. You can change the topic. You can just simply not comment on things that you might have a lot to say about. So being political in that sense, and just being wise to avoid specific issues, is not the same as lying.
What Harris is getting at is that there’s often something more important than “speaking your truth.” Your need for authenticity, while legitimate, has to take a backseat. It’s usually more important to have a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner with your family once a year than it is to have a spontaneous family therapy session. Being radically honest in moments like this can actually be aggressive, rude, and unproductive.
(I would add, though, that if you embrace candor in your life on a regular basis, you probably won’t feel as much of a need to really let your family have it over the holidays. That’s another huge benefit of being more honest as a matter of policy — dealing with conflicts as they crop up, rather than letting them build to the point where they become disruptive.)
But Harris is also pointing out that you have to balance your need to be honest with a realistic grasp of other people.
Sure, you can lecture your uncle about why he voted for the wrong person or trash your cousin’s reckless crypto rants on Facebook. But is that really going to help them change? Is being radically honest in that context the best way to help them reconsider their views? Probably not.
And when it comes to extended family members, that might not even be your job — which is another important check on the whole radical honesty policy.
But let’s be real — that’s a tough pill to swallow. When it comes to keeping the peace with your family, it might seem that your only choices are total honesty or total deception. Does factoring in other people’s needs mean that you’re basically forced to lie?
Not necessarily, Harris says. Because as he explained in our interview, you might need to censor yourself from time to time, but “even keeping a secret is not the same as lying.”
If someone says to you, “How much money do you have in your bank account?” or asks you to divulge information that you actually don’t want to divulge, the truth is, you don’t want to tell them. So you could say, “Listen, I don’t want to tell you, I don’t give that information out.” So you could be perfectly honest and withhold certain things.
You can also be honest and just not get into certain conversations with people where you know it’s not going to go well. It’s good to play with the uncomfortable edge of this a little bit and be more honest than people might expect you to be.
In other words, you can still be authentic without being brutally honest.
The “uncomfortable edge” Harris described is a clever way to thread the honesty needle in a situation like this — to still be true to your beliefs without feeling compelled to cause a scene wherever you go. That’s how you can tell Uncle Frank that you disagree with his politics without provoking a huge fight, or draw a hard boundary with Cousin Logan without criticizing his life choices. (Although honestly, who could blame you for wanting to? Dump the mumble rap NFTs and get a job, bro!) It’s an elegant solution to the problem of balancing candor with diplomacy.
The truth is, sometimes what our friends and family need most isn’t radical honesty. Sometimes what they need is empathy, comfort, recognition, peace. Although if you think about it, those can be forms of honesty, too. Not all candor needs to be driven by conflict.
Let’s be honest: Honesty is a tricky business.
We crave it, but we often resent it. We long to give it, but we fear hurting other people. We know relationships need it to survive, but we often compromise on it to keep things on an even keel.
One of the central tensions of life is knowing how important honesty is in a friendship — and, at the same time, recognizing how difficult it is to be fully honest with someone you love.
That battle — between the impulse to be honest and the impulse to protect — is one of the hardest parts of relationships. The key to resolving it is stepping into more and more honesty while balancing that approach with what a specific situation requires.
As Sam Harris captured so elegantly in that interview, honesty is a core element of all healthy, productive relationships. We owe it to other people to be candid, because candor is how we grow, connect, and avoid even more adversity down the road.
But we also owe that honesty to ourselves. Without it, we avoid authentic relationships and settle for inauthentic ones (and then wonder, strangely, why our relationships don’t satisfy us). We miss out on the gift of empowering our friends to be honest with us in return. Most importantly, we fail to cultivate integrity. Integrity in both senses of the term — being honest and having strong principles, and being whole and undivided.
Given all that, why would we settle for anything less?
[Photo by Toa Heftiba]